Is there anybody else out there who is tired of hearing about all the problems that will happen on January 1, 2000? For the last two years it seems as if every entity selling any product or service is trying to scare the pants off of us about the Year 2000, or Y2K (as if turning it into an acronym makes it more threatening).

The last straw for me came when I recently had garage cabinets installed - something we in the Southwest use as a substitute for basements. The salesman gave me a pitch about cabinets that were "Y2K compliant." Did these specially locked, reinforced cabinets cost more money? Of course. But I was guaranteed that they would protect my food and water supplies from marauding neighbors. I couldn't help laughing.

Granted, the problem has serious aspects. If the media hadn't pointed out the potential hazards several years ago, we would indeed be in dire straits come January 1. While more unscrupulous types have taken advantage of the situation to make a fast buck, others have used the opportunity to prepare themselves, and their customers, for January 1, 2000.

Shortcut Caused The Problem

As most people know, the Y2K (aka millennium bug) problem has come about because years ago, when computer applications software first started to be written, programmers used two-digit codes to record the year in order to conserve limited memory space. For example, September 1, 1972 became 090172 instead of 09011972.

This shortcut is causing all the concern today, because on January 1, 2000, a computer may recognize 00 not as the Year 2000 but as the Year 1900. This could cause the computer to either shut down or generate incorrect data, and in our electronic information-dependent society, that could cause big problems.

Of course, the Y2K problem can usually be fixed, but sometimes it's not a straightforward repair. Many computers and other information technology systems are complex, making repair and replacement time-consuming and expensive.

In the hvacr world, the systems that will most obviously be affected are building automation systems (bas). But as Building Owners and Managers Association International (BOMA) notes in Meeting the Year 2000 Challenge: A Guide for Property Professionals, any product with an embedded microprocessor is at risk. This can include hvacr controls, boilers, chillers, valves, actuators, filters, thermostats, leak detectors, lights, elevators, alarms, etc.

Further complicating the problem, states BOMA, is that specifications on embedded systems are not generally published, making it difficult to ascertain how dates are encoded. Also, embedded systems are not designed to be manipulated by the enduser - usually only the manufacturers know how to fix them.

Finally, our old friend interoperability may rear its head. As BOMA states, a microprocessor that controls an elevator may not present Year 2000 problems in and of itself. However, if it's tied into an integrated building system, the elevator may be shut down if it receives information indicating that no preventive maintenance has been performed for 99 years.

And if that's not enough, remember that 2000 is a leap year, which means computers may be thrown yet another curve. In 1900 there was no leap year, so March 1 followed February 28. If computers don't recognize the fact that 2000 is indeed a leap year, the system could malfunction.

A Johnson Controls field sales consultant and a facility manager complete a Year 2000 facility and equipment audit for a digitally controlled boiler to determine any potential Y2K problems. (Photo courtesy of Johnson Controls.)

What's Going To Happen?

The biggest question facing all of us is what is going to happen on January 1? Those in the hvacr world seem to feel it will be business as usual.

Shel Kolner, Year 2000 coordinator for Siemens Building Technologies Inc. (Buffalo Grove, IL) says that the U.S. has the major issues under control. "I believe the situation will be that isolated areas or issues may arise," says Kolner. "They would seem catastrophic if they happen to you. But in most cases, I think there will be a big letdown and disbelief that nothing major happened." Mike Frizell, C.E.M., ceo of Engineered Services (Chantilly, VA), an engineering firm that specializes in building automation and hvac services, agrees that on the technical side there may be glitches, but they will be minor. Socially, however, it's a different story.

"There is the litigious factor of the law community that is having seminars on how to make some money out of this Year 2000," he says. "From the social side, everybody has to watch out for themselves as to how they go about handling the Year 2000 issue."

As for hvacr equipment, in particular, there could be trouble if building owners and/or managers take a wait-and-see approach. Steve Thomas, marketing communications manager for Johnson Controls (Milwaukee), says to consider how cold it is that time of year, especially in northern climates.

"Imagine if it's 10 below zero and the boiler won't come on. The pipes freeze, the water floods the building, and you've got a major catastrophe on your hands. Or let's say the doors on the building automatically unlock themselves at midnight at a bank. I'm not saying that will happen, but it could," says Thomas.

Todd Cowles, dealer sales at Alerton (Redmond, WA), says building owners who wait to see if their systems are compliant are taking the chance of having to perform emergency repairs or upgrades at premium costs. "No matter what the reason, unexpected service work always costs more than the planned work."

Then there are some whose equipment and products will be almost totally unaffected. Jim Huelskoetter, division quality manager, Heatcraft Refrigeration Products (Atlanta), says it will be a non-event for its customers.

"I suspect we'll have some equipment that by bad luck goes down on that day, and someone will worry about whether it's because of Y2K," says Huelskoetter. "But we don't expect any issues."

Bob Mulroy, Year 2000 project manager, York International Corp. (York, PA), also thinks it will be a non-event for customers. As far as the company's hvacr equipment is concerned, "None of the products produced by York for residential use will suffer a Year 2000 shutdown. In the commercial arena, all York chillers are Year 2000-compliant as shipped from the factory."

Chris Richardson, president and ceo of Square D (Palatine, IL), a $2.5 billion manufacturer of electrical distribution, industrial control, and automation products, is confident regarding his company's position, both internally and with its customers.

"Our Y2K efforts began in 1995," he says. "I think we have an excellent understanding of what the effects will be, notably with our customers and sales channel members. Square D is more than 80% tested, and 100% of its major products have been successfully tested or fixes made available. Specifically, I believe that by the Year 2000, we will have looked at and tested everything we need to and prove that it will continue working after the millennium has passed."

Even if something goes wrong, all is not lost, according to Mark Ancevic, building automation solutions product marketing director and Y2K program director for Honeywell (Minneapolis).

"The good news about our industry is that everything is wired in an auto and a manual mode, so if there turned out to be a problem, the equipment could be operated in a manual mode," says Ancevic. "And the user could place the equipment in manual mode before the transition and avoid the risk."

Never Too Late

It's getting late in the year, and while many have already dealt with the Y2K issue, some are still asking how to best marshal their resources to deal with the problem.

If you're a consulting engineer, consider contacting all your customers. That's what Engineered Services' Frizell did.

"We proactively contacted every customer that we could that we've done any business with in the last 20-some years," he says. "We sent them a letter that said these are the things you should look for, here's a questionnaire if you want to fill it out and send it back to us; we'll analyze it for you and tell you in more detail what you should look for."

Many of the manufacturers have already done this and posted Y2K statements on their websites. Johnson Controls' Thomas says his company has contacted more than 10,000 customers to make sure they're aware of the issues regarding Johnson Controls' systems and to suggest that they do a building audit. Thomas guesses that about 80% of those contacted responded to the notice so far; the rest still need to either respond or do something prior to January 1.

In addition, many companies, such as Alerton, have provided Y2K information on every piece of control equipment and every software package they've ever produced. Alerton's Cowles says, "We let them know which components have failed our tests, and we give them a variety of options if they have any non-compliance."

As for building owners and/or managers, BOMA spells out exactly what needs to be done in its booklet. The list includes:

  • Educating senior management;
  • Designating a Year 2000 manager;
  • Inventorying systems;
  • Contacting suppliers;
  • Prioritizing problems;
  • Anticipating contingencies;
  • Identifying solutions; and
  • Testing the solutions.

Siemens' Kolner states that building owners should be assessing all systems in their buildings, looking for systems that have time-of-day and calendar functions built into their operations. "They should then contact the manufacturer to try to ascertain their Year 2000 compliance status. They should upgrade or replace those components that are not compliant and may cause a problem."

It's important that someone with a vested interest in the building help with the inventory evaluation. Some building owners are hiring a third party to do the equipment evaluation - basically paying someone else to go through and take an inventory of all equipment (see related story below). Heatcraft's Huelskoetter says that can be a fragmented approach and may not be in the best interests of the building owner.

After making sure the systems are compliant, building owners should come up with a contingency plan. Honeywell's Ancevic states that management should first brainstorm and identify their key risk areas and business-critical processes. "Then make a decision if it's that important.

"What if something did go wrong, even if you have a Y2K-compliant solution? It's important that you have a backup plan in place, just in case it doesn't work." Ancevic says the advantage to doing this ahead of time is that if the best-laid plans fail, "You just implement your contingency plan - pull the lever - and it's an already well-thought-out process, so you're not running around doing a fire drill kind of fix."

If companies don't plan accordingly, updating their systems and coming up with contingency plans, Johnson Controls' Thomas thinks it may cause some to go out of business.

"I think there are some small businesses that will have problems and some that may go out of business because they didn't adequately prepare for this whole thing," he says. "It's unfortunate, but it's likely to be true that it could cause a disruption that could ultimately be enough to put some companies under." And if the best-laid plans go awry, never fear - help is near. Many manufacturers are not allowing critical staff to take vacation at the end of the year. Some will have staff at every service center, ready to handle emergency calls.

Even engineers at Engineered Services won't get a break. Laughs Frizell, "We're going to have to pay our emergency crew a lot of money to keep them from missing the [New Year's Eve] party. I've been warning customers that this isn't going to be your normal time-and-materials rate, because we're going to have to tie these guys down to keep them here!"

The most important thing to remember about Y2K is the Boy Scout motto: "Be prepared." If you've covered all the bases, you'll probably be fine. If you haven't started to prepare for January 1, get going.

If you don't plan to do anything to get yourself or your customers prepared, then get ready to be a casualty. While you probably won't end up with the Grim Reaper on your doorstep, you could wind up being very popular with the lawyers. ES

Where Did All The Engineers Go?

When asked what consulting engineers should do to ready their customers for Y2K, Steve Thomas is blunt.

"I haven't seen a lot of visibility on the part of consulting engineers," says the marketing communications manager for Johnson Controls (Milwaukee). "I haven't seen many articles by consulting engineers on this issue in the trade publications. It seems like the consultants are kind of strangely absent on this issue."

Thomas goes on to state that he has received numerous inquiries from those purporting to be consultants who are working on the Year 2000 issue.

"Some of the inquiries are laughable. They're asking about pneumatic controls, they're asking about thermostats, they're asking about things that in no way could have a Year 2000 problem," he says. "If you're a reasonable person with any technical knowledge, you would know that there's no reason to be asking about this, but it comes on a letterhead from some consulting firm."

He does state that some consulting firms may have just been created to take advantage of the Year 2000 problem and perhaps the "firm" has no technical background whatsoever. However, based on the vast number of letters he's received from those claiming to be consulting engineers, he is wondering what's going on.

"Some of the letters we get from so-called consultants, you just have to shake your head and say, 'How can people be paying for this kind of service?' "

As noted earlier, many companies seem to be hiring third parties to come in and inventory every piece of equipment in a mechanical room. Unfortunately, these "consultants" often write down the wrong code numbers for a product.

"We've had requests for information on incorrect code numbers. Often the code number they're sending us is the code number for the enclosure that the controls are in, not for the control itself."

Thomas says he's not trying to disparage the consulting engineering fraternity, but he does wonder if the real engineers are active enough on this issue.

- Joanna Turpin

Opportunity Is Knocking (Hint-Hint)

While contacting previous customers to notify them of Y2K compliance may seem like a nuisance, it can be a good opportunity. Even though some customers don't really need to upgrade their systems extensively to be Y2K compliant, many are taking their "Y2K budget" and doing just that.

Mike Frizell, C.E.M., ceo of Engineered Services (Chantilly, VA), notes that many customers are upgrading systems that are questionable, even though they may test out just fine. "It's old technology and they've used the opportunity to be able to get the money to upgrade the systems to Year 2000 standards," he explains.

Manufacturers note that they're not trying to take advantage of the situation, but the fact is, there is going to be a benefit for many involved in the hvacr industry. Customers are being forced to spend some money on upgrades which they may not have done without the Year 2000 issue.

"They've got a reason to go to their boss and say, 'Look, we have to make these upgrades, we have to spend this money,'" says Steve Thomas, marketing communications manager for Johnson Controls (Milwaukee). "Everybody knows there's a problem, so it's an easier sell than it might've been in other years." So instead of looking at the situation as being a glass that's half empty, think of it as a glass that's half full. What can you do to help your customers while you're helping your own bottom line?

- Joanna Turpin