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Internet of Things: Connecting Your Business & Customers

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If you grew up watching either original episodes or reruns of “The Jetsons,” Hanna-Barbera’s futuristic animated TV sitcom, you cannot help but think of it when you hear about the Internet of Things.

Set in the year 2062, which was 100 years into the future when the series was launched, “The Jetsons” features a world in which machines have changed the way we live to the point that George Jetson only works at his job about two hours a week, and a robotic maid performs all household chores.

As we move further into the 21st century and the Internet of Things (IoT) expands into our daily lives, The life of the Jetson family seems less and less far-fetched. It is already having some strong ramifications on the air conditioning industry.

First, what exactly is the IoT? Loosely defined, it is the concept of connecting everyday objects to the Internet, thereby allowing them to send and receive data. This concept applies to any natural or manufactured “thing” that you can think of, as long as it can be equipped with a sensor or chip that can be assigned an IP (Internet Protocol) address, or a URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) that can provide and receive data over the internet.

The IoT can then include everything from living things, such as pets or livestock, to household items such as furniture and lamps, to machines ranging from heart monitors to washing machines or jet engines.

Kevin Ashton, a British technology expert who is the cofounder and director of the Auto-ID Center at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is credited with naming and pioneering the IoT in the mid-1990s. In an interview with BBC, Ashton said that he now wishes he had used the word “for” rather than “of,” explaining the “Internet for Things” is a more accurate term for the concept.

The IoT is not something just for the future. It is already a gigantic existing network of people and things. The technological research firm, Gartner predicts that by 2020 there will be over 26 billion connected devices. Some estimates say that the number could easily grow to closer to 100 billion.

What does all this mean for air conditioning contractors? Quite a lot.

New residential and commercial buildings are already incorporating IoT technology that offers consumers the ability to control their air conditioning devices remotely, or to manage them through cloud technology. Customers currently can download apps that will alert them when a piece of equipment needs maintenance, or when there is a potential problem.

For Candace Chapman, general manager of Sanders Home Services, a 30-year-old company in Voorhees Township, NJ that focuses on residential sales and service, the opportunity for enhanced service and maintenance leads the list of benefits of the IoT. “Units with IoT capability, or smart technology, allow us to be better prepared,” says Chapman. “We can schedule preventative repairs and maintenance when it is good for the customer, not just when it is an emergency.”

IoT sensors can alert contractors when important components, such as bearings, are in need of replacement. “Predictive maintenance means less stress,” states Joe Nichter, president of Comfort Systems USA Southwest, which serves commercial and business clients in Phoenix, AZ. “We can know that in 30 days we expect something to happen, so we can get in there and fix it when it is convenient for everybody,” Nichter explains.

“Everybody wants maintenance done now. Normally we have to be out there immediately. Predictive maintenance will be easier to control.”
Nichter also sees advantages of the IoT in terms of managing employees. “Since smart technology improves our ability to troubleshoot equipment quickly,” he says, “It’s all going to lead us to doing the same amount of quality work with less people.”

Will the IoT threaten jobs? “We will always need service technicians,” says Chapman, “But their training will continue to need to be enhanced with increased knowledge of the technology. Employees have to study to keep on top of all the changes and all the codes.”

Energy conservation is both a benefit and a potential concern that comes with the increased use of smart technology in the indoor environment. Technology is in place that allows customers to shut down all, or part of, their air conditioning systems to save energy. Smart homes and business can integrate all switches, power outlets, and devices to balance power generation and energy usage.

Nichter says utility companies in the Phoenix area are already offering rebates and discounts for the installation of smart systems. Some of the rebates amount to as much as 50 percent of installation costs for consumers. He uses Canada as an example of a country that is renting equipment to residential and business customers in order to manage energy use.

He sees that the IoT will lead to further interconnectivity between private energy use and the public power grid. “I feel it is inevitable,” Nichter says. “There has to be a way to put a cap on usage.” As an example of how this interconnectedness would work, Nichter says that at peak demand times, a power company could have the capability of shutting down power to several units of a large retail store’s 25 or more air conditioning units.

Of course, when it comes to this level of Internet connectivity, it is hard not to think of the possible risk that control of the power grid could get into the wrong hands. “Foul play is definitely a concern,” says Nichter, “But each time it happens, the harder it will be to do it.” He explains that software providers will learn to provide better antivirus software, and other stronger security measures.

Nichter says a conservative approach is needed for the transition to IoT connections, especially with hospitals and other medical facilities to the power companies. Although he is not concerned in the short term about the use of smart technology in air conditioning systems, Nichter says he is worried about the idea of one or two companies (such as Amazon, Google, or Apple) controlling the apps for indoor environment equipment. “It concerns me because customers always want to buy a cheaper solution,” he says, “But I don’t see the IoT as a total solution. There is such variation in the equipment out there. What worries me is people going to outside vendors for parts, and then calling us when they can’t install it, or when it doesn’t work. One app, or one company, will not be able to provide the same solutions that a real technician going out in the field can find,” he says, adding that a company like Google (which bought the Nest thermostat technology as a big foray into IoT in 2104 would need to provide a tech team to make their solutions work.

“The worst long-term scenario is for us to just be a labor broker. It is better for us to provide a total solution from the day a piece of equipment is installed, to the day it is replaced,” Nichter states.

Along with the connectivity of the IoT, comes the increased need for a universal diagnostic protocol for equipment. Developing and implementing standard onboard diagnostics could decrease contractor error, and improve the overall efficiency of air conditioning equipment. “I think a universal diagnostic protocol will be beneficial to the industry,” says Chapman. “Any time you can streamline the process for homeowners and contractors, it is a good thing.”

“The use of standardized diagnostics is inevitable,” says Nichter. “But the proprietary part of the equation has not been solved. Every piece of equipment has its own proprietary aspect that makes it different or better than the next piece of equipment. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a Chevy and a Ford. We can get to the point where things are standardized, but only to a certain point.”

Chapman believes that the future of the industry is in smart technology. “Most of our customers like it,” she says. “We do have some customers who are not interested in the phone app, but the technology is there whether they use it or not. Everybody is building this way. Almost all major brands have switched to systems that communicate. As new systems are being replaced, I think it will be a natural switch over. New high-tech homes have all their components talking to each other.”

Chapman and Nichter both see the speed of the proliferation of IoT technology as mirroring the use of tablets in the field in the past few years. Technology has made it easier for contractors and subcontractors to communicate, and for customers to see their products and their maintenance records online.

“Just five years ago, we were bringing blueprints out to the job site,” says Nichter. “Now we have everything downloaded onto an iPad. The sophistication of technology in new construction is improving the way we communicate, and giving us better capabilities on the job. “

How long before the Internet of Things is a reality for most homes and businesses? Unless there are government mandates put into place, it is hard to say. Ten years? Fifteen? Any way you look at it, the world of The Jetsons in 2062 does not seem out of reach at all.

Tricia Drevets

Posted In: ACCA Now, Technology

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