Troubleshooting is one of the most important skills you can possess in the HVAC industry. Learning how to apply these problem-solving methods that point you to the issue quickly will not only save you time, but also leave you with happy customers who are sure to call you next time the HVAC system stops working. What do you know about the process of HVAC troubleshooting?
Troubleshooting Common HVAC Problems
All good troubleshooters have a few natural traits in common. In order to exhibit excellent troubleshooting skills yourself, you’ll need to build on your existing knowledge of how an HVAC system should work, narrow down the problem, and communicate with your clients about what you need to do and why. This process is crucial to providing quality services. Let’s break down each component of an HVAC troubleshooting strategy:
- Know the normal
- Eliminate unnecessary work
- Discuss with the customer
1) Know the Normal
Do you know the normal of the system you’re working on? Good troubleshooters learn this first since you can’t identify a problem without knowing what a normal situation is supposed to look like.
For example, imagine you are working on a condenser unit and the unit is running but the compressor is very hot to the touch, far hotter than anything you’re familiar with. So now you are trying to see what is happening to cause this compressor to be operating at this elevated temperature. If you don’t know the normal of the HVAC unit, you’ll end up spending hours testing each potential problem as your customer gets impatient. Train yourself to look for the cause behind abnormal condition so you don’t end up chasing your tail.
In addition to understanding normal functions of an HVAC unit, you should also be familiar with what mechanical parts should be used and why. It’s unfortunately very common for inexperienced technicians to install the wrong parts in a client’s air conditioning system. If you can’t find anything wrong with the system’s functionality, speed, or temperature, yet the client is experiencing problems, check the components. More than likely, at least one is incorrectly installed or the wrong piece altogether.
Pro Tip: During an HVAC service call, if you notice an installed part that didn’t come from the original manufacturer, double-check it. It’s probably the wrong part for the unit in question.
2) Eliminate Unnecessary Work
What can you do to eliminate time-consuming tests as you search for the problem? For example, if a customer tells you their attic HVAC unit isn’t powering on, don’t immediately start disassembling it and hunting for faulty wiring or other problems. Check that the power switch is turned on. While this may seem silly, it’s surprisingly common for stored Christmas decorations or a distracted family member to accidentally flip the switch. This simple solution definitely saves you time!
Additionally, keep yourself informed on the situation before you even arrive on the scene. Talk with your client to get the big picture. Which technician or service company did their HVAC maintenance work in the past? What exactly did they do? If you can, drive past the worksite and observe the unit from the street. Has it been tampered with? Have bushes or weeds grown around it?
Before you begin the job, sit down with the client and discuss any complaints they may have about how their HVAC system works. Additionally, ask them about their home’s work history and any variables that may have contributed to the problem. For instance, if they noticed the AC beginning to falter after they hired someone to mow their lawn, it’s possible that one of the mowers accidentally severed a cord with their machine. This gives you an excellent idea of where to look for the problem.
For an easy reference for both you and the customer, create a flowchart of common HVAC problems and their possible causes. While this isn’t a foolproof method, having the information easily accessible in a chart can help you narrow down the problem quickly. A chart will also give the customer a better idea of what you need to do and why.
3) Discuss with the Customer
Finally, remember that your first priority is customer satisfaction. Once you believe you know what the problem is, discuss your findings with the customer and explain what you need to do, why, and how much it will cost. Don’t save this part till the end! Make sure the customer knows exactly what they’re getting and what they’re paying you to do. This also gives them the option to refuse a certain service if they don’t want it.
This step not only builds trust with the customer, but it also establishes you as an expert on their HVAC system and as an honest contractor. Rather than trying to upsell them on expensive work or equipment they don’t need, you’re trying to restore their comfort level in their home. A satisfied customer will recognize this and happily refer you to their friends!
Your HVAC Troubleshooting Strategy
In the end, remember that operating with an effective HVAC troubleshooting strategy benefits both you and your client. Your client, of course, will be happy with a job that’s both well done and finished quickly. Meanwhile, you’ll have extra time to apply toward other jobs, as well as a satisfied customer who will recommend you to friends and almost certainly call you back for further work. Don’t sell yourself short by neglecting problem-solving knowledge! Practice troubleshooting in an HVAC setting to ensure your future successes.
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HVAC certification consists of both hands-on work and studying to pass tests. While the hands-on lessons take place in class with fellow students and an instructor, studying generally happens on your own time. Consequently, it can be too easy to let this important part of learning fall by the wayside. How can you prioritize your study time?
If your current study method isn’t working, it’s time to form new habits that will help you make time to study and absorb the information. After all, the better your study habits, the better your grades will be! Here are just a few strategies to help you study for your HVAC class and get your habits back on track.
Make a Schedule & Stick to It
Building a new habit depends on consistency. As you get used to setting aside daily time for studying, focus on establishing a specific time to get it done. For instance, if you get home around 4 pm every day, have your study time start at 4:30 consistently. Your mind will adjust to this new part of your routine. Don’t just accept any excuse to delay your study time–the more consistent you are with your schedule, the more likely it is to feel natural.
Make Studying a Priority
In life, some tasks are more important than others. Schoolwork follows the same principle. If one assignment is due tomorrow and the other is due in a week, it makes sense to prioritize the one due tomorrow. This may seem like a no-brainer. However, if the task due in a week appears daunting or time-consuming, you may be tempted to try tackling as much of it as possible and accidentally let the more time-sensitive assignment go undone. Don’t let that happen! Learn to organize your homework by priority.
Find Your Learning Style
How do you typically absorb information? Do you do better memorizing data on your own, with a partner, or by listening to an instructor? Experiment with different styles until you find yourself retaining the knowledge you need for your HVAC class. Once you know how you learn best, keep it up! Allow yourself to find the best strategy for your own needs.
Pro Tip: For involved work like HVAC repairs, hands-on practice and instruction is a proven method. A well-structured HVAC class will help you absorb the information you’ll need for your career.
Studying for an HVAC Class
Everyone learns differently, so what worked for another student may not work for you. However, you’ll never know how much you can improve your study time without trying. Try a few different solutions until you find one that boosts your time management as well as your retention of the material. You can pass your HVAC class!
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Are digital gauges necessary? This is a question that comes up a lot, and there are a wide variety of opinions. After all, the HVAC industry doesn’t seem to favor one style over the other. Why is one any better than its alternative?
Most HVAC technicians should keep at least two sets of gauges, and potentially three depending on their exact work. Different types of HVAC units may be more compatible with different gauges. Consequently, there isn’t really a clear answer to the question of which gauge type is superior, if at all. Let’s take a closer look at both types and their potential applications to find the right answer for your situation.
Different Types for Different Work
You need two, possibly three, sets of gauges depending on what you are doing. Some techs like to have one set for 410 refrigerant machines and another for R22 machines. However, we have so many different types of refrigerants now it’s not practical to have a set of gauges for each. One set of digital gauges and one back up set of analog gauges is all most people will ever need.
Using Digital vs. Analog Gauges
Digital gauges are far superior for testing and adjusting the charge, and they’re absolutely imperative if you want accurate superheat and subcooling readings. Digital gauges have temperature clamps that connect to the liquid line and suction line and have built-in pressure-temperature charts. You simply tell the gauge set what refrigerant you are testing, hook up the hoses and temp clamps, and get live instant readings of superheat and subcooling. The margin of error is remarkably low.
If you use analog gauges to perform critical charging, you will have to read literally between the lines of the needle and the gauge lines. Once you guess the pressure reading, you must then use a pt chart to obtain the temperature equivalent. After you get that number, you have to actually take a temp reading of the appropriate line and subtract those two numbers. Along the way, chances are you will either misread something, make a mistake in the math, make a pt chart conversion mistake, or several of the above. Even if you manage to get all that correct, there’s a good chance that the system pressure or temperature changed between all the readings. This change alone will lead to inaccuracies of four to five degrees. When you are talking about subcooling number targets of 10 or 12 degrees and you miss it by six, that’s a significant margin of error.
What Do Industry Professionals Prefer?
Some brand manufacturers require the dealers to charge with digital gauges if they want to continue and sell that brand. Usually, these policies exist because manufacturers have received warranty returns due to improper charging methods rather than actual problems. Consequently, the requirement for digital gauges is a (generally successful) attempt to combat these warranty returns and preserve business.
Analog gauges have their place, however, especially if you are working on a system that has a bad burn out and has turned the oil into acid. You will not want to pull this into your $400 digital gauge set, so you whip out the trusty analog set. The analog is also a great back-up set when your digital set goes out.
Pro Tip: Different brands of digital gauges may have varying features, but overall, they all work about the same. Just find the brand with features you like the most.
Neither is Always Better
To summarize, there is no way to state for certain which type of gauge is better. While digital gauges are more convenient and generally preferred by HVAC professionals and manufacturers, sometimes an old-fashioned analog gauge works just as well or even better. The ultimate deciding factor is preference. To make sure you always have the type you or a client prefer, maintain a set of each type of gauge just in case.
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Your HVAC contractor’s job consists of more than just repairing your HVAC system. Ultimately, they should be able to help with, or at least identify, other significant problems that could be contributing to high energy bills or an uncomfortable home climate. Keep an eye out for these common signs of a bad HVAC contractor–it may be time to hire someone else.
Most HVAC contractors are honest, hard-working people who just want to make your home as comfortable for you as possible. However, on rare occasions, you’ll find yourself dealing with a less than ideal repair person. If any of these red flags seem familiar, it may be time to hire an alternative:
- Poor ventilation even after repairs
- Skipping measurements
- Poor customer service
- Ignoring the root issue
1) Poor Ventilation Even After Repairs
Part of an HVAC contractor’s job is checking your home’s air ventilation for any potential problems. If you notice that airflow seems nearly nonexistent even after a repair job, it’s probably time to call the contractor back.
Keep in mind that this is a common mistake and not necessarily a red flag on its own. However, if you notice the same problem happening repeatedly from the same contractor, chances are they’re cutting corners on more than just this one area.
2) Skipping Measurements
A good contractor will always measure your home and air conditioning units very precisely to help in their work. If your contractor claims to be able to estimate based on appearances or a similar floor plan, they’re either being careless at best or lazy at worst. Always ask them to measure everything essential to their job before beginning work.
3) Poor Customer Service
At the end of the day, you are buying a service from your contractor. Excellent customer service skills on their part are essential to retaining you as a client. If your HVAC contractor refuses to treat you with the respect you and your home deserve, it may be time to find someone else.
4) Ignoring the Root Issue
If you come down with the flu, chances are you’ll go for extra-strength flu medicine rather than just a pain reliever like ibuprofen. While one attacks the root cause and sickness, the other only deals with one symptom. Likewise, several small HVAC issues are likely connected by an underlying problem. Your HVAC contractor should be able to assess the list of problems and find the ultimate issue to be fixed. Rather than dealing with the symptoms one at a time, start resolving the problem for real by working on the underlying issue.
Pro Tip: A good HVAC contractor knows exactly where to look to find the root cause of your problem. If your contractor seems more focused on just providing a temporary fix, it’s time to find someone else.
Finding a Trustworthy HVAC Contractor
Fortunately, most homeowners’ experiences with HVAC contractors are excellent. You’ll rarely have to worry about these problems. However, if you do notice some bad signs showing up, keep in mind that the contractor is working on your home. If your original choice repeatedly shows signs of a bad HVAC contractor and you are having doubts about them, consider looking elsewhere to ensure you get the experience and service you’re looking for.
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Regardless of your career choice, you can’t afford to stop learning. This is especially true for HVAC contractors. While this may sound like a no-brainer, the fact that countless American homes have an incorrectly installed AC unit shows that plenty of HVAC contractors don’t see the need to continue improving their work.
With the introduction of such features as thermostats and electronic circuit cards to AC systems, the need for continuous HVAC training became more pronounced. Since electronics change much more rapidly and readily than less advanced hardware, it’s absolutely essential to know how to keep up with these updates and learn how to use this new form of equipment. Unfortunately, not enough contractors see the need to keep learning once their classes are over. Let’s take a look at why continuous learning is relevant to your HVAC career.
Teach Yourself Through Available Resources
You will run into veteran technicians out in the field that think they know it all and basically quit learning new stuff years ago. This is a poor approach to any career. Unfortunately, these guys frequently get senior positions and talk with authority. If you get stuck with one of these types and can’t get away from his influence, quit that job and go seek another one.
This need to learn constantly is a good thing since it keeps us in learning and research mode, which makes staying current even easier. There’s no shame in just taking to the internet to search for an AC-related question or advice. Years ago, HVAC technicians relied heavily on books and factory tech support. Now, with smartphones and the internet, you literally have a world of information at your fingertips. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?
Continuing Education is Often Legally Required
If your goal is to open your own HVAC business, almost every licensing jurisdiction requires continuing education of 8 hours per year as a minimum standard. By keeping up with this requirement, HVAC contractors can continue improving their work, keep their licenses current, and stay up-to-date on every update to the industry. Whether you have a license or not, get in the habit of learning everything you can as often as you can about the HVAC industry.
Pro Tip: When it comes to the HVAC industry, never stop learning! There’s always something new to teach yourself or a positive change you can make.
Don’t Just be a Tourist
If your ultimate goal is to work your way to your own HVAC business or just use your newfound skills to support yourself, don’t allow it to become just a job. Don’t be a casual tourist of anything that is important to you. Your HVAC business can support you and your family for a long time to come. Do yourself a favor and stay informed to remain competitive in this growing industry.
Keep Teaching Yourself
Like any other career field in the modern world, HVAC recommendations and work change very frequently and with little warning. If you fail to keep yourself updated and educated on how to handle these new changes, your career will be rather short-lived. Keep your career on track and your customers happy by educating yourself on any topic relevant to the HVAC field. Never stop learning!
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Professional conduct and ethics sound at first like something we all know and don’t need to be told. In regards to the way we treat ourselves and fellow HVAC contractors, this is probably true. However, the definition of professional conduct and ethics needs to expand to include our treatment of customers, employers, and employees as well.
Ethical standards of treatment should apply to everyone in the HVAC industry. Potential customers and employers particularly deserve a professional contractor. While there are no established ethics and code of conduct for HVAC contractors, there are a few universal ethical principles that most people will appreciate seeing. Let’s take a closer look at what those principles are.
Helping Customers vs. Upselling
Any time money is involved, the greed factor comes to play, and with greed comes deception and dirty tricks. This is in no way exclusive to any one group.
For example, let’s say you go to work for a company that pays you a fair wage and you give them a fair day’s work for that wage. There is no reason for you to earn anything except the amount you agreed to work for. At the end of the week, you’re happy with your paycheck, your boss is happy with your work, and the customer is happy with the services you provided. This type of win-win-win situation is fairly common with many business models. However, if the business owner is only interested in sales and offers a high commission only if you sell new systems, customers are at your mercy because they truly have no idea of their options. Unfortunately, businesses focused more on selling new systems than helping people pay about triple what a truly honest business would. This is when greed sets in and businesses forget how to help customers and just sell HVAC systems. This dishonest business practice is far too common.
Pro Tip: Customers just want to make an informed decision without pressure and upselling from you as the contractor. Answer their questions honestly and help them find the best choice for their homes.
Ethical Behavior for an HVAC Contractor
Be honest with the customers and give them all the options. It’s not our job to decide what is best for them, and it’s certainly not ethical to hide options from them.
The same thing comes to being professional in our dealings with one another in the trade. HVAC techs should never feel above performing an installation, for instance. It’s all part of the job.
Red Flags to Watch For
If you notice these red flags after leaving an HVAC training program, take them as a sign of which companies to avoid:
- No recovery or vacuum pumps and equipment on the trucks
- No brazing with nitrogen flushing
- Selling used refrigerant
Practices like these are why it’s so important for us as HVAC contractors to self-police our trade. These shoddy companies either need to get in compliance or out of business.
Maintaining a High Standard
Professional conduct for an HVAC contractor goes beyond simple customer service and courtesy. You must also understand exactly what your client wants and provide it, rather than trying to create more work and thus more profit for yourself. After all, a happy customer can easily become a repeat customer through ethical treatment.
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