HVAC troubleshooting, in its simplest form, is a kind of logical train or recipe you follow. The check this, then this, then that, in a stepwise manner allows us to start with the simple, easy to fix and work toward the more advanced (and usually more expensive) problems.1 Many guides are set up as lists of problems and possible causes, and for basic repairs, this is enough. For example, most owner manuals will include a short list or table with symptoms and solutions. Others come as flow charts.2
Advanced troubleshooting quickly becomes quite involved.3 There are more tests to perform, some of which require technical skills and equipment unavailable to the owner. Instead of narrowing the problem down to one (of many) modular components in a general fashion, advanced troubleshooting diagnoses individual parts. There are two main categories – those that are manufacturer specific and those that are system specific. By “system” here we mean electrical supply, controller, HVAC design and other categories found on all HVAC setups.
HVAC Troubleshooting Software
In the general troubleshooting realm, HVAC troubleshooting software is available that simulates “live” systems. This type of software is meant for two purposes. The first is as a training aid for those learning to be HVAC technicians. But they are also used as troubleshooting aids. An example (there are many) is Basic Electrical Control Circuits4, a shareware program about circuitry used in HVAC. It includes a simulation with 28 different faults along with a troubleshooting guide and walkthrough.
Other products (both free and for sale) allow simulation all the way from basic power supply issues through to complete engineering packages that aid design of commercial, large building systems. 5 Some of the many variables that the software addresses are humidity, temperature, air flow/exchange, energy efficiency, weather data and load information.
For the technician in the field, portable and diagnostic software is of more interest than simulation software. Companies offer both product specific and general software, many of which use the Internet as a platform for delivery.6 These often have reporting, billing and maintenance features and may be tied directly to the software or network running a full HVAC system.7
Automated V. Manual
Automated software collects information about system performance for users. Troubleshooting consists of alerts about maintenance and performance that HVAC system owners are expected to address. Manual software collects data with the expectation that an expert will then use the information to diagnose and repair any deficiencies.8
In many cases, troubleshooting software is built into the system itself, especially home systems. These are not detailed “fix-it” style, but rather, fault detection and general messages about maintenance.
At the lowest level of diagnostic software, programs are sold for the home heating and cooling tech to use onsite. So called, “legacy” programs were designed to run on a laptop while the technician was in the field.9 These are less useful as Internet based programs do the same thing and are automatically updated. This second type is sold on a subscription basis.
Other HVAC troubleshooting software comes in the form of CD or DVDs that cover basic testing procedures applicable across a range of products.10 Although not technically software, reviewing a DVD prior to starting a diagnostic can give an important review and help prevent unnecessary or wasted work. In the HVAC field, charges for time quickly mount up, so having a reference onsite can make a big difference.
Among software vendors, updates and product support are important and these make for more popular products. The SuperTech diagnostic software is popular for residential systems and controllers in general, but there are many more offerings in the field.11 Manufacturers will often offer diagnostic and troubleshooting software along with training aids.12 While branded diagnostic products are meant primarily for that company’s equipment, they are also useful generally because of overlaps in manufacturing. The basics will be the same between brands.
One final type of HVAC troubleshooting software comes with the newer, network-enabled HVAC equipment. These programs “talk” to the parent company or servicing contractor directly through remote monitoring. Important parameters are sent over the Internet for a technician to diagnose or respond to. This last option is very popular for building owners seeking the convenience of constant monitoring without having an in-house staff with HVAC certification.