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How Diagnostic Technology Provides a Competitive Edge

Originally published: 09.01.10 by Mark Barraclough

Alpine Mechanical Services gives customers faster, better, and more cost-efficient service.

New advances in technology are constantly changing the way our industry operates. Currently, the market is focused on implementing technology that increases field productivity, ensures quality and consistent service for customers, and encourages companies to implement energy-efficient technologies in order to enhance energy sustainability.

With emerging technology, hvac technicians can abandon the “old fashioned” methods of repair and provide more value for customers. Ultimately, using advanced technology is what will separate the leaders from the followers in the hvac industry. Our mission at Alpine Mechanical Services has been to modernize operations and incorporate the latest hvac technology to provide the retail and commercial industry with superior service, while providing an example to the industry of how to use technology more effectively.

I consider my company to be an industry leader due to the implementation of a few key technologies. In the past, hvac technicians had only the basic tools, gauges, a pencil, and a pad of paper to diagnose a unit’s performance. (More-experienced techs also had their years of practice.) And in most cases, the tech didn’t have access to past service and maintenance records or the ability to diagnose a

unit in real time.

With the use of the Blackberry and the HVAC Service Assistant, techs can have this information at their fingertips. This type of technology brings more value to the customer in the form of faster repairs, lower operating costs, and consistently true data; which in turn leads to a positive experience for the customer — every time.

Key Technology No. 1: The Blackberry

When a service technician arrives at a job site to assess a unit’s problems, they are able to incorporate a handheld Blackberry device with both native and add-on software that allows access to past service and maintenance records. In addition, the tech is required to login the unit’s current assessment in order to maintain an accurate and steady flow of information. After the tech has completed the job, all of his notes are uploaded to Alpine’s main database for easy accessibility.

Key Technology No. 2: HVAC Service Assistant

The next key technology that we incorporate is a hand-held diagnostic instrument called the HVAC Service Assistant. This device gives us the ability to diagnose the unit’s malfunctions by directing field technicians step-bystep through the most common and important hvac system tests.

The HVAC Service Assistant can reliably detect and diagnose existing and potential operational problems and recommend solutions that offer financial savings to facility owners and managers. The end goal is the same as it has always been: Fix the customer’s unit in order to maintain building comfort levels, conserve energy, and lower consumption costs.

True Data = True Value

One of our biggest challenges before using HVAC Service Assistant was that we did not receive true data. Every piece of information was subjective depending on which technician was working on that unit. When we have true data, we can perform more consistently because the problems and solutions are more consistently defined. And customers get fast turnaround time and accurate diagnosis, which reduces overall service calls and costly labor hours. (It’s important to know that HVAC Service Assistant can diagnose only the most important part, refrigeration. The technician has to do the rest. That is why technician and technology are equally important.)

Most retail and commercial customers think that if their hvac unit is blowing cold air, then it is running at peak efficiency. However, most expert technicians know that this is a false indicator of performance. Without effective maintenance, a variety of issues come into play. The unit could have an above standard electric power demand, which leads to wasted energy. Considering the volatile cost of energy these days, be assured that all large retail and commercial customers want to prevent energy waste.

Without the use of technology, these problems, such as energy waste, were left undetected. Since we have incorporated the HVAC Service Assistant, the diagnostic tool detects a unit’s malfunction right away and every time. Recently, a big box retailer was having on-going issues with three particular stores in Florida. We were called to address these concerns. The field technicians ran a full diagnostic with the HVAC Service Assistant and adjusted the charges and air flow close to factory specs. There hasn’t been a service call in three months.

Another one of our customers saw a 35% service call reduction in a four-month period, something the facility manager has never seen before with other service contractors.

Getting Past Resistance

The HVAC Service Assistant and the Blackberry have definitely been a contributing factor to Alpine’s success (300% growth in revenues over five years) and differentiates us from our competitors.

Based on the current state of the industry, I believe technology is one of the most powerful tools we have to change every aspect of our industry’s business. The hvac industry is slowly making technological changes to its field operations, but it hasn’t been a smooth transition. It is a reluctant change.

I have observed that some contractors are reluctant to invest in this and other technology despite the growing market preference for contractors that can bring better, more consistent service to customers. Here are some of the objections I’ve encountered:

I don’t want to change our business model. You might assume that fewer service calls is bad for business. After all, isn’t that where a sizable chunk of revenues come from? While this may be true, it is a short-term philosophy. The HVAC Service Assistant and the Blackberry have given us a proven track record with our clients; which ultimately has expanded my portfolio within their company.

We strive to build confidence with our customers and prove to them that our goal is to fix the unit right the first time so it doesn’t break again. Incorporating technology helps guide the technician in the diagnostic process. Technology in the hvac industry is obsolete without a technician. 

What’s the ROI? Having a fear of investing too much without substantial proof of a return comes at a steep price. Service contractors’ unwillingness to change their business models hinders the hvac industry and its ability to advance technologically. Ultimately, if management chooses to continually push back change, their competitors will take customers away.

I’ve already invested in technician training. Even the most experienced technician has to diagnose a unit based on observations and experience. This method can be timely and ineffective for the service contractor and the technician. Incorporating technology helps guide the technician in the diagnostic process. Technology in the hvac industry is obsolete without a technician. Equally, a technician is more effective with the help of technology.

Our customers are happy with our service already. Not for long. The Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute reports that in the United States, 5.5 quads of energy are consumed in commercial buildings each year. Comfort cooling and refrigeration account for the largest portion of this (48%).

Being up-to-date on technology is no longer an option; customers want to save money by saving energy, and the providers that can respond have invested heavily in technology. By incorporating the latest hvac technology, we are staying competitive and changing the way our company works in order to set and stay current with creditable industry trends; all of this to provide our retail and commercial customers with superior service, and energy-saving and money-saving opportunities. Using the Blackberry and the HVAC Service Assistant is just one way we reach our goals — but an essential way. 

About Mark Barraclough

Mark Barraclough

Mark is the owner and president of Alpine Mechanical Services. He has been involved in the business operations side of the hvac industry for more than 28 years.

Mark has made the list of Philadelphia’s Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies 12 times, was inducted into the Philadelphia 100 Hall of Fame and, just this year, was listed in the Inc. 5000 National Fast Growing Companies.

For additional information, visit alpinems.com.



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