Digital HVAC systems are the future of our industry.

One of the unusual aspects of the HVACR business in North America is its startling lack of digital electronics. Oh, I'm sure everyone is familiar with the use of electronics on heat-pump defrost circuits and with the safety circuitry on 90+ AFUE furnaces. And Carrier Corp. used electronic boards in some of its high-end residential air conditioners way back in the 1970s. However, in a world that is almost dominated by computers, smart interfaces, and electronic controls, our industry has really lagged behind when it comes to putting intelligence into heating/cooling/refrigerating systems. Why is that?

The fact is that despite all the concern about brand-name recognition among manufacturers, the whims and viewpoints of specifying engineers and HVACR contractors still dictates what type of HVAC systems consumers will buy. And because of unfavorable experiences with electronic boards in the past, and also because service technicians have a hard-enough time just working on 24V systems, nobody has wanted to sell or specify systems with sophisticated electronic controls. However, that is changing.

The growing presence of Japanese (as well as Chinese, Thai, and Israeli) manufacturers in this country and of their electronics-dominated systems is slowly changing the minds of a younger generation of product specifiers. Also, the reliability of the systems these foreign manufacturers are importing is far greater than anything that we can relate to in the past.

I worked for a while as the national service manager for one such offshore manufacturer back in the mid-1980s and remember its first attempts at introducing total-electronic-control systems to the U.S. market. Coming from the traditional American-contractor background and mindset, I did everything I could to resist this change. I pointed out to the company heads that nobody was qualified to service such systems. "After all, how would anyone know just which board has failed when something goes wrong? And who wants to pay the high cost of an electronic board replacement?" I asked.

I remember the sobering reply: "Why should the boards fail?" my employer asked. And the fact is, they really didn't.

I guess that such faulty reasoning has been ingrained into us in this country by traditional manufacturers over the brief period of my life. Their reasoning has always been that everything is designed to fail. "How do you service it?" has been the question in our minds whenever we look at new products.

This all reminds me of a job I had back in the early 1960s working for a TV-tuner manufacturer (you know, the device behind that knob that we used to turn to change channels?). Every tuner was designed to be turned 50,000 times before it failed. And fail they did. But today there are no TV-tuner manufacturers. There are just buttons that don't fail, which are a digital, integrated part of the whole TV. There's a lesson here that our industry must learn.

Well, I (and negative industry response) had some effect on the Japanese manufacturer that I worked for, because they shipped a lot of old 24V-thermostat systems to us here in North America, systems which had been obsolete in Japan for 10 years. Yes, we were - and still are - at least 10 years behind the available technology.

But now I'm seeing a glimmer of light coming from around the next corner. It's starting in the commercial HVACR-products field, where reliability and long component life are crucial to product acceptance. Several manufacturers have introduced computer electronics that integrate directly into digital building- control systems, and this idea is now making strong headway. In fact, we're seeing a new type of job emerging for our industry in the 21st century. It's called the systems integrator. This is sort of an engineer/service technician of the future who works with, understands, programs and troubleshoots systems using computers and advanced control systems. Look there! Do you see the future of our industry?

Expect change, don't fight it. Digital electronics is already making strong inroads into our business, and that looks like our next industry paradigm. The key to its acceptance can be defined by a question my Japanese employer once asked: "Why should it fail?" But change won't come without cost. New skills will have to be learned and old prejudices abandoned.

So, where do I see this paradigm headed and what do I expect to be the next change? Well, I mentioned that old TV-tuner manufacturer for a reason. They manufactured a standard control that provided us an interface with our television sets (to change channels). Today the TV manufacturers provide that interface with integrated buttons or remote-controls, and the tuner companies are no more. Fifteen years ago Japanese manufacturers did the same thing when they introduced digital systems (that no longer use standard 24V thermostats) to provide us an interface with out HVACR systems, and yes, they even have remote controls. This is the future of our industry as I see it today.

Are remote controls out of the question for all residential HVAC systems? No, they just make good sense. Will we soon control heating/cooling systems through power-line communications from our computers? That makes sense too. And where does the industry go after that? It depends on the unseen future of technology. Let's individually learn to invite whatever is coming into our lives and welcome it, not fight it. Let's not hold our industry back when it comes to technical innovation, or something else may come along that makes all of us obsolete.