One Tool To Rule Them All?


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The idea of having a universal way to diagnose a system, whether it’s an air conditioner, a car, or a computer, is nothing new. It’s an idea that has been around for decades and has successfully been implemented in other industries. But will it work in the HVACR industry? What might be affected if and when this type of protocol and tool is developed? To that end, we decided to take an in-depth look at the pros, cons, methods, and steps that would be involved.

Our investigation led us to speak with contractors and manufacturers’ representatives all over the country to get a cross-section of ideas, concerns, and projected benefits. We also took a close look at how the auto industry transitioned from proprietary to universal protocols and tools to help the HVACR industry more accurately target effective methods.

It took the auto industry 20 years to accomplish development and implementation of its universal systems. Because of the speed with which technology is changing, it’s highly unlikely HVACR will have the same luxury. Technology is changing the industry and staying ahead of
its future impact is paramount to the industry’s success.

The Automotive Industry – A Classic Example
In the 1980s, electrical and electronic architectures were becoming common auto components, which forced the entire industry to recognize the new challenge of developing service and repair diagnostics. At the time, manual processes and a few simple diagnostic tools were being used.

The industry was slow to develop new technology, but in 1990, OEMs were developing their own diagnostic tools. However, in order to stay ahead of the international automotive market, U.S. manufacturers began exchanging diagnostic data with one another.

In 1995, OEMs began outsourcing tool development. But it took five more years before non-proprietary diagnostic tools were made and another five years before they were standardized.

During this lengthy process, they faced challenges – similar to those in HVACR – which initiated a growing list of mandatory necessities for this endeavor:

  • common fault coding and language would be required
  • powerful diagnostics would need user-friendly systems
  • specific solutions for diagnostics and certain ECUs must be addressed
  • diagnostic solutions would require ongoing management and control
  • outsourced diagnostic tools produced must be highly accurate and top quality
  • specific diagnostics would be needed for the service garage

When task forces were set up to develop automotive communication and diagnostic protocol and tools, the list of priorities made it easier for them to chunk down the process into manageable steps. There were outside influences, such as the growing competition in the industry and the state of the economy, which helped push the program forward, or it may have taken even longer.

The reason this was finally accomplished in the auto industry is further explained by Drake Erbe, vice president of market development at AirXchange, “The auto industry experienced a lot of government intrusion because of consumer safety. The manufacturers didn’t want unauthorized contractors to screw up a system that had their name on it. That’s why the car manufacturers worked so hard to have some sort
of universal capability. Originally the idea was just a service tool one could plug into any car and do a diagnostic rundown of 110 points. The difference for us is, you don’t drive an HVACR unit or system to a service station.”

After 20 years of slow acceptance, the auto industry was finally ready to admit that the universal diagnostics had produced the desired results and that it overcame all of the earlier challenges and concerns:

  • standardization did not eliminate or reduce innovation
  • the standards benefited all related parties without hurting competition
  • cost-reduction was achieved
  • interchangeability of parts, components, data, and tools became favorably common

The auto industry was fortunate that the universal systems were in place before the 2007 financial debacle occurred, as their attention
drastically shifted to staying afloat.

HVACR Concerns Over Standardization
So universal tools did not hinder the auto industry and contrary to what some believe, it is not only that OEMs want to protect proprietary engineering and components. Much concern and resistance comes from having to be responsible for the outcome. If the universal diagnostic system does not accurately work with their systems, then their brand name and reputation could become tarnished.

Lanny Huffman, president of Hickory Sheet Metal Co., Inc. adds, “The cons of standardization would be that service technicians would become more reliant on the ‘tool’ and sometimes miss other problems not picked up by a ‘tool.’ It also may cause service technicians to think that they no longer need extended training because they now have a ‘tool’ that thinks for them.”

Don Langston, president of Aire Rite Air Conditioning brings up additional points for consideration:

The purchase cost of the tools and who will bear the costs: the technician or the contractor?
How will we overcome skepticism by older technicians to using the tool?
What about the training time required to bring a technician to an operating proficiency level?
How would wide scale adoption of the tool on an on-going basis move beyond the novelty aspect to becoming an integral tool for technicians?

Dick Lord, Fellow at Carrier, says, “The best approach for these tools is to integrate them into the product so that they can be qualified and certified along with the product efficiency certification. The ideal solution would be to develop standardized metrics at higher levels that can then be incorporated into units’ controls and qualification.”

“This will still allow creative solutions to be developed as part of the products that are tailored. These should also be subject to some type of certification and evaluation similar to methods used today for efficiency. We should also focus on higher level alarms and diagnostics and avoid report sensor failures and other low level failures. Things like percentage of ideal efficiency, percentage of capacity, etc. should be considered. The industry also needs to develop high level dashboards that are easy to understand and report problems that are not complex detailed data outputs.”

Strong Advantages
Just as in the auto industry, the advantages of moving toward universal diagnostics seem to far outweigh the disadvantages. Aside from the necessity of needing superior training for contractors, our panel of industry advisors identified these advantages as positively affecting
all concerned:

  • Trained and certified contractors will be able to diagnose and correct situations faster. It will allow them to be more prepared, which is ultimately more profitable and less costly to the customer.
  • Untrained and uncertified contractors will benefit from having fewer systems to learn and understand. If a universal system were employed, they will have a higher success rate.
  • The OEMs will save time and money by pooling resources to garner universal results. This will allow them to spend more time and money in areas that build overall revenue and profitability for their companies, such as R&D, branding, marketing, and creating a loyal customer base.
  • HVAC will stay relevant. While home “smart systems” take over the residential side of the business, communications and alarm companies are going to be edging into the technical side of the business. Their software will ultimately do more than provide read-outs. It will provide on-board diagnostics that may result in forcing OEMs to work alongside or get “teched-out” by more advanced technology.

What Needs to Happen
The reality is that the industry must keep up with technology or it will be left behind. Unlike the automotive industry, creating and adopting new diagnostic communications and tools cannot take two decades to achieve. The world of technology is moving quickly and will find a way to fill voids and develop solutions that are far ahead of industries that are still operating with last century’s tools and techniques.

There are contractors who are untrained, as well as those who have been working on older systems who seem to present a concern. The truth
is those same contractors are going to continue to stumble regardless. They should not be a big consideration, as this sliver of contractors will ultimately dwindle when new technologies must be learned to successfully accomplish a service call.

The OEMs should consider a more aggressive stance to ensure their positions as industry leaders and to keep other industries, and government agencies, out of their backyard.

Healthy competition should not stunt an industry’s growth or preclude progress. The HVACR industry touches everyone in the country. The leaders in the industry are in a position that requires facing these challenges head-on without having to play catch-up years from now.

As Erbe concludes, “On-board diagnostics for HVACR would be nirvana, if the system reports to the contractor. Plug and play diagnostics that have the ability to monitor the system and determine what’s wrong would be valuable. It would obviously save time and money.”

HVACR Next Steps

One of the first steps the automotive industry took was to standardize diagnostic communications, and many on our panel presented similar strategies:

STEVE LAUTEN, president of Total Air & Heat Co., says, “At this point every manufacturer that has electronics on their equipment captures fault codes and gives the contractor the ability to look at the last fault codes, but every manufacturer is different in how they build and capture the information. If they could work together to develop the same language for fault codes, that would be the first step. The auto manufacturers agreed on fault code standards – what would be necessary and what language – and they had to come to an agreement. So a committee with the OEMs, and starting with codes, would be the first step.”

LANNY HUFFMAN, Hickory Sheet Metal Co., Inc. agrees, “Without question, if the technology is going to be pursued, a common language needs to be agreed on.”

DICK LORD, Fellow at Carrier, adds, “It also would be beneficial if the industry could develop standardized communication protocols for diagnostics similar to what has been done by the auto industry. The protocol allows for standardized tools to be used, but also allows the unique features of a given auto to be supported.”

It is clear that the first step must be the development of a task force, followed by development of standardized diagnostic communications.

There is a lot of work to be done in creating a universal communication protocol and tool for the HVAC industry. However, many of the key players who will move this initiative forward are already on-board with the idea and are willing to work to make the industry more professional through this process that will help serve customers at a higher level.

Sandra Felaris
Latest posts by Sandra Felaris (see all)

Posted In: ACCA Now, Management, Opinion, Technology

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