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Get your customers ready for winter

We need to take every opportunity to remind customers and potential customers that air conditioning is not just for hot weather but for all year round, warns Martyn Ives
Despite the global economic crisis the world market for air conditioning was up 13 per cent last year, according to a new report from research organisation BSRIA. Sales in 2011 were reported to be $88.2 billion compared with $78bn in 2010.

While it has not been the summer we all wished for, ironically the winter may provide some opportunities on the service side.

Because of the poor weather, in some cases, the first time air conditioning systems will have come on is when the temperature starts to drop and the heat pump kicks in. So the question to ask end-user customers is: 'is your air conditioning system ready for the winter?'.

There are a number of things that end users should have checked out before the winter, especially if they rely on their air conditioning system as their primary heating source.

Starting with the basics, even in a poor summer condensers can become clogged with sticky pollen, which, in turn, attracts other particles floating around in the air. This causes poor air circulation, which increases running costs, reduces the capacity of the system and creates more defrost cycles and less heating.

In addition, it is not just the rail system that suffers from autumn leaves. Every year, fallen leaves are driven by the higher autumn winds into condensers, where they can clog up the condensate drains. During the defrost cycle, this causes the blocked trays to fill with water which freezes when the ambient temperature drops below zero. If this rises high enough, the ice can cause the coil to block and the fan to catch on the ice, resulting in a possible system failure.

Happy end users good for industry
While this can mean a lucrative call-out and repair for a contractor, surely it is better to convince all customers to have their systems checked out prior to any failure. This may mean a smaller one off fee, but it may also mean the customers will come back next year for a repeat check and happy end users are good for the industry as a whole.

There is also the issue of refrigerant charge. Not only is it a legal requirement to have heat-pump systems checked for leaks periodically, but the refrigerant charge is critical to ensure the system operates efficiently and without fault.

An undercharged system, operating in the heating mode, not only reduces the system performance, it increases the running costs due to the equipment having to work harder and longer, creating more defrost cycles. When a system is defrosting, the heating operation is interrupted and the amount of off-line time relates directly to the amount of defrost required.

Finally, on the mechanical side, a good service and maintenance session is well worth doing as the refrigerant circuit of a heat-pump uses various different components in the heating mode compared to the cooling mode.

The last things to check are the timers. As well as just double checking that the system will move smoothly from summer to winter time, it is worth remembering that over the summer the timer may have been set for cooling mode only. This will need changing and consideration given to whether the timer should be set to include night set-back to prevent the space from dropping too much in the winter months, protecting against frozen pipes etc.

From a customer satisfaction point of view, it is also worth checking that the system is set to come on early enough, so there is time for the space to reach a comfortable temperature before it is occupied.

In addition, while the primary aim of a pre-winter visit is to set up the heating function to operate as efficiently as possible, it is worth checking out all aspects of the system at the same time.

Just because it is winter does not mean that cooling is no longer required. There are often unseasonably mild days in autumn or spring and computer rooms usually need cooling, even in the depths of winter.

Good practice to clean filters
Also, modern glass-walled offices can often generate high solar gain, even when there is snow on the ground. If one side of the building is sheltered and one side in the sun, the two sides of a three-pipe VRF system can be operating simultaneously.

For all of these reasons, it is good practice to clean air filters, coils and grilles, perform F-gas checks and generally check and maintain the system.

It is also a good opportunity to talk to your customers about whether they still have the right system; could they save money with more efficient equipment, are there better controllers they could add in and so on?

Finally, one of my personal crusades; education. Once a contractor has gone around and reset the controls - which will usually have been played with over the previous few months - to the optimum, it is essential to ensure that those who have to use the system know how to adjust the controls to achieve the optimum result without reducing efficiency.

This is especially vital when a system has been installed for a number of years. The chances are that the original instruction documents will have been lost, or that the people who were originally trained after the installation have moved on.

In conclusion, we need to take every opportunity to remind customers and potential customers that air conditioning is not just for hot weather but for all year round, so contact your customers and set up a pre-winter visit now.
10 September 2012

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