The HVAC industry is not known for its quick rate of change, but when change comes, it shifts the industry dramatically. The introduction of scroll technology, SEER requirements that transformed system efficiency, smart Wi-Fi thermostats that changed how we interact with our systems, and the looming technician shortage that is helping us talk up our profession in new ways, have all been industry-changers. The next transformation of HVAC is the introduction of technology that helps home heating and cooling—both new installations and existing systems—become “smart.”
Emerson Commercial and Residential Solution’s Sensi Predict is one of those products: a 10-sensor system to analyze a non-communicating HVAC system, and search for potential or existing problems.
Smart maintenance systems like Sensi Predict use sensors to proactively analyze HVAC system performance and bring vital information to help extend system life. More than 40 percent of newly installed residential systems are not installed correctly, Emerson reports.
With smart maintenance, sensors installed with the system verify system performance and confirm that the installation was done right to ensure maximum efficiency and performance. Homeowners enjoy peace of mind that their system performance has been checked and confirmed, and contractors avoid callbacks and build their reputation.
Craig Johnson, President of Residential Solutions for Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions, said Sensi Predict is retrofitable to existing systems, or it can be added to a new, non-communicating system during installation.
“We’re essentially making a traditional system smart. One of the challenges we face as an industry — and it’s not just found in Emerson studies. The EnergyStar.gov website indicates roughly half of all new HVAC system installations are not installed according to manufacturer specifications, which can result in a callback for the contractor which is certainly not productive, and is not good for their brand or reputation; or it could be a situation where it doesn’t perform as intended or expected for the homeowner and the homeowner may not even be aware of that for the life of the system; which could affect efficiency and system-wide as well,” Johnson said.
“From a new equipment standpoint, we know many of our OEM partners are looking at how they can integrate more and more smart technologies into their new systems, but given the average lifecycle of systems, it takes 15 years for products to turn over,” Johnson continued. “And even if all systems were converted to this new technology, it would still take some time. And clearly today, only the premium systems tend to have that capability, which are a relatively small percentage of installs going in today. “
There is never a good time for a homeowner to experience a heating and cooling system failure, and yet Emerson sources report that more than 70 percent of home systems are inefficient or headed for a breakdown. With smart maintenance capabilities, homeowners and contractors can be alerted to 80 percent of failures before they occur. Regular reports and system alerts help contractors proactively respond to homeowner needs, and aids with scheduling and reducing overtime. Homeowners know that their system is being monitored 24/7 and that they can save on repairs by getting the service they need to prevent catastrophic system failure.
It’s difficult if not impossible to predict the time required for a residential service call. With smart maintenance, contractors will know exactly what system issue they will be addressing. This allows contractors to head out to the jobsite with the right tools and replacement parts. And after the repair is made, the system report lets the homeowner know their system is up and running at peak efficiency.
Contractors have been challenged to maintain homeowner relationships and secure referrals. With regular reports going to their customers from Emerson and SENSI Predict, contractors can stay “top of mind” with homeowners. And, the Sensi reports serve as proactive outreach to customers, and help to establish goodwill.
“With Sensi Predict, there is a diagnostic function the contractor or technician will run before they leave the jobsite,” Johnson explained. “We run our analytics, and we can tell the technician and send an email to the homeowner acknowledging and verifying that the system is properly commissioned at the time of installation.”
Johnson said early testing of Sensi Predict involved working with contractors who were interested in how they could improve the efficiency of their maintenance agreement business, which is a significant part of many contractors business models.
With smart maintenance, contractors will know exactly what system issue they will be addressing. This allows contractors to head out to the jobsite with the right tools and replacement parts.
“However the attrition rates of maintenance agreements are fairly high; about one third each year are cancelled,” he said. “We also know that many of those maintenance plans are largely inefficient and ineffective both for them and the homeowner, because it requires one or two non-productive truck rolls each year to do a basic inspection or clean and check. Also, oftentimes they’re done doing the offseason when systems aren’t running, so you don’t necessarily identify fault codes. If there’s not a need for heating and cooling, rarely is there a need for both at the same time. So because of that, those maintenance calls/service calls are not that productive.”
Johnson said Emerson continued testing to design a technology to provide 24/7 equipment monitoring and provide homeowners a monthly report on system performance, energy consumption and identify fault codes to both homeowner and contractor. They were successful.
“If there is a critical fault code that requires service, we generate a work proposal that goes to the contractor and homeowner, and a service call is scheduled. So the only time a contractor would visit the home is if there is a service requirement, so they have a fully productive truck roll. There’s better transparency between homeowner and contractor identifying what’s wrong with the system, what repair is necessary, and verify and validate the repair was completed,” he said.
System Shut-off Mystery Solved
Sam Troyer, president, Comfort Zone, Cape Coral, Fla. said Sensi Predict helped his team solve a mystery related to a customer’s HVAC system.
“The customer said the air conditioner serving the master bedroom would occasionally stop at two o’clock in the morning. They could hear the thermostat clicking, but nothing was happening, and it was getting warm inside the room. The temperature would go up four or five degrees, enough to wake them up in the middle of the night; and then it would just come back on again,” Troyer recounts.
“This was happening very, very infrequently. We went out two or three times to try and duplicate the problem, but we could never find anything. It was happening so infrequently, and at such a bad time of the day, it was impossible to diagnose. We went into all the wiring, and made sure all the connections were good and cycled it over and over and over and just could never duplicate anything. So talking with the homeowner I said, “I think we’ve got a pretty good solution for you, if you want to try this Sensi Predict.”
He was hesitant, but Troyer convinced him to try it.
“That night, at 1:30 in the morning, the blower motor didn’t start, and threw an alert code for us. I was able to call him the next morning to say, ‘Hey, we found your problem. We’ll send the guy out with the part. He’ll put it right in his truck and get it changed out for you.’ So that was a really cool story on how you can basically have a technician monitoring the system, and anytime something goes wrong, he charts all his data and sends it right to you,” Troyer said.
Troyer said Sensi Predict allows Comfort Zone to provide information to the home owner multiple times throughout the year.
“Once a month they’re going to get an email with a performance report that says how their equipment’s doing, rather than the standard service model, which is us coming out, taking a brief snapshot in time of the time that we’re actually there, two times a year and then who knows, the time between visits is six months. Who knows what goes on in that time in between?
“As long as there’s an internet connection, the information it provides us and the ability that it gives us to diagnose and make sure the systems are operating properly provides a lot of benefits to the consumer,” Troyer said.
Troyer offered one final thought, related to how he wants to take service to a higher level of caring:
“One of the main things that drives what I want to do, is to find ways we take away some of the pain points that our customers experience, just from the realities of living in Southwest Florida. We have some of the highest amount of lightning of anyone in the country down here. We get a lot of power surges, we get a lot of electrical failures. We obviously live in a climate where living without air conditioning is very difficult. A lot of our clients can be elderly, where living without air conditioning can pose health risks as well. So all these things roll into a plan,” Troyer said.
“When I look forward, and think of how I can take away some of these issues for them, that’s where technology like the Sensi Predict comes into my planning, to say, there’s a possibility if we can incorporate this into a large percentage of our clients’ systems, we can alleviate a lot of these problems that happen, by being able to be more responsive.”
Advance Knowledge Prior to Service Calls
Travis Smith is one of the most entrepreneurial HVAC business owner you’ll ever meet. He owns and operates Sky Heating and Ductless Heroes, which service customers in and around Portland, Ore. and the Columbia River Gorge. He said the additional touch point Sensi Predict and Emerson offer to reach customers is a worthwhile feature.
“Emerson sends a Sky Heating-branded email stating, “Here’s your filter life, here’s your this, here’s your that.’ That alone is definitely worth something. We get an alert on the back end with the Sensi Predict. And there’s nothing like calling a customer up proactively and saying, ‘Your Sensi Predict system says that you may have a potential failure. We want to come out and investigate just to make sure
everything’s running fine.’ The customer will say they haven’t noticed a problem, but when they arrive at home, they find that something isn’t working.
“My managers absolutely love it, and the technicians love it, being able to see all the data; and if there is an issue, they can pull it up, log into it and say, ‘Here’s what we’re seeing. Call the technician.’ And then the technician goes to the home completely understanding what could be going on, versus going into everything blind,” Smith said.
Kenny Rogers, general manager of the residential service group for Haller Enterprises, Lititz, Pa., said Sensi Predict provided the company with a solution for customers with busy schedules, who did not want conventional two-visit preventive maintenance plans.
“They wanted something smart, that they could still get maintenance benefits, but with no visits or one visit,” Rogers said. “We were seeing the direction of the market shift that way. Everybody’s busy. We wanted to continue to provide the same amount of service, with the consumer not having to make time for a service call. We offer it to all residential customers with the focus on systems 10-years-old and older, or new non communicating HVAC systems.”
Additionally, Rogers said, customers will still receive information on system performance.
“They’re getting monthly feedback on how their systems are performing. That’s something we weren’t able to provide before. One visit, and then another in six months. And something could have happened along the way. With Sensi Predict, they’re receiving monthly check-ups, that are emailed to them, and notifies them anytime there’s an issue with one of the sensors, then an alert is sent to our office. So in most cases, we’re notifying the customer before they know they know they have an issue,” Rogers said.
Rogers said Sensi Predict reduces the number of service calls, even those made for service agreement customers.
“We have a normal service agreement plan, and just added the smart maintenance to the existing platform. We offer a couple options: one is Sensi Predict with no visits, and we monitor, and any alerts that come up are taken care of by an internal rep.
“And we have another plan, where we simply do annual safety check, to make sure it’s clean. If there’s anything wrong, we receive an alert and send people out. We just added two plans. We are having some customers that do like a connected home, and want to know what they’re system is doing each month, and they’re switching over to the smart plan.”
Rogers says that by using Sensi Predict, his teams can perform more and better maintenance for a lower cost, “which is always the quintessential problem in any industry: how do you do more service for less money while the cost of everything is rising, and this really is that answer,” he said. “So instead of offering a standard maintenance, where we come out twice a year, once for the furnace, once for the air conditioning to tune everything up, we can now offer maintenance where we don’t come out at all.”
Correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly listed Comfort Zone's location as Coral Gables. It is based in Cape Coral, Fla.