SOFTWARE TOOLS BENEFIT, AND PROFIT, RESIDENTIAL CONTRACTOR©
by Bill Smith, president of Elite Software
These days, the HVAC contractor needs many tools to be successful and profitable. These tools take many forms, simple and complex, old and new. In the newer category, computer software tools are proving their place as an important a tool as any used by the progressive contractor. Bob Hernandez is president of BW Heating and Cooling Contracting in Alhambra, California. In business for over twenty years, the firm specializes in all types of heating and cooling work ranging from single family homes to high rise buildings. Hernandez has found that a versatile software program, sort of a software toolbox, is a fine complement to his traditional tools.
In 1992, Hernandez purchased Elite Software’s HVAC Tools, a collection of programs that permit the quick calculation of many common HVAC design tasks. These include duct sizing, wire sizing, coil interpolation, psychrometrics, ufactor calculations, gas pipe sizing, refrigerant line sizing, hot/chilled water pipe analysis and the quick lookup of common HVAC formulas and conversion factors. Hernandez employs many of these software tools in his day to day perations and discusses how his company benefits from them.
He recalls his days before computerization, "We would oversize, not just HVAC equipment but wire sizes, gas pipes and hot/chilled water pipes. These things took too long so it was easier to guess.” Like most firms, he explains, they employed "rule of thumb" techniques as an expedient way of dealing with design problems. But, he points out, “the problems with rule of thumb methods are many. For example, a condominium project with twenty units usually requires accurate wire sizing and piping for hot and chilled water. Rule of thumb can mean an excessively high bid; it can make the difference whether you get the job or not. Rule of thumb methods get passed from generation to generation so that they get so far out there is no logical support for them and no one knows how they got here. In addition, there’s nothing to back them up and when you’re in trouble you have a big problem. Worst of all, rule of thumb methods do not keep up with the new technologies.
He adds, "We all have offices with walls covered with books and manuals that we use to size everything in which everybody scribbles their own notes in the backs of these books. There’s no one book with everything in it. For example, if you’re doing psychrometrics you have to find your chart, and then you have to remember how to read it. And if you can’t find what you need in a book you’re back to guessing and oversizing. With wire sizing, if you’re not sure you usually put in the next largest size. If it’s unnecessary it’s money out of your pocket.”
“HVAC Tools allows me to bring everything together in one program so I get fast and easy access to the things I use whether regularly or infrequently. Of course, the things I don’t use on a regular basis are the hardest to find. We use psychrometric analysis less than five times a year and it’s difficult to interpret psych charts when you don't use them often. With the program, we fill in the blanks and get our answers instantly. You can’t do it much quicker than that,” he emphasizes.
Hernandez notes that HVAC Tools’ wire sizing capability is invaluable as a service tool. “It allows us to check things that I would have to look up on several charts and electrical manuals that I probably don’t have. And if I did, I would have difficulty finding and interpreting the information. Out in the field, we use the program to analyze a project’s existing wiring and determine how much draw the wires can handle. It lets us know in advance if the existing wiring can handle the our new HVAC system. For example, in retrofitting a rooftop unit, sometimes the client doesn't want to replace the electrical service. With the program, we can show him clearly where the problems are and convince him to install properly sized wire. It makes us a little bit of an electrical expert. Our client is impressed we know about the electrical side of things. Before, we were at the mercy of an electrical contractor who may not have been doing his homework. It meant that we had more problems and lost money trying to solve them. Now, we're more profitable because we don't waste so much time. It has helped us tremendously.”
Hernandez has also benefitted from HVAC Tools’ gas pipe sizing ability. He recalls, "Before we got the program, we’d go to a plumbing manual supplied by the gas company - of course, it meant paper and math. Now, we can bring it up on a computer screen and enter the lengths and fittings, and it’s immediately sized. It’s completely eliminated math errors and saved us a lot of time. We also send the report out with the job and we look more professional and believable. Our guys in the field have everything on an complete easy-to-read report instead of a scrap of paper. If anything changes, such as a pipe length, they can spot it readily and call us to check on it. In the past, we felt like everybody needed to be a pipe expert and it just wasn't happening. HVAC Tools allows us to be an ‘expert’ in gas pipe sizing. Manual calculations used to take around twenty minutes and now it takes less than three minutes. The program gives us accuracy, speed and very presentable reports.”
"Although important, psychrometric analysis is something we only use two or three times a year and it's always a nightmare - it’s a lot of drawing lines and guessing where they meet." We spent a lot of time on the rules and regulations to make sure we used the psych chart correctly. Manual use of the psych chart was calculation intensive and time consuming because we didn't do it every day. Back then, all this might be scribbled on many pieces of paper with nothing to back up our work. “
He explains, "Many factories in our area need to have make-up air equipment on the roof. Many are involved in plastics manufacture and humidity is critical. Often, they want to know what happens when they are bringing in air from outside with a make-up air furnace. The program shows us what will happen to the humidity level. HVAC Tools easily allows us to insert the information and it quickly tells us what our humidity will be on the mixed air flows. The program handles all the math and calculates exactly to three places. It eliminates crooked lines, points taken from the wrong spot, math and most other errors.
In our business, it’s hard to remember what you did two months before, what you did and how you did it a particular way. Now, we have a clear precise report for our files. HVAC Tools printouts are clear, credible and the numbers are easy to explain to a client. He believes us and we get less trouble.”
“After all, precise psychrometric analysis means that their system will do what we said it would do. And when you've spent a lot of the client’s money and you turn the key you want to be sure the system will work. Most important, when the system works as we said it would we don't have problems collecting our money.”
He also observes that HVAC Tool’s U-factor calculations haves been useful and often used when working with builders. Hernandez explains, “For example, a builder may want to know what changes will occur in the actual heat loss of the structure if he changes the framing spacing from 24" to 16." U-factor accurately calculates heat loss and allows us play ‘what if’ and clearly show what will happen with changes in building materials and insulation. In the end, everything comes to cost for the builder. In this situation, we can explain that even though the framing number is going down the insulation value is going up. With U- factor, we can show him how to save on materials and still have a well constructed and well insulated building. Many times, U-factor lets us put in a smaller unit and the builder saves money. And, he can also show his client, the owner, the cost benefits of a specific framing method.”
He points out that U-factor was especially helpful on a project using insulated concrete panels. He remembers, “U-factor revealed hidden bridging problems which caused greater than expected heat loss. Without the program, we wouldn't have caught the problem and if we had put in an undersized heating unit the building would have been cold. In this case, the client, a concrete wall manufacturer, was using incorrect R-values in his advertising which he promptly changed. Of course, we can do ufactor calculations manually but the program does it quickly and presents it neatly and professionally.
Hernandez continues by explaining how HVAC Tool’s hot and chilled water pipe analysis program is important to them. “We use it quite often. We do a great deal of large boiler replacement and heat exchanger work for swimming pool and custom heat exchange applications,” he says. “We use it to size up the whole project for piping. Before we got HVAC Tools, it was books, charts and trying to write them all down. Manually, it would take a couple of hours to size a chilled water job. Now, it takes fifteen minutes. We can print a screen whenever we need the flow rates and put them in a file. We get a accurate report and a good record of what we’ve done. It allows us to back up our work so if a problem comes up we know why and where it happened. It helps us avoid situations of over or undersizing and helps convince the client that we know what were doing.”
Hernandez concludes that the computer and HVAC Tools are an important in his business’ success. “In our day and age, when most of us are getting $40 to 50 an hour you only have to use the program two times to pay for it. After that, the savings go into your pocket. It also helps us prepare comprehensive bids. This is especially important if our competition has a well prepared bid. HVAC Tools helps you work faster and do a better job is very simple to use. If you're already doing these things manually, HVAC Tools’ programs, formulas and conversion factors are the greatest thing in the world. It simply has many essential tools all in one place.”
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