Finishing this two-part series, the authors provide tips about understanding your career's big picture, lay the groundwork to build a proper design engineering "toolbox," and explain the wisdom in encouraging professional growth by comparing you to a machine, of all things.

Do you know where you are on your professional hvac engineer learning curve? Did you plot your learning curve at the beginning of your career so that you could track your progress through the years? Or, as a new engineer in the hvac profession, do you have any idea how to learn everything there is to know to be a fully productive professional engineer in the hvac industry?

Last month, Part 1 of this two-part article demonstrated the engineer's learning curve as an analogy to a mathematical function and explored some thoughts and first impressions of the industry by engineers beginning their careers. This part of the discussion will suggest ways to get off to a good start or to refocus, depending on where you are on your learning curve.


This article is intended to strongly encourage all hvac engineering managers and companies to commit resources to invest in their engineering staff members to help them advance on their individual learning curves. The term "resources" includes productively discussing one-on-one about the engineer's current skills and abilities; discussing how the engineer's goals fit into the company objectives; sending the engineer to seminars and local professional meetings such as ASHRAE, CSI, ASME, etc.; sending the engineer to national seminars and factory tours; and encouraging the engineer to invest personal time into his career learning curve.

A company might like to hire a new graduate engineer with the seasoned skills and abilities of a veteran in the industry so that the company would not have to invest any resources for training. Or a company might not want to invest any resources into its professional staff and simply replace the staff when "newer models" come along like it does with computers.

This type of company policy (unwritten, of course) would require hvac engineers to take it upon themselves to invest in their own learning curve on their own time and with their own funding. This would essentially be a "self-directed" continuing education program with no company matching funds.

Some companies actually operate in this mode. They always seem to have "reasons" for not investing time in their engineering staffs, such as being too busy, too much work to get done, or on the flip side, not enough work to provide the overhead resources to fund this sort of nonrevenue-generating activity. Or how about this excuse: "We don't want to encourage our engineers to go to professional society meetings (ASHRAE, etc.) because they may talk to other engineers from other companies and decide to leave our company." Sound familiar to any of you engineers who have tried to get your company to send you to seminars or other educational activities? If so, it is time to find a better place to work.

Unfortunately, engineers are not always known for their people management skills, and not every engineering department manager has taken the time to get a degree in management. This is not to say that an MBA is a prerequisite for being a good manager; however, as with engineering, continuing education in management skills can go a long way in effectively managing an engineering department. Also, a lack of interest in investing in an employee's learning curve suggests that the manager isn't seeing the "big picture" and is managing the department based on short-term goals (job-by-job profit) not long-term value-added goals.

Continuing Maintenance (Education)

Another analogy that may help emphasize the importance of continuing education along the learning curve is an industrial or manufacturing facility where equipment is used to produce products. Generally, there are maintenance budgets that allow for scheduled service on each piece of equipment to extend its useful life and prevent breakdown during normal production times.

The same type of maintenance budgeting could and should be set aside for each professional engineering employee for continuing education and to provide a break from the routine workload at the end of each project or some other scheduled period. Although the expenses related to a continuing education program are easily documented, the intangible benefits of improved self-esteem, enhanced decision-making ability on future projects, and more creativity in designs are not directly realized.

The Big Picture

From the very beginning of one's career, it would be helpful to get a "big picture" of all the variables that go into the equation that defines a learning curve. With this "big picture" overview, one can define the shape of one's learning curve and then perform a "curve fitting" action plan that can be completed along the way to suit individual ambitions. Some engineers may desire to work on more complex facilities in their career such as high-rise buildings, hospitals, laboratories, etc. The complex projects provide opportunities to become knowledgeable about a broad spectrum of topics that will challenge the engineer to move along the learning curve at a faster pace. Other engineers may be content to work on retail strip centers that only require basic routine design knowledge. There is nothing wrong with either career path, but it is a point to acknowledge and consider when determining what skills and abilities need to be developed along the learning curve.

It is not necessary that every engineer solve for all of the variables in the learning curve in the same order. An engineer's particular need for knowledge on a specific subject will depend on the types of jobs she works on. Some engineers choose to become specialized in certain segments of the hvac industry and may never need to develop skills in some categories.

One motivation for many employees, including hvac engineers, is doing work that makes the boss happy. The focus on pleasing the boss can be counterproductive to an engineer's long-range learning curve objectives, in that opportunities may be missed if one simply takes whatever the boss "dishes out" to her without seeing how the task or project fits onto her learning curve. This is where good communication between supervisor and engineers is imperative to keep the personal goals in line with the corporate goals for a win-win experience.

Start With The Basics

Another point to consider is that there are some basics that almost every hvac engineer needs to be aware of - the tools that every engineer should have in his professional "toolbox." Then there is other information that an engineer may only need to have access to when it is needed. One just needs to be resourceful enough to borrow or rent these special tools from another source.

The ability to be resourceful is a great asset to help smooth out the hvac learning curve. Remember the clich?"It isn't what you know but who you know." In the case of the learning curve, it isn't necessarily what you know, but whether or not you are resourceful enough to get the information in a timely manner to do your job.

It is important to know why various decisions are made and not simply rely on someone else's direction. You may be questioned one day by a client or by an attorney why you did what you did, and it is best not to say: "Because that's the way we've always done it." Repetition and "gray haired" experience can be good and can work; however, it is important to understand why "That is the way we've always done it." You don't need or want to reinvent the heatwheel every time you design a job; however, it doesn't hurt to challenge old paradigms and belief systems occasionally. That is how new products are developed, old problems are solved, and the mentoring/prot? system is intended to work.

If every hvac engineer was offered the opportunity to do things differently had she known at the beginning of her hvac career what she knows now, then she may have chosen a little different learning curve and attempted to smooth out any rough spots. However, good learning experiences can be gained even in the most adverse situations, such as a legal dispute that may have to be resolved by arbitration or trial.

An example might be a professional practice lawsuit by a client in which an engineer's technical skills, abilities, and personal character are attacked by greedy, money-seeking attorneys who don't have a clue about the hvac systems or industry, but who can find hired gun "professional" (term used loosely here) engineers who will testify to anything for a "quick buck."

Also, be aware that a client who seemed to be a good client during the design process can turn against you when he starts receiving occupant comfort or IAQ/IEQ complaints that are being caused by his own system operation and maintenance ineptitude and not the system design. Yes, this really can and does happen. Careful documentation of all design decisions and meetings with the client can be a valuable lesson to learn. This extreme example is noted to emphasize that a few lessons on risk awareness, client complaint management, and proper design decision documentation can be useful early in an hvac engineer's learning curve.

It is also possible to provide an hvac system that is too sophisticated for an owner's operational staff's skills and abilities (or their willingness to learn new skills and abilities). The "KIS" (keep it simple) principle applies here; however, "KIS" is relative to one's skills and abilities - what may appear simple to one person could be a major obstacle for another person.

Setting Goals

One question that each young engineer should pause to consider is: "Where am I going with my career and what tools do I need to get there?" This is similar to the normal interview question of "Where do you want to be five, 10, 15 years from now?" The tools are the resources that one utilizes along the way to solve for the variables in the equation of the learning curve.

As you can see, this analogy to a mathematical curve fitting equation can help show how a proactive approach from the beginning of one's career can minimize the peaks and valleys along the learning curve. The proactive approach is one in which the variables and unknowns in the learning curve equation are identified early and a plan of action is developed to solve the learning curve function early in one's career. Plan the work, work the plan.

A life scenario can help bring this point home. What if, one day, a couple of months after you started your first hvac engineering job, your boss came up to you and asked you to do the heating and cooling load calculations on a high-rise medical building; do a lifecycle system analysis to determine the best energy source; select the least first-cost system type; select the air devices using the ADPI procedure; size the ductwork with the static regain method; select all of the boilers, chillers, fans, pumps, heat exchangers, valves, expansion tanks, and all of the other related equipment; write the equipment and control specifications; and provide a construction budget estimate for the hvac portion of the job?

This is a fairly unlikely scenario since your boss would probably recognize that you were not at the stage in your career to accomplish all those tasks, at least not within a timeframe that would fit within the project's engineering budget and scheduled completion deadline. However, if you were a 10- to 20-plus-year registered professional engineer, this may very well be a realistic request from your boss (unless your learning curve had been flat and you had one year's experience 10 to 20-plus times over). The question is, how does one advance from the start of one's career to the point of being an engineer capable of accomplishing any type of hvac design task that needs to be done?

Professional Toolbox

The "Hvac Design Professional Library Index" (At the end of this article) is a list of topics that one may want to use as a start in developing a professional filing system. If a file folder is started each time that an engineer first encounters one of these topics in his career, then a tremendous professional library will be developed along the way. This will also prevent the reinventing the wheel approach that causes inefficiencies in some people's work style. There are many ways the subject matter listed below could be filed including the CSI MasterFormat specification number filing, hvac task-related topics vs. soft skills, calculations vs. equipment selection topics, by code or standard topical outlines, etc.

One of the keys to advancing along the learning curve at an optimum rate is the ability to be resourceful. The "Hvac System Design Sources of Information" list is provided in this article to suggest sources of written material that can be obtained to build a personal professional library.

The hvac engineering profession is as much of an art as it is a science. Those of you who have worked with today's creative architects and interior designers know what artistic creativity is sometimes required to fit all of the equipment, ducts, and pipes above the beautiful high vaulted and coffered ceilings along with the deep can lights and structural elements above the ceiling. The hvac engineer's mind is as much right brain (creative) as left brain (analytical) and needs creative time to "design" the hvac system to best fit the building needs. Two lists are provided in this article to address each of these skill categories.

The "Soft Skills/Personality Traits" list addresses some of the skills that can be learned or reprogrammed into one's personality with proper training. The "Technical Skills - Design Calculations & Specifications" and "Technical Skills - Equipment Selection Procedures" lists address the more analytical skills required of an hvac engineer.


The bottom line is, who will plot your learning curve? In a perfect world, each engineering firm would provide resources and a continuing education program that is structured to fit each individual engineer's needs and career goals. At the same time, each engineer would invest the time and energy in her own continuing education program in order to ensure that her skills and abilities meet up with the needs of the company to fulfill the company's goals.

A place to start is with open communication between employee and supervisor. If you, as an engineering employee, are not getting adequate resources committed to your career advancement in your company, it may be time to consider looking for a better place to work.

Likewise, if you, the engineering supervisor, are not getting the motivated desire out of your engineering employee to invest in his own continuing education, it may be time to consider looking for a more highly motivated employee.

In short, both the employer and the employee have a vested interest in the continuing education learning curve of the employee, and the time to start is now by sitting down and discussing where the engineer is on her learning curve and how she can continue up the curve. The worst that can happen is to hit an asymptote on the learning curve that falls short of the individual's ability to learn - this leads to job burnout, poor performance, and ultimately a parting of ways.

Each hvac engineer needs to effectively develop a "self-directed" learning curve plan and then solicit the resources from his company to assist in advancing on the learning curve as quickly as possible. The following quote (source unknown) may hit home to some: "I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand." This quote points out that it is essential to get the personal experience in order to comprehend the effect of the tasks involved in doing hvac engineering work as you advance along your professional engineering learning curve. A balanced perspective in life and a healthy sense of enjoyment in the work you do comes with the ability to do your work well, which comes from continued learning. There is power in knowledge; tap into that power now. ES

Hvac Design Professional Library Index

Abbreviations and symbols

ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements

Air coils - chilled water, hot water, steam, and DX

Air devices - grilles, registers, diffusers, and fabric air dispersion products

Air terminals

Applications (articles about actual specific buildings)


ASHRAE Standard 55 - comfort

ASHRAE Standard 62 - outside air ventilation


Basic mechanical requirements

Boilers and boiler feed systems

Breechings, chimneys, and stacks

Building envelope

Building mechanical space requirements (mechanical rooms, shafts, chases, ceiling space, etc.)

Building pressurization


Central plant/district heating/power plants

Refrigerants (CFCs)

Chillers - centrifugal, absorption, air cooled, etc.

Critical spaces - cleanrooms, surgery rooms, laboratories


Commissioning/site observations/submittal reviews

Compressed air systems

Computer design programs

Computer room design

Condensers/condensing units

Control systems - temperature, humidity, pressure, etc.

Cooling towers

Corrosion control

Cost estimating - installation, operational, lifecycle costing

Custom air-handling unit design

Desiccants and sorbents

Design aids/charts/graphs


Design criteria/parameters

Design calculations

Details/installation considerations

Detention facilities design

Duct cleaning


Ductwork accessories

Dust collection systems

Electrical design

Electrical room ventilation (battery rooms, transformer rooms, elevator machine rooms)

Energy audits energy sources (electrical, gas, oil, cogeneration, solar)

Energy management - EMCS/BAS

Energy recovery units

Energy sources

Energy storage tanks equipment lifecycle database

Evaporative cooling

Facility management and maintenance

Fans - air handling

Filters - particulate and gaseous air cleaning

Fire protection design

Firing/rifle range design

Freeze protection - electric, glycol, brine, etc.

Fuel-handling systems

Fuel-oil tanks

Generator rooms

Fuel-fired heaters

Fume hood controls


Gas detection systems

Gas/propane systems

Geothermal energy

Heat exchangers

Heat pumps

Heat tracing

Heating terminal units


Hvac and construction industry general information

Hvac services

Hvac systems concepts - all-air, air/water, all-water

Hvac systems selection criteria

Expansion/compression tanks

Hydronic systems

Indoor air/environmental quality

Internal heat gain information for special electrical equipment

Kitchen/restaurant systems design

Legal aspects/risk awareness/professional liability

Liquid coolers


Low-temperature air distribution

Material properties charts/graphs

Mechanical identification

Mechanical insulation - ductwork, piping, equipment, outside applications, etc.

Medical gas piping


Metric design and conversions


Noise control and acoustics

Packaged air conditioners

Pipe expansion/flexibility

Piping specialties

Piping, tubing, and pipe fittings - steel, copper, aluminum, and nonmetallic

Plumbing design

Plumbing equipment

Pollution control

Professional correspondence

Professional development

Pumps - centrifugal positive displacement, submersible, etc.

Radiant heating and cooling - gas, electric

Refrigeration compressors

Renovation and retrofit

Residential systems design

Security room design


Smoke control systems

Snow-melting systems

Solar energy devices

Solar heating

Sound attenuators

Specification considerations

Standards and codes

Steam and condensate specialties

Storage tanks

Supports and anchors

Swimming pool design

Testing, adjusting, balancing - airside

Testing, adjusting, balancing - waterside

Thermal storage systems

Unique hvac systems - ice rinks, aircraft hangers, hazardous storage, food processing plants, etc.

Value engineering (not to be confused with "cost cutting" measures to meet a lower first-cost criteria).


Variable-air volume systems

Variable-frequency drives

Vibration control

Water filtration equipment

Water source heat pumps

Water treatment

Wood-burning equipment

Hvac Systems Design Procedures - Calculations, Specifications & Equipment Selections

Technical Skills - Design Calculations & Specifications:

Acoustical analysis

Pumping affinity laws

Air distribution/outside ventilation

Building heating/cooling load calculations

Building warm-up loads

CADD ability

Codes and standards applications

Duct sizing - SA, RA, EA, kitchen hood exhaust

Energy use/lifecycle cost analysis

Fan laws

Flue gas/chimney vent pipe

Pipe sizing - water, steam, gas, compressors, air, gases, refrigerants

Piping heat tracing

Piping expansion compensation calculations


Seismic bracing

Smoke control exhaust/stair pressurization

Specifications writing

Thermal expansion - piping

Thermal storage peak shaving analysis

Technical Skills - Equipment Selection procedures:

Air compressors

Air devices - NC criteria method, air jet mapping method, ADPI method

Air filters

Air terminal units - vav boxes, fan-powered boxes



Coils, heating/cooling - water, steam, and DX

Cooling towers

Dampers - control dampers, balancing dampers, fire, smoke, and/or fire/smoke dampers, etc.

Fans - centrifugal, propeller, vaneaxial, etc.

Heat exchangers - air-to-air, water-to-water, steam-to-water, etc.

Heat recovery systems - wheels, pump around, air-to-air heat exchangers



Thermal storage tanks


Soft Skills/Personality Traits:

Ability to see the "big picture"



Communication - verbal, written, body language

Conflict resolution

Creativity (thinking outside the box - challenging why "We've always done it that way.")

Customer service

Decision-making skills


Implementation skills

Leadership skills

Listening skills

Motivational skills


Organizational skills

Planning of work

PMA - positive mental attitude

Positive "can do" attitude

Self-confidence - cognitive dissonance

Selling skills (Each employee "sells" when she corresponds with a client or potential client.)

Sense of humor

Sense of urgency when the project needs focused, extra effort

Task oriented

Teaching skills


Team spirit

Technical writing


Verbal communication

Willingness to accept change (paradigm shift capability)

Hvac Systems Design Sources Of Information

Advertisements by manufacturers about products

ASHRAE chapter technical meetings

ASHRAE handbooks

ASHRAE research papers

Codes and code supplemental application guides

Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) certification programs

CSI Manual of Practice

Direct mailers from manufacturers about products

Discussions with maintenance staff, clients, installing contractors, other professionals, etc.

Discussion with peers/mentors/supervisors

E-mails from sales representatives about new products, seminars, and educational opportunities

Faxes from sales representatives about new products, seminars, and educational opportunities

Industry standards - ASHRAE, AMCA, NFPA, UL, ASTM, ISO, CSA, NEBB, SMACNA, etc.

Lunch-and-learn presentations

Manufacturers' factory tours

Manufacturers' factory training sessions

Manufacturers' literature and catalogs

Master specification documents

Mechanical codes

Mentor/protégé communication

Online seminars by professional organizations - ASHRAE, CSI, etc.

Professional organizations - local meetings/technical presentations

Professional organizations' publications/standards

Sales calls from manufacturers' representatives


Site visits

SMACNA manuals

Technical magazine/journal articles

Telephone discussion/conference calls


Trade publication articles - Engineered Systems, etc.

Websites - manufacturers, government agencies, technical publications, etc.

These lists are provided as a starting point of reference. Individual pursuit of additional topics is always recommended.