Imagine an HVACR service technician is in the middle of a refrigeration job and has a question about his refrigerant measurement equipment, so he calls the manufacturer and talks directly to the owner, who also designed that very piece of equipment. Sound far-fetched? Not when you've purchased a Digi-Cool product. For contractors or wholesalers who use Digi-Cool instruments, this is the kind of service that they've come to expect.
We don't normally put a face to the manufacturer who produces our HVACR equipment. We may know the sales rep, but that's where the relationship ends. The human element is a big part of the Digi-Cool story. Doug Lockhart, founder and owner of Digi-Cool Industries Ltd., has been in the HVACR business as a contractor for 36 years. His experience in the field has formed his work in designing and developing his line of digital refrigeration system analyzers. Today, Digi-Cool Digital Refrigeration System Analyzers, or DRSAs, have garnered the respect of the HVACR industry for their reliability and durability. They have to be the best. After all, Lockhart uses Digi-Cool DRSAs for his own contracting jobs.
Digi-Cool Industries was born out of Lockhart's frustration with the refrigeration analyzer equipment that he was using. The tools hadn't changed from the 1930s, when they were used to measure sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride. He saw the poor quality of the tools as a symptom of a larger problem in the HVACR industry. While an auto mechanic was charging him $125 to service his van, the owner of the dealership would throw a fit when Lockhart charged him one-third of the price to service his HVACR system. In Lockhart's mind, he and his contractor brothers weren't being treated like professionals. “I heard an old-timer say, ‘Suit up and show up like a professional and you'll be treated as such,’” Lockhart says.
Because there weren't any digital refrigeration system analyzers on the market in the 1980s, Lockhart decided it was time to suit up. He went to his garage in Duncan, British Columbia, to make something better. He had been using a digital multi-meter since 1981, so why couldn't his refrigeration meters be digital as well? As he began his quest, however, he found that the parts and components to build it would have cost him more than $3,500. “The pressure transducers were incredibly expensive, and they really weren't reliable or accurate at that point,” he recalls.
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It wasn't until the proliferation of ABS brakes in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought the price of the transducers down that Lockhart was able to build a reasonably priced, accurate model. The early prototypes he built with his wife and business partner, Brenda, were “ugly and rudimentary” with the face plates designed by hand. But they did feature the Digi-Cool bar graph, which has become the most recognizable signature of Digi-Cool products.
“The bar graph was and is the hallmark of what we do,” Lockhart says of the Digi-Cool DRSAs. The bar graph updates visually and digitally every quarter of a second, providing an extremely accurate accounting of real-time system pressure dynamics. With the analog systems, it was tremendously time consuming and expensive to get truly accurate readings and ratios that would account for what was happening at that moment.
The DRSAs with the bar graph were immediately a big hit with technicians. “It really fell into favor with the guys,” Lockhart says. “Every guy that ever used it for the first time would phone back that day or send us an email saying they can't believe the bar graph. It is everything you said it is.” Not only did it produce accurate and consistent readings, it also proved to be a tremendous timesaver for those in the field. Technicians can spot problems faster and see things that analog readers never would pick up. With greater productivity, it has allowed the technicians to provide a better service at a lower price while taking on more business.
But before word spread about the advantages of Digi-Cool DRSAs, Lockhart had to sell service technicians on the DRSA. You couldn't convince service technicians with a brochure. “I found in this business that you can't entice people to see your vision and come along with you or invest in you until they can push, poke, feel and scratch it,” he says. “It has to be a real device in front of them.”
As Lockhart developed his prototypes, he sent them to contractors for testing and got feedback from focus groups. Getting this type of feedback ensured that Lockhart wasn't developing tunnel vision. They can point out where he missed the mark or ask why he neglected to include a feature that he may not have even thought to add. “I learned very early on that the best and most productive advice came from the other guys in the industry,” he says.
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He says the practice of “taking the cotton out of your ears and putting it in your mouth” is something that he learned as a contractor. Instead of telling the customer what the solution is, you should listen to what they have to say and then solve their problem.
Even as the Lockharts have built Digi-Cool into an operation that ships products around the world, he still sends out prototypes to a cross-section of contractors, refrigeration technicians and air-conditioning technicians for testing. He'll ship 24 beta prototypes throughout Canada and the United States after he's thoroughly tested several alpha prototype iterations on his own for months in the field on real systems. They can keep the prototypes if they agree to write a detailed, one-page report — warts and all — about their experience using the product. “It's as true today as it was 24 years ago,” he says. “They have to pick it up and play with it. And nine out of 10 would buy it as soon as they picked it up.”
Not only does Lockhart ask customers to pick up his products, he invites them to throw them down on the ground — at the trade shows. This challenge speaks to Lockhart's confidence in the resiliency of his products. “We have stories of guys leaving them on ladders in rainstorms, leaving them hooked on a ladder that's on top of their service van and driving for 60 miles. One tech in Maine ran over his with the back tire at 60 mph, coming up on a ramp after it slipped off the antenna where it was hastily placed trying to free up a parking stall in the customer's parking lot,” Lockhart says. “They still worked.” He tells the story of a wholesaler in Las Vegas who proved the toughness of a Digi-Cool DRSA by leaving it in a bucket of water for three hours. When he pulled it out, it worked fine. Lockhart plans a Digi-Cool “Hammer Time” event at this year's AHR Expo — try to break a Digi-Cool product by beating it with a hammer.
Digi-Cool DRSAs are field instruments, not laboratory instruments, notes Lockhart. So he has constructed them to withstand the rigors in the field — the casing is made of engineered plastic, all case entry points are tightly gasketed, the battery is vented with Gore-Tex (to prevent the build-up of hydrogen that is excreted by the battery) and the LCD pocket is built with mechanical spacers and bolted into place to prevent shifting.
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After sourcing components and manufacturing his Digi-Cool products in Canada and the United States for many years, Lockhart two years ago moved his manufacturing operations to Taiwan. It was not an easy decision to make, he acknowledges, as he and his wife are proponents of buying local. But he could no longer afford to stay in business unless he brought down his costs. They selected a factory in Taiwan after carefully reviewing its quality control processes and seeing the employees and their working conditions. They were convinced that this was an operation that took pride in its work. “It's not as cheap as going to China, but there's much better quality control,” he says.
Lockhart says the value engineering of its Taiwanese operation reflects itself in Digi-Cool's latest and most revolutionary product yet — the AK900 (the AK stands for Analog Killer). Like the other Digi-Cool products, it has the patented bar graph technology and includes the smart design elements that are based on the feedback that Lockhart hears from customers. It provides far-reaching refrigeration analysis in a highly readable format.
Lockhart believes the market for DRSAs is huge and largely untapped. He cites a statistic that 40 to 50 percent of the power consumed in the United States is for HVACR and process refrigeration equipment. Of that, 74 percent of those HVACR systems are maladjusted. “They're either overcharged, undercharged or just plain screwed up,” Lockhart says. “They're not operating under current efficiency.”
With 800,000 to 900,000 HVACR systems in Canada and the United States, 74 percent of those could use some fixing. DRSAs can empirically measure exactly what's going on with a refrigeration system, not only answering the question about whether a five-ton unit is doing five tons of cooling, but what's happening with the unit itself.
While there are programs throughout the United States in which utilities will subsidize the costs of energy efficiency check-ups (which involve diagnoses of air-conditioning systems), Lockhart says the utilities have been largely disappointed that the readings from these third-party certification companies are not accurate. The future state, Lockhart says, is having techs hook up DRSAs to smartphones and provide temperature readings that they can send directly back to the utility company, which they can then compare to the manufacturers' settings.
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Lockhart says Digi-Cool is in the process of developing a research and development company that will undertake the future iterations of the DRSAs. “It comes back to that saying about suiting up and showing up like a professional,” he says of having the best tools to do the job.
Digi-Cool works with a wholesale distribution network in the United States and Canada, but Lockhart says that he's looking to expand his presence in this channel. In the past, he's produced the product at an aggressive price, but wholesalers didn't seem to want to stock the product — even with the building of a positive reputation. Lockhart heard from contractors and technicians that they loved his product, but they couldn't afford it through their local dealers as they were brought in one at a time. Digi-Cool Industries is willing to work with stocking wholesalers to service the technician. In addition to working with distributors, he also sells his products through his website (www.digi-cool.com) and has sold them to customers around the world. “We go to every corner of the globe,” he says.
“We're looking for anyone that wants to partner with us,” he says of wholesale distributors. “We'd like to partner with them if they'd like to carry the product. But it can be very frustrating. They want to make $150 per unit, but they don't want to stock anything.”
Lockhart is passionate about the HVACR industry and the people on the front lines. It's what drove him to develop Digi-Cool and work 80- to 90-hour weeks as a contractor and as a manufacturer. “We have some incredible opportunities to do things right,” he says of HVACR contractors and service technicians.
His ultimate reward comes from those customers who see him at an industry trade show or contact him. “When a guy comes up to me and says, ‘I love your product. I've got two of them. I love what you're doing for the industry,’” he says. “Well, that makes your whole day.”
Michael Maynard is a contributing editor based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at [email protected].