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Staying in Touch Via Remote HVACR Monitors

Nov. 1, 2009
With remote monitoring, HVACR contractors can determine from a distance whether refrigeration and comfort systems are performing up to par. Customers appreciate the peace of mind the systems offer.

Make this a very early New Year's resolution: to explore remote monitoring for use with HVACR systems. Quick and easy off-site access to system performance data enables contractors to spot small problems before they become big ones, troubleshoot in advance of sending out technicians, and give customers peace of mind as well.

For a final look at this subject for 2009, ContractingBusiness.com spoke with HVACR contractors who have incorporated monitoring into their service regimen, or are interested in doing more with these systems.

Easy Access to Multiple Buildings

Among its many clients, Shaw Mechanical Services, LLC, Orlando, FL, services buildings within the Orange County School District, the 10th largest school district in the U.S.

Managing the controls for such a wide-ranging collection of buildings can be a challenge, but the district has made some improvements that make Shaw's job a lot easier.

Mark Woerhle, Shaw Mechanical Services' vice president of operations, says web-based standards have been established across the school district. Shaw's remote capabilities enable technicians to tap into school building mechanical systems to perform necessary commissioning adjustments.

“We can monitor the systems, call the customer if there's a sign of trouble, or adjust a setting. If a visit's required, we can determine which technician to send, and what he should look for when he gets there,” Woerhle says.

Shaw's Central Florida customer base includes restaurants, ice cream stores, retail sites, warehouses, and office buildings.

“Trying to pinpoint a mechanical systems issue at a school campus facility can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack if you don't have access to the controls,” Woerlhe reveals. “That's why many of those facilities now include front-end access.”

A team approach is also helpful when working with controls subcontractors. Shaw Mechanical Services works with controls installers during the installation process, to ensure Shaw technicians have quick access to control systems afterwards.

“We're highly motivated to ensure the systems operate properly,” Shaw says. “If we don't check their work, learn the systems, and do our own version of commissioning, we have more warranty calls. We obtain an IP address and VPN from the building owner, so that we can monitor the buildings.”

‘Multi-dimensional’ Contractors Push Efficiency

President/CEO David Shaw founded Shaw Mechanical Services in 2001, after 21 years with a major HVAC industry manufacturer. He says it's important that contractors realize the value of taking the burden of concern off of the customers' shoulders. “They want to focus on their businesses, not on the condition or performance of a building's comfort systems,” Shaw says.

“The less they have to deal with system downtime, the better off they are. Commercial building customers are looking for multi-dimensional contractors, those who can read the controls, know what's going on, and solve the problem.”

Shaw adds that energy efficiency provided by controls and other HVAC system components are helping building owners understand the value of lifecycle savings versus a system's first cost. “When you compare first cost to the savings provided by more extensive equipment, there's no comparison. If you pay a little bit more up front for energy efficient equipment, there's a payback,” Shaw says.

Tight Security for Most Expansive Systems

Bassett Mechanical is a full service Linc Service® contractor providing HVAC construction, fabrication, and refrigeration services, with three locations throughout Wisconsin. It installs remote monitoring control systems for a wide variety of applications, including food processing, HVAC systems, ice rinks, and cold storage. Its primary systems are programmable logic controller (PLC)-based. These communicate to a graphical user interface, computer, or any type of specified interface

“With these systems, we can send out alarms via email, pages, SMS text, and more. Some of the systems include auto dialers that will dial us or the customer based on the condition that triggers the alarm,” explains Scott Ludwig, controls engineer.

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Security is tight, often because of customer preferences. “Some systems require the owner to make the connection, because they have firewalls in place that prevent our access unless they make the connection,” adds Dave Schaefer, refrigeration and controls department manager. “Scott can then work online to solve the problem.”

“If we can log on and solve it over the phone or computer, we save time and money,” Ludwig says. “We recently completed a project for a San Diego food producer, and I began using the remote monitoring immediately. I logged about 16 hours of work without having to travel to the site.”

Bassett Mechanical's technicians rely heavily on a web-based remote, “help desk” type of service, which is a big step above a phone-line-based system it had used previously.

“The customer and contractor each visit the website, and an automatic hosting system establishes the connection. This addresses many of the security concerns that our customers IT departments have with remote connections,” Ludwig explains

From a service agreement perspective, Bassett's customers can choose whether or not to include the controls in a service package. Bassett offers proactive preventive maintenance agreements with several options that allow the customers to plan for and budget their maintenance needs.

“Most of the time, our refrigeration customers choose to include the controls as part of a standard service agreement along with the remaining equipment that's being serviced,” says Bob Geyer, operations manager.

Mike Buss, Bassett Mechanical's vice president of refrigeration, agrees that energy savings is a key benefit.

“These systems are driven and designed to make the refrigeration or mechanical systems operate as efficiently as possible,” Buss explains. “It's constantly monitoring conditions and responding to those conditions. Ideally, you're only using the amount of energy that's required to satisfy the refrigeration system's heat load requirements; or, if it's a boiler system, the heating required.”

“One way to increase efficiency and reduce costs is to reduce the labor and manpower involved in monitoring a system,”he says. “These systems can monitor and control the refrigeration system automatically. They don't require an operator on site 24 hours.”

Energy Savings, Troubleshooting, Convenience

Dave Miller, president, Superior Air and Heating, Hilton Head Island, SC, caught on to the benefits of remote controls about five years ago. Since that time, he's worked to fully integrate the technology into his 11-year-old residential/commercial HVAC company. Superior's commercial refrigeration business consists primarily of restaurants, and Miller plans to grow that sector by incorporating remote monitors into restaurant walk-in coolers.

Miller had been using remote controls to reduce energy costs for his light commercial HVAC customers. They help him find small problems before they become bigger ones, and provide convenience for both he and his customers.

“We've used several different products, including residential style equipment and programs that cross over into less complicated commercial applications,” He explains. “We completed a church controls project using one of the simpler programs, for $15,000 to $20,000. The church's existing systems weren't running on time or setting back while not in use. Systems were always ramping up simultaneously after a power outage, which resulted in high peak load costs.” The system Miller recommended provided improved control and 40 to 50% in energy savings.

The question of how to attain maximum HVACR energy savings is at the top of the list of increasing numbers of commercial customers. But, they need to hear from the commercial HVACR experts who can help provide the answer.

Contractors can be sure that they'll be called upon with greater frequency, as customers hear of the improved energy savings, security, and convenience associated with remote monitoring. Will you be ready to take that call?

About the Author

Terry McIver | Content Director - CB

A career publishing professional, Terence 'Terry' McIver has served three diverse industry publications in varying degrees of responsibility since 1987, and worked in marketing communications for a major U.S. corporation.He joined the staff of Contracting Business magazine in April 2005.

As director of content for Contracting Business, he produces daily content and feature articles for CB's 38,000 print subscribers and many more Internet visitors. He has written hundreds, if not two or three, pieces of news, features and contractor profile articles for CB's audience of quality HVACR contractors. He can also be found covering HVACR industry events or visiting with manufacturers and contractors. He also has significant experience in trade show planning.