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When imagining the future for servicing HVAC systems, HVAC contractors need not venture far to find digital technology already in play—from smart thermostats controlled by smartphones to smart HVAC systems with embedded sensors to alert homeowners of predictive maintenance.
But, that's just the start according to Gundeep Singh, CIO for Carrier Residential.
His Carrier Digital & Analytics team imagines a world where digital technology enables homeowners, HVAC contractors, dealers, distributors, and OEMs, and transforms the whole HVAC industry ecosystem.
Even though some in the trades view the internet as a business disruptor, Singh says the HVAC industry continues to operate the same way it has for decades—making it prime to adopt the Internet of Things (IoT) and better digital connectivity.
"IoT is already having a profound impact on the entire industrial sector, and HVAC happens to be one of them," Singh says. "IoT is that game-changing technology concept that allows us to get into that 21st century we always talk about."
To fully grasp the profound impact of IoT on home services, companies must first understand the evolution of the internet itself.
"The internet, as we know it today, is a medium of connecting people to people," Singh says. "The next wave of that evolution is the internet connecting people to machines. Take that a step further, and it's the internet connecting machine to machine."
Think of those machines as "things," he says—like using a phone to regulate a thermostat via WiFi—and voila, you've got the Internet of Things. It's one machine talking to another machine through the power of the internet.
But, how does IoT transform the HVAC industry?
"Connecting all of these machines together, and then harnessing the power of data and the power of connectivity to change the experiences that we all offer to our consumers," Singh explains.
In a recent webinar hosted by ServiceTitan, Singh joined Williams Comfort Air President Jacob Huck to "geek out" on what's driving the future of HVAC as new technology, automation, and other digital trends inspire the home services market.
The impact of IoT and how to prepare
Singh says the greatest impact for IoT on HVAC lies in the type of experiences it enables for:
HVAC service companies, dealers and distributors
Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs)
Homeowners and consumers utilize digital technology and IoT systems as part of their everyday lives, from shopping online and listening to music to ordering their favorite takeout, so Singh expects the impact of IoT on homeowners to be seamless.
"The word 'smart' is part of everybody's household," he says.
With smart home alarms, smart refrigerators, smart washing machines, and more already on the market, Singh also believes smart HVAC systems will soon become commonplace.
Homeowners can control a smart HVAC system with a mobile app, or buy a more advanced HVAC unit that alerts them (and their HVAC service company) to mechanical issues before they happen, such as Carrier's high-end Infinity smart HVAC systems.
When HVAC service companies leverage IoT and the power of data, productivity levels increase significantly, Singh says, which results in better service to even more customers. Techs can respond to calls from customers concerned about an HVAC system alert for excessive energy usage, proactively know when the job requires a simple or complex fix, or even repair the unit remotely—all through the power of HVAC technology.
From an OEM perspective, Singh says IoT presents the single biggest opportunity to change the paradigm of the HVAC industry at large. In addition to developing new technology to sell more smart HVAC systems, IoT can assist manufacturers in responding more quickly to warranty claims with a simple, remote diagnosis.
While Huck of Williams Comfort Air agrees IoT offers great potential for the HVAC industry, he often struggles with the age-old "chicken-and-egg" dilemma.
"Homeowners don’t know they want this or need this, because they have no idea what it does, and dealers, therefore, don’t want to deal with it, because no homeowners want it," says the HVAC company president.
At Williams Comfort Air, Huck explains his team took the "egg-approach" and made it standard practice for techs to only install connected thermostats, which help homeowners reduce energy consumption.
"We do not install a non-connected thermostat. All of our thermostats connect," Huck says. "We've also standardized on every job that we connect the thermostat to the internet, at a minimum."
Ideally, a smart HVAC system with artificial intelligence (AI) monitors energy use and system functionality 24/7, alerting homeowners to possible mechanical problems before they even happen.
Williams Comfort Air uses the data to its advantage to proactively contact homeowners (versus waiting for the customer to call) when the company receives an email alert about an HVAC system they serviced or installed. This helps get clients on the schedule sooner, before busy seasons hit, convert old systems into replacement jobs, and resolve warranty claims in a timely manner.
"More than half the time they say, 'No, nothing’s wrong.' So, we follow that up by offering to schedule a maintenance visit, if they’re on the maintenance program," Huck says. "Very, very frequently, they call back later and say, 'You were right, it turns out it was going out. Can you send somebody sooner?'"
HVAC trends worth betting on
HVAC trends worth investing in, Singh says, are ones that influence the homeowner experience and solve their HVAC equipment problems quickly and easily.
The top 3 HVAC trends he prefers to bet big on include:
1. Field service management systems, such as ServiceTitan's HVAC software.
"Field service management systems help you improve productivity standards and manage your teams better, but also create a level of transparency with homeowners," he says. "Companies like ServiceTitan are doing a phenomenal job. It’s a game-changing technology."
ServiceTitan and Carrier recently announced a partnership to help HVAC companies grow.
2. Remote collaboration
COVID and the global pandemic in 2020 showed us all the power of remote collaboration, Singh says, and he believes it's here to stay.
"This is not the first pandemic we have had, and this is not going to be the last pandemic we have," Singh says. "Unfortunately, that’s the harsh reality.
"Remote collaboration is going to be extremely important as we go forward with the digital transformation in the HVAC industry," he adds.
For instance, HVAC companies who figured out how to set up video calls with customers to help diagnose problems during the pandemic probably gained a leg up on competitors.
3. Remote troubleshooting and repair
"The ability to troubleshoot and service equipment remotely is going to be the real game-changer in the HVAC ecosystem," Singh says. "But there’s a prerequisite for that—connectivity is the name of the game."
More HVAC companies need to embrace the idea of remote troubleshooting and repair, then make homeowners aware of the importance of connectivity powered through the internet. They'll be amazed at the possibilities to optimize air quality, achieve high energy efficiency, and reduce energy costs.
"Remote diagnostics and remote service is only possible when these (pieces of) equipment are connected," Singh says.
HVAC Digital Twin concept, and how it boosts productivity
The HVAC Digital Twin concept gives homeowners, contractors, and OEMs another application for leveraging technology and data with IoT.
Simply put, the HVAC Digital Twin concept provides access to a digital replica of HVAC equipment in motion.
"If you install an HVAC system for a homeowner, the twin or replica of that HVAC system is available to view virtually," Singh explains.
Viewing a virtual replica gives techs a powerful tool to quickly diagnose a customer's HVAC problem in real time, using high-tech sensors on the HVAC equipment to pinpoint the problem on a computer screen.
"For OEMs and engineers, we can run models to simulate all of the different possibilities and environments this HVAC system is going to run in, and we can turbocharge and improve the product quality standards by many folds," Singh suggests.
Huck's team uses the innovative HVAC technology to not only boost technician productivity, but also as a recruiting tool to attract a younger generation to combat the current labor shortage in the trades.
"The more technically savvy it is, the more sexy it feels to them," Huck says of new recruits. "It’s not just connecting 24-volt relays anymore, it’s 'Wow, I can do a lot with this.'
"They're not afraid of smartphones, like some of the older crew. They would prefer to walk up and have a phone tell them what’s wrong. If you can have a phone do it, you can also do it remotely."
Carrier deploys the HVAC Digital Twin concept in many of its systems today, Singh says, but he admits the concept remains in its infancy.
"I think the onus is on all of us—the OEMS, distributors, dealers, service companies—to create awareness around the possibilities that exist with these concepts, so we can increase that proportion," he says.
While companies such as Carrier offer education and training programs to attract new HVAC recruits, Singh believes advances in machine learning and HVAC technology to boost productivity also help to minimize the impact from the labor shortage.
"The scale (of new hires) we need is only going to come with the digitization capabilities," Singh says. And when you combine that scale with the need to provide a better customer experience, he adds, "This concept becomes even more important."
Expect resistance to digital twins and other new technology in the beginning, Huck says.
"There’s a lot of fear in having that conversation with the client. Some of our less technically skilled crews, they don’t want to look stupid, so they won’t ask at all," he says.
Beyond standardizing connectivity as best practice, Williams Comfort Air trains its sales team to tell customers to ask their installer about getting connected, or adds it to the ServiceTitan tech bio as a customer notification that says, "Hey, ask me about connecting our thermostat."
Williams Air also designated an office employee as "The Connection Queen."
"Every tech calls her at the end and she sets up the account parameters for customers," which ensures connectivity and eases techs' fears, Huck says.
Busting 3 common myths about IoT and other digital trends
Myth No. 1: IoT is a fad and a passing phase. It will go away in the next year or two. It’s just one of those shiny objects.
"Based on my experience, IoT has already influenced a lot of different industries in a very positive way," Singh says. "It is here to stay, to influence and positively impact work life, and improve the experiences we offer to our homeowners."
OEMS need to invest in this technology to make it available for more dealers and homeowners to use. As dealers, Singh often instructs them to learn the technology, adopt it, and then expand.
"Use it yourself, start small, use it on your own home or employees, and then expand. Once you know the power, then expand," Singh says. "It’s not complicated. If you know the internet, you know the Internet of Things."
Seeing is believing for most HVAC techs, Huck says.
"Get your team to put in connected thermostats (in their own homes) and see how easy it really is," Huck says. "Get them to see the benefits of it, and they’ll be your greatest salesman."
Myth No. 2: IoT is only about Big Data, or collecting huge volumes of data without knowing what to do with it.
IoT is about data, but it’s also about connectivity, Singh says. Then, harnessing the power of that data with two-way connectivity.
"You can know what the problem is, but the true transformation is when you’re able to solve that problem remotely, and that only happens with connectivity," he says.
Myth 3: IoT is all about automation and workforce disruptions. It will just take away our jobs one day.
"There's no truth to that. It improves your work lives, and it will improve the experiences you offer to homeowners," Singh says.
Consumers have come to expect automation in today's world, as they see marketing every day by big-tech brands that leverage IoT, such as Netflix, Facebook, and Spotify.
"I think the appetite has been created. Now, we need to serve that appetite," Singh says. "We need to make this easy for our homeowners—because of the Google and the Amazon phenomena.
"With companies like Netflix, Spotify, and many others, homeowners are starting to expect something they can easily understand, and something that comes to them versus them going toward it. As an industry, we need to adopt, embrace, and sell to that appetite."
Just be careful to not use the wrong words, Huck says. You may offend some customers who are creeped out by certain listening technology in the home.
"Initially, we would say, ‘Hey, with this thermostat, not only will you be able to remotely control your system, but we’ll be monitoring for any system failures.'
"Monitoring is a very, very bad word," Huck says. "They hear that as, 'We’re going to be spying on you.'
"Instead, we now say, 'We can make you aware that your system is not performing.’ It really diminishes some of the paranoia."
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