J. Woody Thompson, PE, CxA, CEM, Commissioning & Energy Region Leader, RS&H
Remember the days of utilizing assessment tools like tape measures, clip boards, binders with loose-leaf paper, a pencil and a 35mm camera (with film) to do HVAC assessments? We marveled when the new technology was a wet-bulb sling psychrometer (that you actually “slinged”) coupled with mercury U-Tubes, barometers and thermometers.
Or, remember when you would get back to the office after a 12-hour assessment and during a review of your notebook full of notes with your team, you’d get the dreaded, “was that a 6 or a J? No, that’s a coffee stain,” hand to forehead.
Being a veteran of the TAB and commissioning industries for the last 28 years, I witnessed clunky, awkward and time-consuming on-site assessments that required discipline and organization. And I’ve seen firsthand how technology advancements have made the process of HVAC assessments more efficient in terms of how data is collected and analyzed.
The Life of an On-site Assessment Professional 10-15 Years Ago
For HVAC commissioning professionals 10-15 years ago, working in the field was hands on, meaning all data captured was handwritten. If professionals needed to reference information, such as plans, specs or manufacturer data, they needed to bring hard copies with them or hope the site had photocopies. If you forgot this information at the shop, that meant an extra trip to pick them up, so the assessment was done accurately.
Measuring devices had limited save and data capability – and when I say limited, I mean none. Depending on the amount of blank paper you brought, notes, diagrams, numbers and scribbles would be placed everywhere.
The worst part was deciphering the notes and inevitable hieroglyphics. “Why did I put a triangle next to an angry face?” The birthplace of many present day emojis can be found scrawled across old construction documents.
In reality, the data we collected was only as good as it was accurately remembered and legibly written. Which meant the overall process of collecting, processing and transcribing information was long and laborious to maintain accuracy. It was not uncommon to go back and redo the assessment.
Even if everything in the assessment was done correct on the first trip, it could take weeks to generate reports and get them to the owner.
Today’s Assessment Process is More Efficient – Thanks, Technology!
Technology advancements have made for large leaps in efficiency – the largest leap coming from the use of tablets, laptops and smartphones on-site. Data is collected and analyzed with software programs to track equipment condition, action items, cost analysis, inventory, etc., and reports can be accessed in a near-instantaneous manner, empowering owners to make critical decisions concerning their facilities.
Data can be transferred to the cloud and accessed later back at the office or by the client, making the reporting process efficient.
Conversely, large amounts of reference information can be retrieved by the same method. Bringing manuals on-site is a thing of the past. Now, it’s as easy as looking up the manual on a device without having to flip through the hard copy.
Another benefit of having smartphones during assessments is the ability to take pictures and videos of what commissioning professionals are physically looking at. This is especially helpful when working in a mechanical room where the inter-weaving pipes and duct-work have a close resemblance to spaghetti.
This tactic allows professionals to view photos and videos after leaving the project site to help jog their memory.
The Future of Assessments
What will assessments look like 10-15 years from now?
Commissioning professionals could have access to technologies that could allow them to do most of the assessment at their desk.
How? Through advances in virtual reality, drones and GPS.
Technology advancements have made for large leaps in efficiency – the largest leap coming from the use of tablets, laptops and smartphones on-site
With the adoption of virtual reality technologies, there is an opportunity to adopt VR for HVAC and commissioning assessments. A professional could utilize VR glasses and look at the project as though they are there in person. They could interface with the BAS and on-site facility staff. Using a virtual avatar, professionals could “be” an air molecule as it travels through an air handler in operation, retrieving telemetry data of temperature, pressure, humidity and velocity.
Virtual assessments would be a cost savings for the owner. Instead of paying for an expert to be physically at the job site, they will be there virtually, collecting data as if on-site.
Drone technology is another potential innovation for assessments. The use of drones will eliminate the need to climb ladders or enter confined spaces. Imagine the time saved by flying drones to do accurate condition assessments of rooftop equipment. Crawling micro-drones could survey inside large branch ductwork or in ceiling plenum spaces.
In the past, assessments were time consuming. Now, assessments are efficient and prove to be beneficial to the owner. In the future, we need to think about how we are protecting our systems while still harnessing the power of information gathering as technology evolves.
The benefit is that we will have HVAC systems that are maintained better, controlled efficiently with longer life cycles and owners will have resilient and sustainable facilities.