The HVAC Engineer's Learning Curve
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.
ResourcesThis 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 PictureFrom 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 BasicsAnother 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 GoalsOne 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 ToolboxThe "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.
ConclusionThe 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 IndexAbbreviations 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
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 mechanical space requirements (mechanical rooms, shafts, chases, ceiling space, etc.)
Central plant/district heating/power plants
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
Control systems - temperature, humidity, pressure, etc.
Cost estimating - installation, operational, lifecycle costing
Custom air-handling unit design
Desiccants and sorbents
Detention facilities design
Dust collection systems
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 storage tanks equipment lifecycle database
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.
Fume hood controls
Gas detection systems
Heating terminal units
Hvac and construction industry general information
Hvac systems concepts - all-air, air/water, all-water
Hvac systems selection criteria
Indoor air/environmental quality
Internal heat gain information for special electrical equipment
Kitchen/restaurant systems design
Legal aspects/risk awareness/professional liability
Low-temperature air distribution
Material properties charts/graphs
Mechanical insulation - ductwork, piping, equipment, outside applications, etc.
Medical gas piping
Metric design and conversions
Noise control and acoustics
Packaged air conditioners
Piping, tubing, and pipe fittings - steel, copper, aluminum, and nonmetallic
Pumps - centrifugal positive displacement, submersible, etc.
Radiant heating and cooling - gas, electric
Renovation and retrofit
Residential systems design
Security room design
Smoke control systems
Solar energy devices
Standards and codes
Steam and condensate specialties
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
Water filtration equipment
Water source heat pumps
Hvac Systems Design Procedures - Calculations, Specifications & Equipment SelectionsTechnical Skills - Design Calculations & Specifications:
Pumping affinity laws
Air distribution/outside ventilation
Building heating/cooling load calculations
Building warm-up loads
Codes and standards applications
Duct sizing - SA, RA, EA, kitchen hood exhaust
Energy use/lifecycle cost analysis
Flue gas/chimney vent pipe
Pipe sizing - water, steam, gas, compressors, air, gases, refrigerants
Piping heat tracing
Piping expansion compensation calculations
Smoke control exhaust/stair pressurization
Thermal expansion - piping
Thermal storage peak shaving analysis
Technical Skills - Equipment Selection procedures:
Air devices - NC criteria method, air jet mapping method, ADPI method
Air terminal units - vav boxes, fan-powered boxes
Coils, heating/cooling - water, steam, and DX
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
Creativity (thinking outside the box - challenging why "We've always done it that way.")
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
Willingness to accept change (paradigm shift capability)
Hvac Systems Design Sources Of Information
Advertisements by manufacturers about products
ASHRAE chapter technical meetings
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.
Manufacturers' factory tours
Manufacturers' factory training sessions
Manufacturers' literature and catalogs
Master specification documents
Online seminars by professional organizations - ASHRAE, CSI, etc.
Professional organizations - local meetings/technical presentations
Professional organizations' publications/standards
Sales calls from manufacturers' representatives
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.