As GPS technology progresses, more contractors are learning that the tool isn't just for spying on technicians. Some companies are reaping cost-savings and productivity benefits. But not everyone is on board yet.



ATLANTA - Estes Heating and Air Conditioning service vehicles have popped up in some weird places.

One time, a truck was spotted on the road with a deer tied to its ladder. Another, a van was seen at a northern Georgia tourist spot where vacationers can pan for gold.

"The straw that broke the back was a phone call that a van was at a baseball game in South Carolina," said Gary Still, service manager for Estes Heating.

After that incident, the company decided to equip its vans with global positioning systems, a type of homing device, to track the movements of its technicians.

The technology, commonly called GPS, was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1970s. Through a system of 24 satellites, which sent radio position-identifying signals to receivers on Earth, the military could deploy troops and fire artillery with precise accuracy.

By the 1980s, the systems had been adapted for public use. Today, many HVAC companies are using them to mobilize their own troops and installing GPS in their service-van fleets.

Through a computer, company officials can use GPS to find out exactly where their technicians are at any given moment. Some contractors say it makes dispatching more efficient. Others, like Still, say GPS has saved money and provided peace of mind, eliminating the worry that technicians are goofing off on company time.

A Del-Air employee clocks in at a jobsite with his mobile phone. Image courtesy of Del-Air.

Controversy

But the technology is not without controversy. While Estes Heating and Air Conditioning has embraced GPS, many contractors are undecided about it, saying it could be an Orwellian invasion of employees' privacy. Others are holding off until they see if it catches on with competitors.

For companies that do decide to invest in GPS, officials can choose a truck-mounted or handheld system. The handheld system tracks employees through a monitor planted in the mobile phones they carry. Estes officials decided to install truck-mounted units with service from Discrete Wireless.

For less than $1,000 per vehicle, Discrete's Internet-based Fleet Management Solution and its Marcus radio module will track a vehicle's location, speed and gas mileage. All of this data can be monitored through a Microsoft Internet Explorer Web browser.

Estes uses the technology to keep better records.

"It acts as the technicians' time card," Still said. The unit records when technicians arrive at a jobsite and when they leave.

Such precise records have helped cut the company's payroll expenses approximately 10 percent, since time sheets are now more accurate, Still said.

"Most techs are honest," he said. "But some will fudge" their work hours.

Payroll isn't then only area where GPS has saved Estes money: The company's auto insurance rates have decreased by 5 percent, Still said. Since it can tell what speed a vehicle is traveling, GPS can prove to insurers that employees are safe drivers.

The monitoring has also cut down on the use of Estes' cars to run personal errands, something that Still said the company used to accept. "But with gas prices and insurance liabilities, that's changed."

GPS technology is now available to contractors through Nextel cellular phones. Image courtesy of Xora.

Wait and see

While many contractors such as Still like GPS and the security it provides, others are taking a wait-and-see approach to the technology.

Russ Kimball is one contractor who isn't yet sold on GPS. The owner of Evergreen State Heating & AC said his Everett, Wash.-based company only has four service technicians, and he doesn't want to spend a lot of money to watch them.

"The people I know who espouse GPS seem to either not trust their techs or have a very large service department and are looking for any tool to help boost productivity," said Kimble.

Kimble said he would rather wait until the technology becomes more common. And if Evergreen State Heating does start using GPS, it won't be to monitor workers.

"The GPS component of tracing down my technicians' whereabouts is far down the list. My advice to those who are really into GPS is they should start by improving the process on how they hire and monitor their technicians, and also take a serious look at how the culture of their organization supports or hurts having technicians who behave honestly and ethically," he said.

For some contractors, resistance to GPS is about economics, not ethics.

George "Butch" Welsch, president of Welsch Heating and Cooling Co. in St. Louis, said cost has kept him from buying GPS. He said he feels the technology is still in infancy, and he would like to wait and see how it develops before choosing a system. Welsch was also worried that the company would "look like the Gestapo" to employees if it installed monitoring devices.

Payback

Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning in Rochester, N.Y., has also made a choice not to use GPS on its 100-vehicle fleet. The company looked into the systems, but decided cost outweighed the payback.

"It's a return-on-investment issue," said company President Ray Isaac. "It can only pay for itself if it's effective."

Isaac said that even without GPS monitoring, his company's gas costs have been kept within budget and dispatchers have been doing an exceptional job of getting techs to each service call.

As for using company vehicles for personal matters, Isaac said that the company allows techs to use vans for private activities as long as they have prior approval.

"Rochester is a small town," Issac said. "People would provide feedback if they saw our trucks being used for nonwork activities."

The size of the company's service area was also a factor in Smith Heating & Air Conditioning Inc.'s decision not to purchase GPS. A member of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association's HVAC steering council, company Vice President Matthew Smith is familiar with the technology, but said his company, based in Stockton, Calif., does not have an immediate need for it.

"If I were a contractor in San Francisco or Los Angeles or a large city, it might be necessary," he said. "But we don't have that kind of traffic congestion."

Smith said he is not opposed to using GPS in the future. But if Smith Heating does take on GPS, it will be for improving productivity and streamlining paperwork and accounting, not watching employees.

"If the interest in GPS is just for Big Brother, that seems a little ridiculous," he said.

Pictured is an example of a Xora GPS TimeTrack location report which pinpoints a tech’s location. Image courtesy of Xora.

Saving time

At Del-Air Heating, Air Conditioning & Refrigeration, the choice for GPS was never about playing "Big Brother," but avoiding big office headaches. The central Florida company found that it was spending too much time on payroll and accounting.

So four years ago, truck-mounted GPS systems were installed in 150 company service vans. The company liked the system so much it decided to expand its use. In January, it purchased 400 Nextel cellular phones equipped with the TimeTrack global positioning system from Xora. It costs $24.95 per phone to set up TimeTrack and $11.95 a month, per phone, for monitoring.

John Rucker, chief information officer for Del-Air, said TimeTrack has cut down on paperwork. Del-Air technicians no longer need to manually fill out time cards or keep notes regarding work hours. Techs just push a button on their cell phone to clock in on a job and another button to clock out. They can also record breaks and lunches. This information is then transmitted from the mobile phone to the company's payroll system.

Rucker said that this system has not only saved time on clerical duties, but has created more accuracy when bidding on projects. The company expects that it will save more than $350,000 this year because of GPS.

Rucker said the company's choice to use GPS was always about saving money, never to monitor the actions of employees. He also said that the majority of the company's technicians were behind the decision, because they knew it would make their job easier.

Ananth Rani, vice president of products and services for Xora, acknowledged that "Big Brother" monitoring concerns are a problem for some company employees. To alleviate them, contractors need to introduce GPS to their employees as a "business tool to be used during business hours."

Rani pointed out that when a technician clocks out for personal time, such as lunches or breaks, the systems do not track their whereabouts.

(For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.)