Inside This Innovative Test Lab, it Snows Every Tuesday
In the small town of Tyler, Texas, it snows every week—but only inside the Trane heating and air conditioning services test lab. Here, Trane’s innovative product team is pushing their systems to the extreme limits to ensure their heating and cooling products are reliable. Ultimately, they want to make sure their customers will be comfortable in their homes. "It comes down to reliability," says Jim Lowell, Product Manager of Air Conditioners at Trane. "We have one of the most reliable HVAC systems in the industry." Trane’s trustworthiness stems from their dedication to rigorous testing and continual innovation. The team gave us a sneak peek at what goes on in the test lab, and as it turns out, a little snow is just one of the many cutting-edge tests every Trane system must face.
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"In everything we pursue, we imagine the customer is at the table with us," says Kirby Bicknell, the Director of Air Conditioner & Heat Pump Engineering at Trane. "As we’re discussing a design change or a test, we ask ‘how will this affect the customer.’" This line of thinking has led to the various tests Trane’s team applies to every product it designs. Generally speaking, there are industry standards any HVAC system must pass, but Trane has set their own, more rigorous standards, pushing industry limits. In fact, it seems the product team has almost gamified their testing. In the case of one gas furnace, they decided to test its heat exchanger as many times as they could until it failed, just to see what would happen. The furnace is still running, and has satisfactorily been tested over 180,000 times—about 18 times the industry standard.
Each product must pass several tests to prove its endurance in various climates. HVAC systems have components that live outside, and come into contact with extreme temperatures. So, Trane has developed SEET—that is, system extreme environmental testing. Inside climate controlled chambers, running air conditioners and heat pumps are subjected to rain, ice, blistering heat, and yes, snow. "It may be the toughest test we do," says Lowell. "The purpose is to simulate, in 16 weeks time, 5 years worth of exposure to the elements, much like what a unit like this would be expected to do." In addition to the intense temperatures, the systems are tested for additional climate threats. For instance, the team will cut the power to simulate a storm. Bicknell explains, "we’re stressing it in many ways to make sure it’s robust enough to last in the field."
Climate is just one element to test. Every individual component of a product undergoes a test to ensure its strength and durability. The team scrutinizes how the systems are shipped. But beyond endurance and design, the units are tested for more cosmetic features, as well. For example, in the sound lab, engineers obsess over the noise level of every system. "That’s a part of the home owners comfort," says Lowell. "We want to make sure it’s acceptable to customers."
To a bystander, it seems as if the team is trying to actually break their systems, and in a way, they are. "Every time we design a new product we get a group of experts together and create a list of potential weak points that could fail," Bicknell explains. "Then we actually go through and define a list of ways to check those potential failures. We call that our validation plan." When the tests uncover imperfections, the team goes back to the drawing board. "That’s a good story when that happens," Lowell says. "We want to find the weaknesses. We want to be prepared. When we find something like that our engineers can go back and make the product better."
For many people designing or remodeling a home, selecting an HVAC system may not be at the top of the list of priorities. Lowell has heard this before. "That’s really too bad," he says. "You have the opportunity to really improve the comfort you have in your home." That personalized comfort is the reason behind all of Trane’s wild, extreme testing. Once those tests are complete and the team is satisfied that every element has been vetted and approved, they feel confident that the systems they ship will provide the best climate control possible. "Our tagline is, ‘It’s Hard to Stop a Trane,’" Lowell points out. "We’ve earned that."