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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.