Technical problem solving is a complex business. To be successful as an HVAC and Refrigeration service technician solving equipment and software problems, you need both training and experience on the devices and platforms your customers use.
However, there’s another tool that can make all the difference. Having a guiding strategy or framework can help you solve problems you haven’t seen before AND solve problems faster.
Chances are, when you’re out in the field making a repair, you already follow these steps without thinking about it. However, it’s when you get stuck on a tough problem that this strategy can really come in handy. You can use it to review what you’ve done, identify where you may have missed something, and repeat the steps as needed until you find the solution.
A 5-step technical problem solving strategy
STEP 1: Continuous learning
It may seem odd to start a problem-solving strategy with learning. Doesn’t problem solving start with the problem?
As we noted at the beginning of this article, you won’t get far in your technical problem solving efforts for HVAC and Refrigeration without training and education. That’s why problem solving has to start with knowledge.
Every technician starts out by learning the basics in technical school or college, through a union training program, or in an employer’s training program. Then you learn on the job from mentors and more experienced workers.
However, the most skilled technicians don’t stop there. In this business, technology is changing so fast that it takes a committed effort to keep your knowledge current. Make it a priority to keep seeking out new information through manufacturer training, industry events, articles, podcasts, videos, and other professional resources.
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STEP 2: Observe the symptoms
Before you get started on a job, talk to the customer and ask questions to learn what’s happening. Ask about what they have experienced and when the symptoms started. Ask about recent performance. If it’s a new customer, ask if anyone else has worked on the equipment recently, and the last time it was serviced.
However, keep in mind that sometimes the customer might give you information that’s not correct, and can lead you down the wrong path. Don’t take anything for granted.
It’s tempting to dive right in with your hands and your tools, especially if you think you know what’s wrong based on the symptoms reported on the work order. But before you do that, take a step back and observe what’s going on with the system and in your surroundings. Gather as much information as you can about what’s not working as it should be, as well as what IS working properly, which can also give you clues about the root cause of the problem.
Pay attention to every detail. Look around the area for symptoms that the customer may not have noticed, such as water leaks. Check for obstructions (such as intentionally blocked or closed supply registers). Look for signs of DIY repair efforts that may have caused damage.
STEP 3: Determine the probable cause
To arrive at a hypothesis (to use the scientific term) about what’s causing the problem, you’ll need some combination of the following:
- Your expertise
If you’re lucky, the reported symptoms and your observations might be all you need to uncover what’s causing the problem. For an automated system, the error code might tell you everything you need to know.
More often, though, you’ll need to draw on your knowledge and past experience to pinpoint the cause based on what you’re seeing.
Then there are the problems you have never seen before, as well as problems that may have multiple causes. In this case, you need to deduce the probable cause with logic and reasoning.
The scientific method can tell us where to start: it can be helpful to think in terms of “if/then” statements to identify the facts based on observation and knowledge, and deduce what logical conclusions those facts might suggest.
This process will reveal one or more possible causes for the problem at hand. If there’s more than one possibility, you’ll want to identify the most likely cause and start there.
STEP 4: Take corrective action
Once you have uncovered a probable cause (or more than one), it’s time to get out your tools and parts and start working on the equipment.
Two things to remember:
- Your goal is not only to stop the symptoms but to fix the underlying problem. That’s why you should never do things like topping off refrigerant without finding the source of the leak. The problem will only happen again, and you’ll have an unhappy customer on your hands.
- Fix only one thing at a time. Then test to see if it solved the problem (see the next step).
STEP 5: Test the results
After each corrective action, test to see if the problem is resolved.
If you take more than one action at a time (replace multiple parts, for example), then there’s no way to know which one did the trick. You can’t identify the actual cause of the problem this way. You may have fixed it, but you probably wasted time and replaced parts you didn’t need to.
Repeat the steps as needed
If your first corrective action didn’t work, then go back to step 4 and try other possible actions that you identified in step 3.
For the really tough problems, continue to step back through your reasoning process in determining the probable cause. If all else fails, start from the beginning and observe again to look for what you missed.
More training resources for HVAC and Refrigeration service techs
Your technical expertise is essential to your performance as a service tech. However, there are many other skills you need to be your best on the job, including customer service, communication, time management, negotiation, and sales (that’s right, even for a service job).