How AI is revolutionizing the mechanicals industry

By Jonathon Harp

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing a wide variety of things we do on a personal and career level. IBM defines AI as “a field, which combines computer science and robust datasets, to enable problem-solving. It also encompasses sub-fields of machine learning and deep learning, which are frequently mentioned in conjunction with artificial intelligence. These disciplines are comprised of AI algorithms which seek to create expert systems which make predictions or classifications based on input data.”

Common AI applications include search engines (Google), recommendation systems (YouTube, Amazon, Netflix), understanding human speech (Siri, Alexa), and competing in strategic games (chess).

AI dates back to the 1950s. However, after years of being ignored by much of industry and society, the development of AI for deep learning in 2012 resulted in a renaissance of AI that has been increasing exponentially since then. Its goals include reasoning, knowledge, learning, language processing and support for robotics, as well as the long-term goal of being able to solve an arbitrary problem.

On the industry side, it is most often described as “the ability of machines to efficiently perform tasks that would typically require human intelligence, such as learning, reasoning, and decision-making.” AI’s integration into certain aspects of an industry’s processes is being explored to achieve greater efficiency, accuracy and sustainability.

A good question is whether the HVAC and plumbing industries can use AI. The answer is yes. Change happening as a result of AI is only beginning. HVAC and plumbing are perfect industries to take advantage of AI. These industries have historically used a lot of manual labour, repetitive steps, and trial and error. Using AI technology is and will continue to change the way industry processes are performed.

So what impact is it having, or will it have on the mechanicals sector? The answer is many industries are now operating differently because of AI and the mechanicals sector is part of this change. Whether it’s optimization of energy use in HVAC systems or leak detection and prevention in plumbing systems, AI is quickly moving into and transforming the mechanicals sector.

Smart Technologies

Probably the most recognizable AI-driven processes in the HVAC/R and plumbing industries are smart technology systems. For example, AI-enabled smart HVAC systems can adjust heating or cooling systems during times of peak usage and prioritize specific zones of a building based on occupancy patterns to optimize comfort at the same time as it is conserving energy. The win-win is occupancy satisfaction while lowering energy costs.

On the plumbing side, AI-enabled smart water management systems use sensors and software to monitor water usage, optimize water flow and detect potential problems. As an example, these systems can detect leaks and modulate water flow based on usage patterns. They can also assist homeowners and businesses to more effectively manage water consumption.

Data Generation − A second area of AI use in both HVAC/R and plumbing systems is data generation and managing maintenance issues. These systems generate a great deal of data from sensors located throughout the building. AI-driven software analyzes the data and uses it to make decisions about how to operate the system and predict breakdowns, sometimes before they happen.

AI is also used in manufacturing to aid production facilities in running their processes as well as determining whether future failures of the machinery are likely and initiating preventive maintenance proactively. These AI-driven processes can reduce maintenance costs, system downtime, and increase building and equipment lifespans.

Chatbots – Chatbots using natural language processing (NLP) can provide help to HVAC and plumbing trades people on the jobsite in real time. They can be asked questions, provide help on a specific problem, or offer recommendations on how to use certain tools. Chatbots can provide quick answers and even correct errors or misinterpretations of technology use.

Automating Repetitive Tasks − AI and machine learning can also be used to automate HVAC and plumbing tasks that are repetitive in nature. As an example, AI analysis of data from HVAC and plumbing systems can decide what maintenance and repairs need to be made. In the long run, AI assistance can save trades people precious time and eliminate errors.

The challenges of AI

Realizing the benefits of AI has certain challenges. One significant issue is training of HVAC/R and plumbing trades people. Comprehensive training programs and ongoing updates will be needed to keep technical staff ahead of the curve on operation and maintenance of AI integrated equipment and software.

Other AI challenges include security and privacy issues associated with data collection and the ethical issue of having AI enhance the work of humans rather than replacing it.

Looking at the future

Bringing AI technology into the HVAC and plumbing industries is (and will) significantly change how these industries operate now and in the future. The reality is that AI is only starting to be integrated into the mechanicals sector. However, its use is rapidly increasing as companies discover the benefits to their businesses. Efficiency, accuracy and data collection are tangible improvements that AI can bring to these businesses.

The AI area that is probably the most interesting to explore is training and the impact AI will have on the HVAC and plumbing trades (see more on this topic in Mechanical Business Nov/Dec 2023, pg. 26, Embrace the Chat). In addition to improving efficiency and sustainability of the business, AI will assist trade professionals to easily determine system problems and help reduce system failures and repair costs.

This will also reflect well on a company’s ability to serve and build relationships with their customers. With AI it is simply an issue of change for the better and an area HVAC and plumbing contractors need to start exploring before they get left behind.



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