My wife and I have committed to no longer buying combustion engines of any type. This commitment is not easy. It’s not fun either. It is, however, getting easier as time goes on. A recent challenge we faced with this commitment occurred when we realized we needed a new lawn mower. Just try buying an electric lawn mower – not only are their price tags still very much above that of their gasoline-loving counterparts, but you may also pay a hefty price arguing with your spouse about it.
Recently, I have been contemplating the impact of our college teaching styles on the future of our workforce. With technologies and global needs changing so rapidly, what should undergraduate programs foster to prepare graduates for the future needs of the workforce? On a professional level, this has been instigated by our company’s recent search for new employees. On a personal level it comes from being the parent of three young adults who will be entering the workforce in the coming years, as well as discussions with two of my siblings who are college educators.
I recently attended the Performance Evaluation Methodology for Building Occupancy Sensing Systems for HVAC Controls workshop, which followed the annual ASHRAE conference that just wrapped up in Kansas City, MO. The workshop focused on one of ARPA-E’s research programs called SENSOR (Saving Energy Nationwide in Structures with Occupancy Recognition), and brought together a diverse group of individuals, including researchers from national labs and universities, industry representatives, design engineers, and other interested parties.
Sometimes certain parts of the commissioning and retrocommissioning process can seem trivial to both the contractor and the commissioning agent. Of course, the process involves some important and significant checks, such as ensuring the piping design detail matches the as-built piping, and that the specified ductwork sizes match the as-built ductwork size. But the commissioning process also deals with some of the finer details that may not seem as consequential or that have already been checked by multiple parties. So, why would the commissioning agent also need to check it again? In this post I am providing a couple examples of real-world commissioning issues that we’ve found. Each is an excellent reminder of why the seemingly minor commissioning verification steps are still required and important, even though they may seem inconsequential.
Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times caught my eye recently and struck a chord. It describes the awful wealth gap that is increasing, seemingly by the day, with each newly minted tech billionaire in the San Francisco Bay Area. He reports that despite the fact that “the annual household income necessary to buy a median-priced home [in San Francisco] now tops $320,000,” California lawmakers recently killed Senate Bill 50, which would have undone zoning restrictions in the state. Changing these zoning restrictions would make it possible for more dense housing to be built, thereby increasing the supply and providing some relief to the non-billionaires in California.
As someone very new to the engineering world, I’ve learned a lot in the last few months about the impact that engineers can have on climate change. I came to Cx Associates and the world of commissioning in a rather round-about way. My background is in molecular genetics, specifically lung cancer research, but when I moved to Burlington this past summer, I decided to pivot in my career path. I’d found myself desiring more and more to move into a field that was doing some good for the world. I know, I know, many would say “Hey! Cancer research is good for the world!,” and I certainly don’t deny that, but what good is finding new cancer treatments if there isn’t a planet that can viably support the patients those treatments would be for? As I’m sure many of you heard or read in the news some months ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2018 Climate Report showed that “global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate” (something some climate scientists have argued is a conservative estimate). This will have devastating effects on people’s lives, and not only in poorer nations of the world – the Fourth National Climate Assessment released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program in November 2018 predicts U.S. economic losses due to climate change in 2090 as $280-$500 billion/year. These reports cemented my feelings in the weeks and months after I began at CxA, but I had already felt myself pulled towards the idea of working for a company or organization that was doing solid, on the ground work to combat climate change. I did not expect that pull to land me at a consulting engineering firm.
When people ask me what I do for work, I generally tell them I’m a building systems engineer, with a big focus on making facilities more energy efficient and comfortable for occupants. One common part of my job entails going to a building to perform an energy audit or assessment. During these visits, we follow the same straightforward outline:
- Walk through the site
- Inventory all energy-related equipment including lighting, mechanical systems, building envelope, etc.
- Speak with the building operator about how they run the building
- Ask the building owner, occupants, and operator about and any issues or concerns they have regarding maintenance, equipment that is not working properly, or comfort problems.
Retrocommissioning (RCx) or Existing Building Commissioning refer to a technical process that retrofits and tunes building HVAC control systems so that buildings function more efficiently and effectively. The RCx process has historically included three primary phases: Planning, Investigation, and Implementation.
Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley was born in my home town of Jericho, VT in 1865. The town is situated in Vermont in a unique way that allows for a lot of annual snow (by Vermont standards). Not only does Jericho get a lot of snow, but we also seem to be situated in such a way that we get perfect snowflakes that don’t clump together. This is what allowed Mr. Bentley to become one of the first known snowflake photographers. He invented his own way of catching flakes using black velvet so they wouldn’t melt or evaporate before he could snap a picture of them.
As the newest engineer to join the Cx Associates team, I have had the immense pleasure to be able to approach buildings from a different angle than in my previous work experience. In my former work as a mechanical design engineer, the focus was on current building technologies and keeping up with the most cutting-edge designs for our systems and buildings. Don’t get me wrong, looking to the future of efficient building technologies is tremendously important, but as someone who is concerned about the current state of the environment and ensuring there’s a habitable world for generations of living things to come, I found it hard to believe that new buildings alone are capable of being more than a small drop in a big bucket. After all, there are only a small number of new buildings built each year compared to the vast existing building stock. A quick look at the numbers from the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) will tell you that of the total data set, only about 18% of commercial buildings were built in the most recent 12 years surveyed. (https://www.eia.gov/consumption/commercial/data/2012/bc/cfm/b8.php)