Give a Hand to AUDITS

This is not your father's energy audit tool

By Bill Shadish



The capability now exists for your auditors to inspect a home; enter data; determine (by running local calculations) what measures are needed to increase the energy efficiency of the home; create a printed paper invoice/order for the customer; and digitally capture the customer's written signature of acceptance. An order for the materials can be placed into the backend system and the date for doing the work determined with the customer -- with this entire process happening in the same visit to the customer.



But this is old news to some.


This article shows you some of the more advanced things that can be added to a PDA to make your time in the field even more productive. However, we will start by taking you through the minimum that you should demand when developing an audit application to run on handhelds






Handheld (PDA) audits are being used now by utilities, contracting firms, energy auditors and general home inspectors throughout the US. They are being used to conduct audits, take measurements, track containers, accept signatures, take pictures, record voice comments about a site, print reports and many other things. And these are just the things that we have done for our customers.


Palm Pilot
Palm Pilot

The technology of automating energy audits has grown a great deal since I first started to work with PDAs (aka handhelds) in 1997. In the old days, a heavy, battery draining, block of plastic (see Palm Pilot, left) with a grayscale display and with no easy Internet connectivity, was the only available answer. But even so, these tools made life a lot easier for those who did everything with paper and pencil before that.


Today, not only are the devices much smaller and easier to use, but they can be extended very easily with a wide variety of both software and hardware add-ons. This includes everything from blower door test data hooks and the ability to grab device temperatures automatically, to wireless earphones and wireless keyboards. Actually, I am understating this — as there is a lot more available than that …


And of course, Internet connectivity is much more available now as well.




The Basic Choices


When considering what platform to use when automating your audits, there are still a couple of ways to go (see Table 1 – Hardware Choices). The choices are based largely on how mobile that you want the device to be.





(see sidebar tip)

 • Small.
 • Low weight.
 • Relatively low cost (6 ounces)
 • Wide variety of software tools.
 • Runs select Windows tools, like Excel, Word.
 • Can drop it into a pocket.
 • Can include a Phone.
 • Can include a voice recorder.
 • Can include a camera.
 • Smaller display.

Traditional Laptop/Notebook

 • Uses Windows tools.  • Weight (4-7 pounds)
 • No signatures, drawing.
 • Need 2 devices for phone.
 • Cost.

Tablet PC

 • Touchscreen in a Laptop-like format.  • Need 2 devices for phone.
 • Cost.



(see sidebar tip)

 • Small.
 • Low weight.
 • Can drop it into a pocket.
 • It Is a phone.
 • No Touchscreen.
 • Lack of standards for OS.
 • Incompatible toolsets for development.
 • Even smaller display.


Table 1 — Hardware Choices




Figure 1 — AT&T 8925 Tilt

Sidebar Tip:

PDAs versus Smartphones, Phones.


One thing to be aware of is that Smartphones (a loose marketing term, that is misapplied on some devices) are phones-first and foremost. Their display is smaller than a full PDA and the display IS NOT touchscreen — that is, it cannot be operated with a stylus or fingertip, but only via the phone's keypad. The keypad is generally only a standard phone numeric keypad and is a lot more awkward to enter data with than a QWERTY-style keyboard, like the AT&T 8925 shown in Figure 1.


Note: A phone generally uses Java for programming, which is somewhat tightly bound to the device. A Java program written for one phone may not work on others. The PDAs though are generally either PalmOS or Windows CE [insert the Microsoft name-of-the-day for this platform]. Many of the audit tools that written for earlier versions of these operating systems work today. Now, before the Java folks come down on me, I will not that we have tried to take software programs from one phone platform and register it on others. The time and cost to do so is not small, nor is the ease of doing so.




Almost all of the customers that we have worked with over the years have gone the PDA route. Usually this includes some supporting website pieces as part of the overall solution.


The idea is to provide the auditor or inspector with the smallest, lightest, easiest to hold device possible. Recently, the convergence of a phone and a PDA into a single device adds the benefit of reducing the things the auditor has to carry around (and possibly to drop, break or lose) by one.


So, using this as empirical evidence of what platform to go with — I will focus on the pros/cons and features related to PDAs.



The Baseline

("you at least need…")


There are a lot of PDAs on the market … a Lot of PDAs. Mix in "Smartphones" and phones that run programs and there certainly is plenty to choose from.


Using the below chart to help select through the available features will help you to make your decision.


First and foremost, the tool has to be easy to use. Easy to use means both operating the keys and any associated hardware gizmos (like the battery, charger, stylus, flip-out keyboard) on the phone. It also has to be easy to run the audit software that you use.


Note that this means easy to use, when conducting audits. A cell phone might be very easy to operate, but it can not run your audit software or do things like printing a report in the field. Similarly, a laptop might have all of the features that you need, but carrying 8 floppy pounds around while inspecting a furnace may not be your idea of fun.

Secondly — the software has to be compatible with what you use today. If you manage a company that has Windows running on all of the desktops, then being able to run Excel and Word on the PDA makes a lot of sense.


Third — you have to be able to get data into and back out of the PDA easily. Data includes the audit. Data also includes the resulting reports associated to the audits.


Other things that you will want to get into and out of your PDA easily are email, documents and perhaps data from external devices, such as temperature measuring gauges or RFID tags (which are discussed below).


Required PDA Features


Screen size


PDAs are small. That is their strength.


PDAs are small. That is also their weakness. Because the device is small, you will want to get the largest, brightest screen, with the highest resolution that you can. The last point is important, because while 2 screens may be the same size, the resolution that they operate might mean that one shows significantly less information than the other (see Sidebar: Resolution)



Sidebar Tip:


For example to explain resolution vs. size, the Palm Treo 650 and 750 both have screens right around 2.6", measured diagonally. (It is 2.75" on the 650). But while the 650 runs at 320x320 pixels, the 750 runs at only 240x240 pixels. This means that the 650 shows roughly 50% more pixels than the other, which certainly results in several more lines of text being displayed in all of your applications. This definitely matters on a small device.


Ok, there is a lot of tech buzz here, but the point is check both size AND resolution.





Figure 2 — Soft(ware) Keyboard

High level of Tappy-ness


Ok — Tappy-ness is not really a word. But Tappyness is meant to define how well the actual audit software is set up to work for you. You will want most, if not all of the data entry items to be dropdown list-based, checkbox-based, radio-buttons or pick lists. The less the auditor is actually typing (or thumbing in, as they would be on PDAs) — the better the interface is. This reduces keying errors, re-keying errors and reduces the time it takes to conduct an audit.

There are rules of thumb to use for when to use each type of input. For example, if something is just an either/or choice, like, is the water heater wrapped?, then a checkbox works best. For example: [ x ] Water Heater Wrapped?

If there are more than 3 choices, then you probably want a dropdown list or a picklist if you have the space available on a screen. An example picklist is shown in Figure 2. Either of these options keeps the auditor from having to key-in this information; which is pretty much assured to be at least a little different than other auditors keying in the same exact thing.

For more on these rules of thumb, see


Easy to Navigate

It should be easy for the user to negotiate back and forth through the audit. Does the user have to complete all of the information on a page before being able to save it? Can the entire audit be saved before being finished, and returned to when the user is ready?

Can the user operate the PDA/audit with a fingertip, or is a stylus required? If a Keyboard is required, then it is probably not well thought out. You want to be as close to one-handed operation as possible. Remember — the other hand is going to be holding equipment, insulation up, a flashlight, etc.





Other Questions For You To Consider


How do you want to connect your PDAs?


You can have your auditors work detached or wirelessly. The latter is a lot easier in the highly urban Northeast, West Coast and Mid-South. However if you work in sparsely populated locations like the Mid-west and Deep South or Canada, you may not have the wireless coverage that you need.


All is not lost in that case — because your audit software can be setup to work offline, and to transmit data back and forth when the user "syncs" (connects) to their PC at home, their PC in the office or at a WiFi hotspot.



Do you want to print in the field?


It is highly effective, and saves time and money, to print a report while still at the customer site. But doing so requires a printer and appropriate software as well. Having a suitably sized report and the ability to do all of this should be in your list of questions to ask before you get started.


Other extras?

There are a wide variety of add-ons for PDAs today, from external keyboards, to wireless earphone/headsets (… for calls from the boss … not just for playing MP3s).

Figure 3: Fig_Audits_Flexible_keyboard.jpg

Keyboard you can roll up and stick in a pocket


Other entry-level extras are

 • rubberized cases to protect the PDA from slight drops and scratches;
 • carrying cases that clip to a belt
 • keyboards that roll-up or collapse (Figure 3)
 • and more.

Sidebar Tip:

Explaining "Wireless"


There are basically 3 types of being wireless.


Wireless "cables" to your peripheral devices, like printers. This is called a PAN (or Personal Area Network) connection, and in our PDA space this is usually accomplished with Bluetooth (see A PAN connection is usually made at less than 20 feet.


Then there is a WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network). This connection is made over WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/i/n) and can connect up to a few hundred feet. A WLAN is used to gain access to your local network, or even to the Internet and is used to pass data or files back and forth among these points. Stores that offer "hotspots" are actually providing a WiFi access point (a hub) for you to connect to.


The widest ranging type of wireless connection is a WWAN (or Wireless Wide Area Network). A WWAN covers a city or region and is offered by the wireless carriers, like Sprint. This type of connection allows you to connect to the Internet from anywhere within your coverage area and it is what is responsible for the lovely cell towers that you may see springing up in your town. Examples WWAN implementations are EDGE and EV-DO.





But, that's enough of the basics for this article. Lets move on to some of the new neat things that increase the power of your handheld Audit.





Input Items

The following are things that are available today, that increase the overall value of your audit software. They allow making the auditor more effective in the collection of data; or to reduce the amount of time to perform certain tasks; such as obtaining customer acceptance for work done. 

Getting different types of information into your PDA more quickly is an area of much growth. Each of the following is input-related, and either enables something that was not possible before (biometric security), or greatly enhances the current state of the art.



Template Drawings

The idea here is to provide a stock set of layouts for homes or commercial structures that your auditors most frequently deal with. These layouts come in the form of a miniature blueprint graphic that is loaded into the PDA (see Figure 4) and associated to the audit itself. The auditor can then sketch in notes about particular problem areas or other things that need to be remembered that either affect audit calculations or help with implementing the actual measures being recommended.


Note: Drawing/sketching/scribbling onto the device interface requires a touch screen.

Figure 4 : Fig_Audits_Templates.jpg

Template Sketches


Camera Input

A variation on template sketches is to provide Camera (or even video) input and attach that to your audit (see Figure 5). The auditor can visually record odd circumstances -- which as they say, is worth 1,000-typed words. A further variation on this is to allow the auditor to capture the picture and then to add on notes, in a fashion similar to what John Madden made popular on nighttime NFL Football broadcasts.


The most recent PDAs come with 3 mega pixel cameras which is more than adequate for video capture; and pretty good for camera shots.



Figure 5 : Fig_Audits_Camera.jpg

Camera Input

Voice Input

Similar to the benefits that doodling in thoughts provides is being able to record your voiced thoughts with the audit. Like the camera, this gives the auditor a way to very quickly provide a great deal of data, especially when that data does not fit within the checkboxes and list boxes of the more formalized audit itself. The voice recording can be kept with the audit, on the PDA as well as back on the company’s servers; or, it can be converted to text to make it easy to search for terms and keep things manageable size-wise.



Signature Fields

In the workflow that opened this article, the customer/homeowner was presented with a list of measure recommendations (and potentially prices to actually implement these measures). If appropriate, you may wish to have the customer sign off immediately on these recommendations, so that an order can be placed for the required materials. This then allows the auditor to schedule the application of these measures with the customer.


You can see that this cuts down a great deal on the workflow that used to happen to accomplish all of this — meaning lower costs and faster response time for your customers.


A key piece is to get the customers' signature on the proposed work. This can be either be done on a printed work order — or directly stored along with the audit and work order right within the PDA. The latter approach means that physical printers, and all that goes along with them, is not required to keep the work flow to a one trip process.


The digital acceptance signature is available to anyone in your systems — so that inventory can verify it, as well as accounts receivable — and it is not just buried somewhere on a printed piece of paper.


Figure: Fig_Audits_Biometrics

A Fingertip as a Password



Biometric Security — One of the things holding back many companies from widespread handheld use, are concerns over the security of the data on the device itself. While password combinations are useful to secure these devices, they can be a pain to remember (you just don't have access in the field to that yellow sticky note on your monitor with your password on it) and even so, a password is not completely secure, because it can be handed to someone else to use. A very interesting feature on some current PDAs is biometric readers — which compare a users' fingerprint to an existing database on known users in order to gain access to a PDA. Note that RFID tags, like properly encoded employee ID tags, are an alternative safe way to secure a PDA device.

Figure: Fig_Audits_RFID.jpg


RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)

Think of RFID as a super, long distance barcode reader. Inexpensive RFID tags send out electronic identification information and can be affixed to containers, palettes, materials or machines. A RFID reader on your PDA allows you to pick up this information from a short distance away (roughly 1 foot to 30 feet). This technology has more impact in commercial audit applications, where you may be inspecting and auditing machinery or vehicles.





Additionally, sensor information can be tracked by standalone devices such as temperature controls and transmitted to the PDA wirelessly, using RFID to do so.



Advanced Keyboards


For example, there are advanced keyboards, that are just light. The "keyboard" in Figure 4 is a laser image that is projected onto a tabletop. As you move your fingers over (or up/down) on the locations where a keyboard looks to be — that keystroke is entered. You can see that as this type of input evolves, it means one less large/heavy item to carry around.



Figure 6 : Fig_Audits_Laser_keyboard.jpg

Laser Keyboard





Voice over Internet Protocol is a way to make digital phone calls over the Internet. You do not need a voice plan for your phone to use VoIP, but you do need access WiFi capability on your PDA device and access to a WiFi hub/Hotpoint. Also, the person/company that you are calling (usually) also has to be a VoIP user as well. However, once everyone is set up this way, the technology works.




Global positioning receivers are showing up in a lot of the current generation of PDAs, and especially in phone-equipped PDAs. Having this receiver on board allows you to use or create software that takes an address and tells the user exactly where they are in relation to that address. So, if you are sending an auditor to a series of homes, they can key in the address that they want, and have the software basically direct them to that spot, as the software will know where the auditor is with GPS. This saves you from purchasing separate in-truck navigation systems, or the more likely desperate phone calls back to the central office for direction assistance.


Take a look at Google Maps, shown in Figure 7 running on a Palm Treo.


Coding the ability to do this directly into your audit application is no longer a difficult task either.



Figure 7: Fig_Audits_GPS

Google Maps with a PDA GPS receiver






Mobile News



Audit demos and feature explanations



Handheld User Interface Ten Commandments



User Interface Rules of Thumb

Mobile Guidelines



Skype, a major VoIP player





With this as a start, you are at least equipped with all of the right questions to ask before setting up your audit software.


Do not be concerned with change in the industry if it prevents you from acting to automate your paper audits (many others Are acting on this today). Change is a good thing in this industry and it is bringing you better and less expensive solutions than were available only 1 or 2 years ago.


About the Author

Bill Shadish is a principal of Fundamental Objects, Inc. ( where he works on handheld technology and custom energy software. Bill writes for a number of industry trade journals and edits the FO handheld newsletter.