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“Maintenance guy” now needs computer skills as well

The following is in response to an article that appeared in the August-September 2012 print issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer.


The following is in response to an article that appeared in the August-September 2012 print issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer.

The recent article on building DDC systems (“Troubleshooting,” August-September 2012, p. 32), got me thinking about how we came across the same problem with building automation systems not being operated properly.

During the run-up to Y2K we were asked by a school board to verify their building automation systems in 12 schools. Out of the 12, only three had systems that were operational. One didn’t even have a computer hooked up. One had a computer, but no monitor. Of the three that were operational, they were run in a very rudimentary way. A lot of manual overrides were used. None of the schools was being operated as designed by the controls manufacturer.

More recently, we were working with a major building management company to review and recommend actions on a building that had a DDC system that had never worked properly. There were some basic mechanical issues, but the control system was at the heart of the problems. I’ll call the head maintenance guy “Joe.” Joe was well like by all the people in the building as he would daily attend to all their frequent heating and cooling complaints. Joe was always very busy and claimed quite forcibly that the system had never worked and we would never get it to work. He claimed that the building was too complicated and ill-designed. When we investigated the system, all the automation everywhere had been overridden into manual mode. Joe would manually change the local set points upon getting a complaint.

We had a building controls contractor update the system, make some changes and password out all the maintenance staff so they could not override the automation. Any set point changes were done by the controls contractor. After about a month, the building was operating as designed and unfortunately Joe’s future was freed up.

In another building, there were a lot of complaints from one area but when we visited we found that the temperature seemed to be well within the set point parameters. We asked the building operators to trend the temperature at the local sensors for the next week, but we were met with blank stares. We set up our own data collectors despite the system having this capability. The problem was that the building system was being run with minimum input by people with minimum capability. This was again, a large building with a well known building management company in charge.

The situation as I saw it was that maintenance people started in the business before computers. They advanced up through the ranks as they were mechanically inclined and good with a pipe wrench. Unfortunately today we need people good with computers as well as mechanical systems.

To help the situation, when DDC systems are specified, it’s wise to add a lot more training than the standard issue given by control contractors. In addition to the initial training, subsequent courses at the first and second anniversaries is wise to consider. Remuneration for the people in charge of large systems should also be reviewed with respect to the requirements of the position. If bright technical people can get better paying jobs elsewhere, the situation will not improve.

Lee Norton, P.Eng. is a former consulting engineer who lives in St. Catharines, Ontario. He is an editorial advisor to Canadian Consulting Engineer magazine.

To see the article “Troubleshooting” in the August-September issue,  click here.

To access a text version, click here. https://www.canadianconsultingengineer.com/news/building-hvac-controls-trouble-shooting/1001739763/?type=Print%20Archives