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Tool connectivity is here to stay

By Eamonn Ryan

Automation and connectivity have played a large and growing role in the research and development (R&D) of the tool and instrumentation sector of HVAC&R, driving efficiency improvements, and making up for the growing skills deficit.

Refrigeration and HVAC systems consume a significant amount of energy. There has consequently been a growing need for tools and instrumentation that can improve the energy efficiency of these systems as well as to go off-grid with battery power – and this is being achieved by intelligent, digital tools.

TECHNICIANS STILL WEDDED TO ANALOGUE TOOLS – BUT CHANGE COMES THROUGH WORD OF MOUTH

Clement Steenkamp, Testo South Africa sales and market manager (instrumentation) notes a distinct trend for the market to increasingly supply connected devices in the field of tools.

“These are tools. The fact they’re digital doesn’t make them any less a tool. They’re often mistakenly called instruments in South Africa, with a consequent preconception of being fragile – but they remain robust tools for technicians just as much as a set of wrenches or screwdrivers,” he explains. Service technicians need tools to check and calibrate parameters such as airflow, humidity, temperature, CO2 levels, light intensity, and sound level. These tools are part of a technician’s toolbox.

“This is not just about live monitoring. Having a device connected to an app allows more math to be done in the background. In terms of efficiency, many complex calculations that would have had to be performed manually, are now automated via a smart phone.”

Testo produces its own sensing technology: it offers firmware and software updates with new features that can be pushed to devices and to the app without needing to buy a new tool, which can include updates as well as entirely new tools. This gives customers lifetime value, explains Steenkamp.

One example of this is with refrigerants, he says: “Testo produces a digital refrigeration manifold for checking refrigerant systems. There are many different gases that refrigerant systems operate on, and the world is moving towards new, environmentally friendly gases. When a new gas comes out, your app updates and it pushes to your manifold so you can carry on working. With older analogue technology, the scale was physically inscribed on the dial so you would have to throw your gauges away and buy new ones for different gases.”

The app enables easy communication and sharing of recorded data. The connectivity feature is common among most devices, even those with displays. When installing the app, there is no need for pairing: the app automatically detects compatible devices. The devices offer various readings, such as temperature and air speed, with more advanced tool options available for use with large ducts and outlets common in specific industries like pharmaceuticals and manufacturing. Steenkamp describes Testo’s tools as being general contractor tools for use among clients such as warehouses which want the benefit of data logging temperature, humidity and pressure. There’s a wide range of instruments for testing various things in different industries. For thermal imaging cameras for fault finding in electrical systems, the app acts as a second screen, allowing users to view camera footage remotely. Previously, everything was highly manual and labour intensive.

“These devices are measurement instruments. They have connectivity to an app to record data and do advanced calculations. An example of this is an anemometer which can measure wind speed and velocity in a grill – but it also does the math relating to that rather than just give the measurement. For a technician who does this manually every day, this seemingly basic device replaces a lot of his work and also eliminates the factor of potential human error. It also provides and records all the documentation necessary.

Some devices have their own in-built display, while others only have a Bluetooth connection to read the measures on the app on a smart phone, though Steenkamp notes that even devices with their own display are being connected.

He notes that while this technology is already widely available, the market still relies to a large extent on manual and labour-intensive analogue tools to this day. However, a trend towards using technology in warehousing and ventilation is evident.

“There is still resistance and lack of trust towards technology like connected devices in many industries – but their use is unavoidable in the future. People are hesitant to adopt this technology due to concerns about reliability and unfamiliarity with the new technology. However, the inevitability of technological advancements and the cost-effectiveness of Bluetooth versions of tools are driving the adoption of these connected devices.

“We’ve been introducing such devices for the past seven years and it’s been a gradual process with some pushback. The alternative digital option to a Bluetooth-connected device is to have tools with their own displays for readouts – but these options can be costlier compared to utilising a phone. However, some industries require that model.

Slowing the pace of growth of this market are concerns about the perceived fragility of digital technology, he says:

“However, modern sensors are in fact stable, can be calibrated and adjusted, and are generally more reliable than older analogue technology which people tend to forget have their own challenges. The reluctance to accept digital technology is prevalent worldwide, but it may be more pronounced in South Africa. In North America and Europe, the acceptance rate is much higher – primarily because the connected instrument pays for itself within three months, and the logic is clear to them.

“The slow adoption of digital technology in South Africa can also be attributed to the lack of a culture of preventative maintenance. But with a shortage of skilled personnel and a brain-drain underway, the use of intelligent devices that automate more calculations becomes a necessity because they are no longer being done by engineers or even qualified artisans, but by semi-skilled people. The demand for connected devices is growing at an accelerating pace, driven primarily by positive word-of-mouth testimonials and the significant advantages they offer in terms of convenience and efficiency.”

Steenkamp says: “For example, digital leak detectors in the refrigeration market can reduce a three-day job to half an hour. While there are no hard estimates of the payback period per device, the cost of gas for a leak on one refrigeration system can be more than the cost of one leak detector. As margins become tighter and business becomes more challenging, companies are starting to see the cost savings of using these tools – they can no longer afford to pay for a technician to spend three days with soap and water testing for a leak when they can get a tool for R7 000 that does the job. While environmental considerations are important, the most persuasive argument is the cost savings that these devices offer. The reduction in technician hours and associated costs is a tangible advantage that can be calculated quickly.”

While the market for these tools is competitive, Steenkamp cautions that many companies produce cheap products without local support. Nonetheless, the advantage of more advanced sensors and support is clear. In critical facilities such as hospitals or pharmaceutical plants, reliable sensing technology is essential. “I see the market for instrumentation as consistently moving towards connectivity within an eco-system, whereby if you buy one tool and then another and so on – they all speak to each other. I expect to see growing pressure to improve software all aimed at increased connectivity.

“Building management systems (BMS) may be automated and have continuous monitoring, but our instrumentation works by complementing BMS – which is installed in a building and functions 24/7 whereas ours are portable handheld tools,” Steenkamp adds.

TOOLING TECHNOLOGY ADVANCES

Over the last 10-15 years, electronics have played a large and growing role in the R&D of the tooling industry, aimed at driving efficiency improvements. Much of it revolves around the evolution of electronics in the control systems of plant, says Eurocool managing director Rodney Taylor.

“A key driver of efficiency is the development and evolution of variable speed motor technology and DC-type induction motors, which were unheard of 15 years ago,” he adds. “There has been a momentous step forward in the technology of the electronic expansion valve and the driver, compared to the old standard thermostatic expansion valve. That’s the device that controls the flow of refrigerant through the circuit. The old thermostatic valve relied on sensing the temperature of the gases coming out of an evaporator and it would use the changing of the temperature to regulate the opening of an orifice on the inlet side of the evaporator to regulate the flow. Electronic expansion valves sense both the pressure and the temperature on the discharge sight and use the pressure temperature relationship of the refrigerant to modulate the valve opening and closing so it can track a given superheat far more accurately.”

Taylor explains that built into that is a growing amount of predictive artificial intelligence, which is the next logical step in this technological evolution. “The newer, more sophisticated electronic controllers connect and reside in the refrigeration cabinets in supermarkets, or on the rack of a plant room, connected to a single management system. This functions by the management system over time getting to know the idiosyncrasies of a particular plant to the point where it can predict and eventually anticipate whether something will go wrong. We’re seeing this across most of the electronic controls that producers are offering these days.”

BATTERY OPERATED POWER TOOLS SWEEP THE GLOBE

In the HVAC industry, the utilisation of specialised tools and instrumentation is crucial to ensure efficient and effective system operation. One company that specialises in manufacturing tools for HVAC&R pipe fitting is ROTHENBERGER.

ROTHENBERGER Tools SA managing director Adler Teubes says that when it comes to tools and instrumentation, the company places a strong emphasis on affordable-ish quality. While there is a global trend of digitising certain tools to enhance accuracy and convenience, he says this is happening extremely slowly in South Africa. “Digital manifolds, for example, have been around for quite some time worldwide. These tools are used in air conditioning systems to measure low and high pressures. While digital manifolds offer a wider range of capabilities compared to their analogue counterparts, their higher price tag can be a deterrent for many in Africa, where pricing sensitivity is a significant factor.

“Many professionals in the industry still prefer the analogue manifolds despite acknowledging the advantages of digital technology. Analogue manifolds limit the number of refrigerant gases that can be measured, typically up to four, and require multiple manifolds for different gases. In contrast, digital manifolds offer a remarkable improvement. With one digital manifold, you can measure up to 110 different gases, eliminating the need for numerous separate manifolds,” explains Teubes. However, the digital manifold can be eight times the price.

There are other areas influencing the R&D of analogue tools: including a shift to battery-operated tools and pressing of pipes rather than brazing and welding. “One big shift we’ve done recently is on vacuum pumps. Vacuuming the system before linking up refrigerant in an air conditioning unit has always been an electronic process. However, we have introduced battery-operated vacuum pumps to provide more flexibility and convenience. These pumps come in different capacities, such as 2.5 and 5 CFM (cubic feet per minute) and are suitable for various system sizes such as low-volume, long-period usage. The use of battery-operated pumps is especially beneficial in environments where power supply is uncertain or limited,” says Teubes.

ROTHENBERGER has embraced the concept of standardised battery platforms for their tools and has subscribed to two battery platforms. “Traditionally, each manufacturer of power tools had its own proprietary battery, leading to a fragmentation that inconvenienced consumers. However, those manufacturers have now come together to adopt a standardised battery approach. By doing so, they enable multiple suppliers to use the same battery, eliminating the need for users to invest in multiple battery types. This collaboration streamlines the industry, offers higher quality batteries from specialised manufacturers, and ultimately benefits the end consumer.”

The two battery platforms are Cordless Alliance System (CAS) and AMPshare. CAS was established a couple of years ago by Metabo and ROTHENBERGER, with Metabo being the battery manufacturer. ROTHENBERGER is one of the 27 manufacturers worldwide affiliated with CAS. More recently, the AMPshare system was introduced, with Bosch as the battery manufacturer. ROTHENBERGER is also part of the AMPshare system.

“These standardised battery platforms offer significant advantages to end-users. For instance, if an HVAC professional primarily uses Bosch power tools, they can purchase a ROTHENBERGER vacuum pump that is compatible with the Bosch AMPshare battery system. This eliminates the need for extra batteries and saves money in the long run, as batteries are typically one of the priciest components of power tools. By adopting standardised battery platforms, manufacturers can focus on producing high-quality tools while leaving the battery manufacturing to specialised battery manufacturers.”

He notes that this means an HVAC company can now have ten tools with five batteries, whereas in the past those ten tools would have required 15 batteries, for example.

Battery lifespan is another important factor to consider, in an environment where Loadshedding is unlikely to end for a number of years. Like any battery, the rechargeable batteries used in power tools have a limited lifespan. However, advancements in battery technology have significantly improved their durability and performance. Modern batteries can last for an extended period before needing replacement.

“Power tools are going battery-operated worldwide. In the US, 95% of all power tools are battery-operated. In Europe, it’s around 90%. South Africa is still a bit behind, but as in any industry there are people who prefer electrical power tools over battery-operated ones because they perceive the latter to be less powerful. However, batteries have improved over time to such a degree that certain tools perform better with batteries than with electricity,” says Teubes.

While the market may be slow to adopt high-tech or digitalised tools, one area it doesn’t compromise, says Teubes, is on quality. “HVAC&R users of tools are highly professional and quality orientated. They will
not compromise on the quality of their tools, even if they argue the price. They tend to stick with known, quality brands and will not touch non-compliant tools.”

ROTHENBERGER products conform to the EN and CE standards. “For instance, we manufacture products specifically for OEMs such as Codex Behringer. ROTHENBERGER products remain high quality with our factories mainly being in Germany and in Spain. The amount of warranty claims we receive on products is extremely minimal, with not even many damages or breakages due to misuse by end users. Through the design and manufacture process, we tend to eliminate the ability or the ease with which products can be misused and abused by users,” he says.

Helping this low return rate is that ROTHENBERGER products are used only by qualified technicians and semi-skilled people, not unskilled. There are also dangers associated with dealing with gases, so the users are both qualified and cautious. Typical tools for HVAC&R installers and technicians are vacuum pumps and recovery unit, pipe bending tools, brazing and soldering, not specifically for aircon units themselves but rather setting it up.

“There are not too many pipes going into the installation, while in refrigeration most of the piping is installed by the manufacturer,” says Teubes.

HVAC installers and heating contractors can use bending to create an installation that requires few joints. Fewer joints mean fewer potential leaks. Bending also requires no fittings and is therefore more economical. ROTHENBERGER offers all the tools required for the installation, maintenance and leakage control as well as refrigerant recovery, decommissioning and disposal of refrigeration and air conditioning systems as well as heat pumps.

ROTHENBERGER’s R&D is progressing in the direction of ‘pressing’. “Technicians are not soldering and brazing the pipes together anymore. They are now crimping it, whereby you get a fitting which gets crimped onto your pipe. The entire HVAC&R world is going in that direction, though South Africa is again well behind the curve in adopting pressing technologies. All the major global manufacturers as well as local distributors are going that route in a big way, and the advantage of being part of a large multinational organisation like ROTHENBERGER, is that it works a lot with global pipe and fitting manufacturers like Conex-Banninger and Geberit – so that we firstly become their tool suppliers to fit their pipes and fittings, and secondly have access to the latest trends,” he adds.