A friend of mine runs the mechanical systems group at a data center. It’s a decent job and he likes it most of the time. But, like many people, he sometimes wonders if there might be a little greener grass or new horizons to be found elsewhere. So when a local school district let it be known they were looking for an experienced HVAC guy to take care of the systems at their brand-new combined high school/middle school, he looked into it. And the interview experience was eye-opening.

By way of background, the new school is a massive, $90 million affair. Its HVAC system includes a chiller, boiler, an ice thermal storage system, and more than 100 VAV boxes. The district has maintenance men on staff who have done a good job of keeping the systems in the old school buildings running using scotch tape and string, but they don’t have anyone to promote to take over such a complex system.

During the first interview with my friend, the school district administrator mentioned that in addition to HVAC system monitoring, maintenance, and optimization, this position also required snow removal and grass cutting. My friend was shocked. He politely informed the administrator that anyone with the level of HVAC experience required to manage this new building was going to need to be focused on the mechanical systems, not the landscaping.

“He’s about to commission a $90 million building, and we’re talking about shoveling snow and mowing grass,” he told me.

My friend also had to inform the administrator that if he was to accept this job he would want to be on hand early, for the commissioning of the systems. The administrator didn’t know much about commissioning – and certainly didn’t know he was allowed to have (in fact, should have) a representative present during the process.

Then the talk turned to budget constraints. Over the years the school district had reduced the number of maintenance personnel from nine to five, and that was not going to change. In addition, this administrator’s two most experienced maintenance personnel are both nearing retirement.

“So they’ve cut your staff and are adding a $90 million campus to your area of responsibility?” my friend asked.


As my friend said to me, he liked this administrator and gave him props for understanding how much an “HVAC guy” would need to know in this role. But his hands were tied by a very limited budget – which helped explain why in addition to taking tender loving care of an advanced HVAC system, there also was snow that needed to be shoveled and grass that needed to be cut. So ultimately my friend returned to his data center job with a new appreciation of it.

“I suggested to the administrator that he take one of his existing maintenance guys, someone with a good work ethic who’s going to stick around for a while, and send him to school for advanced HVAC training,” he told me.

Good advice. As my friend found, you can certainly learn a lot by going to school.

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