Training & Education

HVAC Educators Work to Keep Up on Advancing Technology

Many Going Back to Basics to Help Next Generation of HVAC Workers

October 28, 2013
At Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning, Rochester, N.Y., they have Isaac University, a school where employees are paid to train and learn all the latest in the HVAC industry.
At Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning, Rochester, N.Y., they have Isaac University, a school where employees are paid to train and learn all the latest in the HVAC industry.

As technology continues to grow in the HVACR industry, educators are scrambling to come up with new ways to make sure the next generation of service technicians is equipped with the skills necessary to keep up with the current crop of techs.

“It’s tough (staying ahead of the curve),” said Greg Goater, training and safety director, Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning, Rochester, N.Y. “In the old days, a furnace was a furnace. Even when furnaces developed, every manufacturer was using one of two or three different control boards, so even though there was a plethora of different kinds of equipment out there, they all were pretty much controlled the same way, so it wasn’t too difficult to do. Today, we have the manufacturers on their high-end equipment — it’s all data highways, not thermostat wires anymore, and it’s all proprietary stuff, so it’s extremely difficult to service a piece of equipment that you are not a dealer for.”

Keep it Simple

As controls, systems, and pretty much everything involved with an HVAC system become more complex, many educators are making sure they go back to the fundamentals when it comes to training students and current techs.

Paul Reed Lovell, HVAC instructor at Chattahoochee Technical College, said many times it seems people want to shoot straight for the higher technology end of things.

“It kind of waters down the fundamentals and the basics,” Lovell said. “I’ve always tried to drill in the basics and then build up from there. It seems like with the students I come across, it helps to solidify that basis that they can fall back on.”

Norm Christopherson, senior training specialist, Johnson Controls Inc., said he’s had to make the transition from face-to-face instructing to teaching online classes, but one central factor never changes, and that’s the fundamentals.

“Students must learn the fundamentals and learn them well,” Christopherson said. “The physics of applied thermodynamics and electrical theory never change. Regardless of how complex our HVAC and controls systems become, they are all based on unchanging fundamentals. Heat flows from hot to cold, superheat and subcooling are essential concepts, and psychrometrics is important. The student facing a new and complex system with a problem will find his or her ability to apply a well-learned set of fundamentals is still the foundation of success in our industry.”

Christopherson added that, even after 40 years in the industry, he’s found his solid understanding of the fundamentals of things like electronics, basic applied thermodynamics, and basic math have been the key to understanding the most complex issues.

“The ability to apply that fundamental knowledge to new products and systems opens the door to remaining on top of our business, no matter how complex,” he said. “All new and more complex systems are still grounded in the basics. As I teach complex equipment, I find I often have to stop and review the fundamental concepts upon which they work before moving on to more advanced concerns or concepts.”

Jeff Taylor, liaison, It’s All About Q, a partner of Southern California Edison, said from his experience, he sees younger students being much more engaged than their older counterparts. “What we’re trying to do is get a marketplace transformation; we’re trying to change the attitude of the technicians in the field. We’re just having all sorts of problems getting technicians interested in their education,” he said.

“You have a lot of the guys in the field already saying, that’s not how you’re supposed to do it, so I would say the biggest problem is the attitude. But what I’m finding with younger students, with smartphones and everything, is that they have a much more interested attitude.”

Money Talks

Although many HVAC instructors have the right intentions when it comes to teaching up-and-coming service techs, they are often limited by low budgets.

“The budgetary constraints in trade schools are huge. I know of programs running on next to nothing, and they have to rely upon donations of equipment because their dollars don’t stretch that far,” said Goater. “They’re going to have to have more support from the manufacturers and the manufacturer’s representatives.”

As often happens to be the case when it comes to the industry, location is everything. That’s the case for Lovell, who has been helped by Chattahoochee’s location.

“We’re kind of blessed in this area to be by LG and Mitsubishi’s training facilities in the Southeast,” he said. “Sometimes we get them to come in, and from there, you’re sparking the students’ interest and showing them this pathway. My biggest emphasis is grounding them in the fundamentals, yet showing them these avenues.”

Harold Nelson, technical support manager, Mingledorff’s Inc., said he feels the trade schools are doing the best they can to get the next generation ready, but he often hears about funding not being available for certain types of training.

Goater noted, when equipment isn’t available due to budgetary concerns, training is being done through electronic simulation, since it’s cheaper than purchasing equipment.

“I don’t know if that’s satisfactory, but that’s kind of the best you can do because it’s all you can afford to buy,” Goater said. “Part of it, too, is to not worry about the advanced stuff, because the people who come through the trade schools are entry-level techs, and they can be taught the basics and learn the more advanced stuff as time goes by.”

Exclusive Club

But a big issue that could be affecting many in the industry as things become more complex is the proliferation of proprietary controls.

“We’re very quickly coming to a point where this advanced technology is going to migrate through the entire product line, and we’re going to have more and more proprietary controls, and more and more proprietary software running these units,” Goater said. “You’ve got units out there now that have a whole thermostat circuit that runs home automation. For a tech, they’re going to have to have a tremendous amount of training on one particular piece of equipment, and of course, you can’t train everybody on everything. I think that’s the biggest challenge facing the trade schools, and us, but at least we have access to the equipment.”

Taylor said he sees this as a big problem. “A lot of manufacturers keep retain information specifically for their dealers, so you have to go to one of their dealers to get it fixed,” Taylor said. “All these manufacturers are going to be protecting their own stuff, so if you want training on it, you’re going to have to go to them.”

And with systems and controls becoming more advanced, Nelson said he thinks IT training is going to become part of the standard curriculum for technicians as time goes on. “Most technicians are here to fix stuff, and if they don’t understand it, they’re pretty much lost, especially with some of the more complicated controls,” Nelson said. “Even residential controls are becoming more computer oriented.”

More than anything else, though, Taylor said it’s going to come down to the industry minting sharper technicians to handle the increasingly complex equipment.

“Sooner or later, you’re going to have a technician looking at an advanced schematic, going point-to-point, switching from dc to ac, and taking different readings to troubleshoot,” Taylor said. “I know the manufacturers are making a move to equipment with as much diagnostics and self-help stuff as they can, but it still means that when someone gets to it, there’s going to be a more advanced problem. You’re going to have to have a sharper technician than most have running around in the service trucks now.”

Proper education, like with many things, is all about striking the right balance — from manufacturers, to instructors, to contractors.

“Even with all that I have learned as I am finishing up my advanced degree in educational technology, there is a great deal that I can accomplish with my students using nothing more than a white board,” Christopherson said. “Technology is not a replacement for the attributes of a traditional teacher. The basic instructional methods of reading, explaining, showing, illustrating, reviewing, reciting, memorizing, and testing cannot be replaced with technology. Instructional technology can be a great tool, but the medium is not the message.”

Now, more than ever, it’s important to make sure you’re on the cutting edge of technology. For Taylor, he said when he switched from being a contractor to a service advisor, that’s when he realized how little he knew about the trade because he’d been too busy driving a service truck.

“I see that in a lot of my friends who are still contracting,” Taylor said. “I try to steer them as much as I can, but I don’t know how you break that link when a guy is so totally involved in running his business. I guess you have to keep trained technicians coming and going. Some guys that I’m meeting are finally catching on. But, most of the ‘hot’ technicians are well over 40. There’s going to be room for all of these young guys to come in, and I see a lot of guys that are going to be really good. They just need a little mentorship.”

Publication date: 10/28/2013

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