What Should an Engineer Ask?

Once a month a factory representative or vendor is going to come by and give you good reason to break your diet by ordering pizza and give you a dog and pony show.  (If this is not happening, your vendors and equipment reps are not doing their job and developing a robust relationship with you.)  The vendors are going to show you the latest line they’ve just acquired, the newest product their multinational conglomerate just introduced, or sometimes update you on the products they already have.  Every time at one of these things it seems like we have a liteny of questions that me and my associates will run through.  Not all of these apply to every piece of equipment that you will be specifying, but these should be helpful in many cases.

Are there any installations in this area?

There are several reasons for asking this question.  If this is a new piece of equipment, you may want to see a real live installation (not that we really have time to do this).  Also, you want to know has the rep dealt with this equipment.  Does it work well in your particular climate zone.
How long has this product been in production?
Most of the time the building owner does not want serial #1.  Not even #100 for that matter.  It might be a good deal on the upfront cost to be a guinea pig, but it can be a big hassle and headache.  Bugs still need to be worked out mechanically and software wise (more often with the latter).  For my firm, most of our clients are schools, we simply cannot have that “we have no heat” call in the winter.  Regardless of whether they understood it is new, untested equipment, they will still be calling us.  Which leads me to my next question:
What support will you get from the rep?
Regardless of what product they selling, will they be there on that -10 F when the school makes that “we have no heat” call?  This can only be proven over time.  If the rep is new to us, show some commitment by visiting us on a semi-regular basis.  Become familiar with our products.  Take an interest in our specs.
What support does the factory give?

Will the manufacturer go out of it’s way when there is a problem?  Will there be factory representatives present at startup?  Will warranties be honored?

How long has the rep represented this manufacturer?

Did they just pick up this line or have they represented it for the last 15 years?  What has been their experience with this manufacturer?

What sort of problems have there been?

This is a good test of the honesty and how much of a straight shooter the rep is.  Will you get spin or a straightforward, honest answer (i.e. “we had this problem and this is how we solved it”).

What products would you say are equals?

Again, this is a good test of what kind of sales rep you are dealing with.  In this case, it helps if you know of items that may be equals.  There are several possible answers to this question.  The rep may spin the answer and say that there are no equals.  Or, he may provide you with “equals” that are way beyond the quality, specification, and budget of what you are seeking.  So, if you specify the reps equipment along with the “equals” he gave you, he is guaranteed to get the bid because the “equals” will be so much more expensive.  Equals are important because it keeps the playing field competitive.  When you have three similar products of similar quality you can verify, it will only help the owner get a better deal.  It keeps the rep’s pricing of their equipment realistic.

How is the equipment controlled?

This is more specific to my line of work.  As things become more computerized and interconnected, this will become more and more relevant for everyone.  You need to ask: What control language does it speak?  BacNet, Lon, other?  What is the add for a different protocol?  Many times equipment will speak one protocol natively and then there is an add-on card that needs to be provided for the equipment to speak something else.  In years past this could be an expensive add-on.   Due to building contol systems becoming more of a commodity, it seems that these add-on boards are becoming less of an issue.

What are the control limitations?

It’s all just software, right?  Apparently there can still be limitations in things such as control sequences and the like.  This will probably be the topic of another post.  The short version of the story is that to achieve the ideal control sequence we wanted for economizer operation on a unit ventilator required a $1000 add-on controller.  The existing controller only had very specific, limited set-points and sequences.

Finally, what I have listed above here are all questions about the specific piece of equipment.  However, the interaction between the sales rep / consultant is so much more than just the equipment specification and sales transaction.  We want to develop a relationship with the sales rep.  This partly goes back to the start-up and operation support.  We want to know that the sales rep and factory are going to be there and that we can talk to them when things go wrong.  A big part of this is developing a rapport between the sales rep and the consultant.  So, asking how are the wife and kids, how was your weekend, and what’s your handicap are not out-of-bounds.  In fact, they are necessary.
Now it is your turn, do you have any favorite questions that you like to ask your factor reps and vendors?

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