Smart VFDs and remote well maintenance.
By Ben Painter
If you’re fumbling around with your words when talking new technology with homeowners, you might not be well connected. No, I’m not talking about networking at NGWA’s Groundwater Week. I’m talking about a new generation of smart variable frequency drives (smart VFDs) that are rapidly increasing the service level water well system professionals can offer to end-consumers.
While the groundwater industry is by no means ahead of the curve with internet-connected devices, we’re catching up. And just in time.
As a new generation of system professionals emerge, they are gaining an edge in the marketplace by offering an array of products tailored to a younger generation of end-consumers. They expect nothing less than something they can monitor and control anywhere.
The signs have been in front of us for years. If you’ve replaced a thermostat, a garage door, or even your refrigerator recently, you have likely noticed the race to make everything smart. Even the silliest things that could have stayed dumb—think belt buckles and wine bottles—are being tested to see what sticks in the smart market.
Whether we understand it or not, everything is moving more and more towards complete connectivity. It begs these questions: What does this all mean for VFDs? Is a VFD that’s “smart” a flashy, attention-grabbing fad, or is it here to stay?
What makes a VFD “smart”?
If you’re not a regular VFD installer, you may not be aware how quickly this technology has evolved. Traditionally, VFDs’ primary selling feature has been constant pressure. A lesser known benefit to end-consumers is extending the life of the pump.
Without a VFD, a pump operates ON at full blast—starting in a fraction of a second with high rush amperage—or completely OFF, and nowhere in between. A VFD allows the pump to start with a low rush amperage and slowly ease into its cycle, extending the life of the pump.
Today, these features are expected with VFDs. Not standard, however, is smart technology. Well pump manufacturers now offer what is often sold as an add-on device that can be plugged into a VFD. This allows internet-connectivity on-site by simply linking to a router via Wi-Fi or hard-wiring with an Ethernet cable.
Once successfully connected, system professionals gain access to various features depending on the manufacturer and the software interface. At the most basic level, the system will send alarms via email or text message when the drive is in a fault condition. On more advanced devices, you can remotely access the VFD with an app to control or change settings.
What’s in it for businesses and end-consumers?
In my experience, end-consumers understand quite well they need a VFD to get constant pressure. Because low pressure is such a strong pain point, it’s not a hard sell. System professionals who have mastered explaining these benefits are regularly installing VFDs.
End-consumers aren’t as knowledgeable, however, about the benefits of a smart VFD upgrade. I’ve found in the field the primary ownership benefits are peace of mind, hands-off operation, and customization. After all, you’re installing an electronic product that will sit hundreds of feet underground and likely experience harsh treatment. You know as well as anyone things can go wrong, even from the highest quality manufacturers.
The peace of mind approach will especially sit well with business owners, farmers, and anyone else who can’t afford downtime. For a system professional, selling peace of mind may look like this:
“In the event of an unforeseeable water outage, do you risk losing time or money? A smart-connected VFD is the most effective way to ensure your system will be back up and running in as little time as possible. It’s real-time insurance for your water system and everything that relies on it.”
Another angle to offer your customers is hands-off operation. Before they ever notice a malfunction in their water system, you as the system professional can set up notifications for your customers’ smart VFD to be sent directly to you.
Imagine calling your customers and informing them you will be making a service call before they are even aware of the problem. Without smart VFDs, this was previously not something that could be offered.
Customization may appeal to a slightly different audience. While they may not have as much to lose with a water outage, being able to link their smartphone to all their electronic devices is expected. They want to choose what kind of alerts they get, how they get them (text, push-notifications, email), and for the savvier consumers they might even want to control their system.
Of course, I would never recommend a system professional grant control access to end-consumers—except in rare occasions—or you will probably create headaches for yourself. View access is completely optional, and granted based on a system professional’s discretion or interest level of the end-consumer.
Well maintenance for system professionals
If you have high-maintenance customers, a remote VFD system could be especially beneficial to you as the system professional. To prove this, let’s run through a few pain points you could avoid with a smart VFD system.
1. Time trips with remote diagnosis
How many times have you been on a VFD service call, only to find you don’t have what you need on your truck to fix the problem the first trip? It’s probably the majority of the time if you’re not working with a smart VFD.
For you, this means more time driving back and forth between your customer’s location and your office. Not only do you lose time, you’re not able to service your customers quickly or efficiently. They need their system up and running now, not the next time you can come.
A smart VFD would allow you to completely change the scenario. Imagine logging on to your customer’s device, diagnosing the problem remotely, and knowing exactly what you need to put on the truck before you arrive to the job site.
If you’re able to offer this kind of speed with your service, you’ll make customers happy. This will in turn lead to more word-of-mouth referrals and help you attract more customers.
2. Call customers before they’re even aware of a problem
Imagine this scenario: Your customer is a livestock farmer. If without water for too long, they’re at high risk of losing crucial assets. On what seems like a normal day, their phone rings. Though they’ve not yet noticed an issue with their water system, you inform them you’ve received a notification there is an issue with their water system. You tell them you will be there immediately to fix the problem before it poses a threat to their livestock.
This level of service was previously not possible. Smart VFDs allow you to offer an unmatched customer service experience. You’re also able to differentiate yourself from local competition and build customer loyalty like never before.
For markets like irrigation and agriculture, where no water might mean significant loss, offering a smart VFD is really a no-brainer for you as the service provider.
3. Control your service calls
As an installer of water systems, you know the ins-and-outs of your own installations better than the next system professional. Customers don’t always understand this, and sometimes that means they will call different system professionals to service a well that you installed.
This is clearly not ideal. Not only do you lose the service call, but your customers might not be properly served. Other system professionals may not be familiar with the manufacturer’s products you install, leading to more headaches for your customers. This could have been solved had they called you the first time.
With a smart VFD, you’re the only system professional who has access to the software used with their system. Think about it. If you’re the only one with this access, why would they call anyone else?
4. Fix non-critical issues from anywhere in the world
Besides simple monitoring, the most advanced smart VFDs actually can be manipulated remotely from a web browser or mobile app.
Take, for example, a VFD paired with a submersible pump on a geothermal system. When winter arrives, for these kind of setups, subzero outdoor temperatures can make managing indoor home temperatures more difficult.
Modern VFDs have a built-in broken pipe detection based on run time. If not disabled, the drive and pump run up the broken pipe timer and the unit will fault. If the VFD is smart, the system professional can be notified immediately of the issue.
Within minutes the system professional can log on to the system and either reset the broken pipe setting or disable it altogether. The system is back up and running before the business or homeowner ever knew they had lost heat.
It comes down to perceived value
Are smart VFDs here to stay? So far, they seem to be sticking, and I can see the value they add from a customer service standpoint only increasing as time progresses. As system professionals continue to find more angles to offer smart VFDs, and as manufacturers continue to improve the technology, smart VFDs are looking like they will become a standard in years to come.
As fast as our world is changing, we must adapt to what the market demands. Can you afford to look back in 10 years when every VFD is smart and not have at least explored this technology for your business?
Ben Painter is the northeast regional sales manager for Flint & Walling Inc. in Kendallville, Indiana. His emphasis is on system professional field support with a focus on VFDs and new technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.flintandwalling.com.