Mobile Apps: The Ultimate in HVAC Control

Dec. 20, 2013
Gain functionality in the field and away from the office with HVAC mobile apps.

The same tablet or smartphone you use to kill time at the airport or in the doctor’s office could add value to your HVAC maintenance.

Thanks to a handful of app innovations, mobile technology makes it easier to monitor your facility’s HVAC system while you’re out on a service call or troubleshoot while you head to the source of a problem.

“The nice thing about using mobile apps is that you can get instant feedback, as opposed to writing down information in the field, entering it into a desktop app later, and then getting results,” notes Stephen Roth, principal for Carmel Software, which develops mobile, desktop, and web-based software for HVAC and engineering applications. “These days, people are used to getting information right away.”

Could a mobile solution help drive HVAC efficiency in your facility?

The Great Debate: Smartphones vs. Tablets

Where to Buy

Official Multi-Vendor Outlets: Offerings in the App Store (Apple iOS) or Google Play (Android) markets are often compatible with a variety of HVAC vendors and levels of knowledge. Check out customer reviews and screencaps to see what fits best.

Equipment and Control Vendors: Manufacturers can be a rich source for low-cost or free apps. Some are brand-specific – think user manuals and documentation for your existing equipment – while some could work for multiple brands, such as comfort calculators.

Associations: Investigate the websites of professional organizations for vendor-neutral apps. ASHRAE, for example, offers a handful of apps, including an interactive psychrometric chart, a duct fitting database, and searchable versions of standards with built-in calculators.

With a plethora of apps and screen sizes available for both phones and tablets, it can be tough to determine which technology best meets your needs. Ben Fowler, a commissioning engineer for energy engineering consultancy Cx Associates who has reviewed the company’s favorite apps, says his team relies mainly on 7- to 10-inch tablets because the larger screen size makes it easier to view drawings.

“They give you a lot of power and versatility in your pocket that normally would have been contained in desk references, like calculation wheels, chart-based utilities, or a desktop computer,” Fowler notes. “We have our tablets protected with hard cases for field use so they can be a little clunky, but even compared to carrying around a laptop, it’s a non-issue.”

Consider what functions you’ll replace with apps and where you’ll use your mobile device to help narrow down your choices. Some tablets, like iPads, can’t recognize a fine-tip stylus well, which could be a problem if you’re taking notes or annotating drawings in the field, Fowler says. “An iPad stylus is really just a proxy for your finger,” he explains. “A complaint about tablets in general is that they’re not able to take pens.”

Hybrid devices that are larger than a phone but smaller than a standard tablet can help bridge the gap between portability and extra screen space. However, phones may still be the best choice in some situations, so consider how quickly you need to synchronize information between your mobile device and the rest of your team.

“The only advantage to an iPhone is that a lot of people still may not have 4G access on their iPad, so as a result the only way they can get internet access with their tablet is in a coffeeshop, the office, or home. The iPhone always has internet,” explains Fowler. “For example, I don’t have 4G connectivity on my iPad because I really don’t need it. I can enter information in the field, but I can’t sync until I get back to the office.” PageBreak

What’s on the Market?
As you venture into the mobile marketplace, you’ll notice four basic categories of apps designed to add ease to your daily duties.

3 Ways to Add Value with Mobile Tech

1) Gain better control of your existing equipment. Don’t go all-out as soon as you add mobile to your HVAC arsenal. Start gradually by getting a better handle on your physical assets with inventory and fault-finding apps.

2) Implement smarter HVAC strategies. As your team becomes more comfortable taking smartphones and tablets into the field, consider developing standard operating procedures that can be remotely managed across your portfolio. Some apps will help you create and control zones for comfort and set temperature ranges and other parameters for thermostats.

3) Get technical. A truly robust HVAC maintenance program could benefit from educational and technical references for team members. Investigate apps that allow you to perform previously complicated calculations (such as enthalpy) in the field. Continuing education offerings can help train new employees and boost the knowledge of existing ones.

Calculation: Designed to replace charts and formulas, calculation apps make quick work of previously complicated tasks. “For example, the enthalpy calculation is hard to do on the back of an envelope. You need a chart or an old-school enthalpy wheel,” explains Fowler. “Having an app where you can just punch in humidity and temperature and get back enthalpy is very convenient.”

Reference and documentation: This category includes everything from vendors’ equipment documentation to code reference guides. Instead of toting a library out into the field, you can search through documents pre-loaded onto your device and find answers to your questions.

Sensor-based: These apps use the mobile device’s existing hardware to accomplish new functions, such as a light meter or a virtual level that uses the device’s accelerometer. “They’re not accurate enough to be a primary tool, but they can be helpful in a pinch,” Fowler says.

General business: These aren’t strictly HVAC-related but can certainly solve specific needs. Depending on your duties, this might include a PDF reader, a note-taking app like OneNote or Evernote, or Dropbox (a file-sharing tool).

Also pay attention to how an app is built – this will tell you how reliable it will be under challenging circumstances. A native build – an app specifically built for your device’s operating system, such as Android or Apple iOS – won’t require internet access for many tasks because its data is hosted on your device.

“If you’re underground, in a steel structure, or inside a concrete equipment room, you can still use those apps,” explains Scott Lanzer, marketing manager of digital media for HVAC control vendor Emerson Climate Technologies, which has released a handful of calculators and brand-specific reference apps. “A non-native app goes out into the cloud, finds the information, and delivers it to your device.”

Watch For Potential Pitfalls

Watch out for these common implementation issues when adding mobile devices to your HVAC toolbox.

Scope creep: This happens when an app “hits a lot of areas but doesn’t do any of them particularly well or isn’t very user-friendly,” says Scott Lanzer, marketing manager of digital media for HVAC control vendor Emerson Climate Technologies. An app suffering from scope creep aims high but misses its target completely. The result: mediocre software that’s not worth your 99 cents. User reviews will help you avoid this phenomenon.

Impulse purchases: Much like the priced-to-move goodies at a checkout line, the low prices of many apps can lead to indiscriminate downloading – after all, many only cost $1-2 each. However, a dollar here and there adds up fast, as any FM knows – not to mention work time wasted on fiddling with a hastily purchased app that ends up not delivering any value. “There’s a lot of stuff out there, so make sure the functionality actually makes a difference in your world,” says Mark Votaw, vice president for zoning products with Arzel Zoning, which has developed several apps for light commercial and residential HVAC.

Overcontrol: Allowing building occupants control over their area’s temperature tends to lead to higher satisfaction, but not if you don’t set some rules first. Restrict thermostat settings so that only a narrow range of temperatures is available. “If you give too many people access, someone is hot and keeps turning it down, someone else is cold and keeps turning it up, and pretty soon nobody’s happy,” Votaw explains. “Don’t set up a system that’s overcontrolled.”

Non-native apps can include web portals, mobile-optimized websites that you can access with your device’s internet browser. In some cases, you can find native apps that are installed on your phone, but synchronize information with a web portal whenever internet access is available. Ecobee, a developer of energy management systems for light commercial and residential applications, offers one such app to control its smart thermostats. The web portal and native app monitor the same network of thermostats, but are optimized for different uses.

“The web portal is built around managing, setting things up, more detailed diagnostics, and defining rules and standard operating procedures,” explains Stuart Lombard, Ecobee CEO. “The smartphone app is built around triage – show me the thermostats and locations that have problems, or show me the units I’m most concerned about so I can make quick, fast adjustments while I’m on the road.”

Intelligent Integration
Ready to take the plunge? It’s a good idea to start small.

“If you have a large team, start with a couple of guys who are more tech-savvy and have them get used to the technology first. Then they can be the cheerleaders,” explains Roth. “If you spring all of this technology on everyone at once, it will be intimidating and disrupt what they’re used to doing.”

Pick just a few vital apps to get everyone used to using the device, Fowler adds. His office vets new apps with a pilot program of sorts, where team members will try out the new app on one project but stick to the app’s paper predecessor for other projects to enable easier comparisons.

“Think of an inspection form you use frequently, or get all of the O&M manuals for five pieces of equipment on your device and try them out to gain some understanding,” says Fowler. “Some things are just better on paper or on a laptop or desktop. Take it slowly and figure out what makes sense.”

Phase in additional functionality as your team acclimates to the new technology. Some apps allow remote management of smart thermostats or other automation-controlled equipment, enabling you to set energy-conserving parameters. A retail center could benefit from a setting that scales back air conditioning when doors are left open longer than 10 minutes, for example.

One of Lombard’s clients, a large retailer with 1,400 locations and roughly 3,000 rooftop HVAC units, used remote management to discover a range of performance issues and incorrect settings.

“Some units weren’t performing properly, and some had the heat set as high as 79 degrees F. or the cooling as low as 65 degrees. Not only were there big losses of energy, but there were also issues with tenant comfort,” explains Lombard. “Get access to your data so you can benchmark different locations and see the best and worst performers.”

Janelle Penny [email protected] is senior editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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