Industrial and commercial HVAC controls work has advanced to the point where it is in many ways closer to computer programming than traditional wrench-and-screwdriver trades work. Although controls technicians still run their share of wire and install mechanical and electronic modules, they are equally likely to be found sitting in front of a laptop tapping out control sequences on Niagara WorkBench.
Because of the intense specialization and complexity of control systems and programmable logic controller (PLC) architecture, controls is a niche that is well-paid in the HVAC world. Although union-based commercial jobs tend to pay higher still, controls is recognized as one of the areas that an open shop technician can advance to the very highest pay rates in the industry. And it’s definitely a position that takes more brainpower than muscle.
Controls technicians are masters of the art of troubleshooting who are equally familiar with tracing electrical circuits as tracking computer code, and as at home diagnosing failing compressors as identifying a bad PLC.
Particularly when dealing with large building automation systems (BAS), they are adept at integrating diverse types of hardware and software and looking at system-wide issues rather than just narrow HVAC concerns.
Life as an Industrial Controls Technician
Controls technicians are the rare subset of the HVAC trade who don’t spend most of their time in boiler rooms or out on the roof in the weather. Although they may have to get hands-on with big cooling and ventilation units from time to time to diagnose glitches or replace control modules, for the most part they work on system control panels, interior sensor arrays, or inside wiring.
Large building control systems are almost always highly customized. Although the code and control building blocks are somewhat standardized, understanding how they are interconnected and configured is a challenge that comes with every new job.
And the constant and increasing speed of evolution in technology creates a perpetual learning environment for controls technicians. As one thirty-year industry veteran we spoke to put it, “The changing evolution of technology, the learning curve, is going to be the biggest challenge for people in the HVAC business today.”
Higher Efficiency Demands Create Constant Challenges for Controls Technicians
Control systems came about when HVAC started going into big buildings that needed more complex climate regulation than could be provided by changing the setting on a radiator dial or opening a window. Because HVAC engineers were already familiar with fluid and pneumatic distribution systems, most of the original control systems were hydraulic or pneumatic with pressure-actuated valves and dampers. From there, systems evolved to handle even more complex scenarios like a different number of people in a building at different times of day by using basic logic ladders built from electromechanical relays.
But two trends converged in the 1970s that would completely revolutionize the industry. First, the development of reliable, inexpensive solid-state electronics allowed transistors on chips to be programmed to perform logic operations on the fly and to operate both faster and more reliably than the old relay systems. Second, the OPEC Oil Embargo sent fuel oil prices skyrocketing in the United States, making energy efficiency a major concern that was worth putting serious money into.
This convergence lead to the development of revolutionary computerized HVAC control system, a trend that has continued and expanded today into complete Building Automation Systems (BAS) and Home Automation Systems (HAS).
Advanced Control Systems Are Changing The Face of HVAC
Using independent, smart sensors and duct and valve controls combined with sophisticated analytical software, controls technicians can analyze and automate the flow of air through a huge volume with surprising accuracy and efficiency.
New green buildings built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards often combine some traditional HVAC heating and cooling systems with newer techniques such as passive solar heating or heat recovery ventilators.
The challenge for controls technicians is to program the various systems to work in harmony with one another to maximize the efficiency of energy inputs into the natural rhythm of heating and cooling.
Controls technicians rely on a cooperative, wireless-based system of sensors and controls that are constantly reporting local conditions and status to one another and to central control systems, and making adjustments accordingly. The amount of data generated is huge, but proper software analysis can yield some amazing advantages.
Kyle Buscher, an HVAC technician and service manager, has a number of clients who rely on cloud-based controls from 75F, which provides an almost eery degree of detail.
“The data [generated] from it, where you can figure out exactly how much it costs to cool this office, how much do you need to heat that office in a building,” he says. “A lot of times we’ll get a call from the company, 75F, saying, ‘Hey, there is an issue going on at this building.’ We go over there, and they don’t even realize the issue is happening yet.”
How to Become an HVAC Controls Technician
In almost any other part of the HVAC world, it’s at least possible to go into the field with only a high-school education and, through apprenticeship or other on-the-job training, become a full-fledged, well-paid journeyman. Controls work demands more education, however.
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Coding and system logic are not skills that are easily picked up on the job. Spending time in a trade school or college program is absolutely vital to breaking into controls work.
Also unlike other types of HVAC work, simply stopping at a certificate or AA degree might not be enough for the best control technician jobs. Going on to get a bachelor’s degree is not uncommon for controls technicians, who constantly have to study to keep up with the evolution in the industry. Although a trade school certificate can help you get a job, an AA degree is easier to build on in the long run, since those credits can usually be applied toward a bachelor’s degree eventually.
Relying on knowledge of a particular communication protocol or programming language acquired four or five years ago is a recipe for failure.
“You have to have the book and know how to look them up,” says one technician. The ability to continue acquiring knowledge is key to success as a controls technician.
Because of that, perhaps surprisingly, the type of languages or systems you study is less important than absorbing the overall structure of programming logic. LON or BACnet protocols are the most common in the industry today and experience with those or with specific coding schemes never hurts. But in the next decade everything could be completely different. Some major manufacturers are even getting away from code-driven deployments and moving toward visual programming systems, like Broadsword. In all cases, it’s the logic structure that goes into them that is the most valuable knowledge for a controls technician.
As building automation and industrial controls have come to represent the only scalable solution to ensuring cost efficient and environmentally sustainable building management practices, technical schools, community colleges and four-year universities are now offering programs that teach the latest technology. Building Efficiency for a Sustainable Tomorrow (BEST) Center is committed to making sure information and training on the latest technology makes its way to new students and veteran HVAC mechanics and controls technicians. BEST promotes sustainability through technology, working to support schools that offer HVAC-R, engineering and related programs that provide training in state-of-the-art BAS and industrial controls systems.
Licenses and Certificates for Industrial Controls Technicians
There are no shortage of certificate options for control technicians. Most manufacturers that produce BAS controls offer some sort of training. The International Society for Automation offers a specific Certified Control System Technician certificate covering:
Additionally, controls technicians may need state or municipal licenses depending on the degree of direct hands-on work they perform and on what systems. The more involved you are on the programming side, the less likely you are to need a license; depending, in fact, on your job tasks, you might find yourself more likely to need a low-voltage electrician’s license than a conventional HVAC credential.