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HVAC In-house Building Engineer

Building engineers, or stationary engineers, occupy an unusual role in the typically transient world of the HVAC trade. Instead of moving from site to site performing contract jobs, building engineers have the luxury and stability of staying with a single HVAC system (or handful of systems) working on-site for a single employer.

Building engineers are sometimes called operating engineers (not to be confused with heavy equipment operators) or power engineers.

Building engineers, on the other hand, maintain and operate HVAC installations in fixed installations. They work on big systems in places like:

  • Hospitals
  • Office buildings
  • College campuses
  • Factories and industrial sites
  • Cold storage facilities

Their role is to ensure the efficient and safe operation of those systems and to keep them up and running to meet the demands of the facility.

Job Duties Differ Based on the Systems Engineers Manage

Working as a building engineer requires not only the usual range of knowledge about HVAC systems, but also usually very specialized expertise in the individual combination of systems in the installation they serve, as well as detailed knowledge about the uses and requirements of the organizations that use it.

This also provides the other unique aspect of building engineer positions, which is that they are often hybrid roles for which HVAC operation is only one component. Depending on the size and purpose of the installation they work on, a building engineer might also be responsible for:

  • Plumbing
  • Electrical
  • Lighting
  • Access controls and security alarm systems
  • Fire alarm and suppression systems
  • Basic maintenanc

Although these tasks don’t always have all the glamor of running around in a company van saving the day as a service technician, there are some big advantages: the work is regular, the scope is well-defined, and the hours are predictable. You may occasionally put in overtime, but for the most part the job involves staying ahead of the maintenance curve and fixing things before they become catastrophically broken.

Engineering work is often shift work. Particularly in industrial and manufacturing settings, the building engineering department has to be staffed around the clock. This also serves to keep hours predictable, so you do not have to be on call like service technicians.

Maintenance is the watchword of building engineers. They are charged with keeping up systems so breakdowns don’t happen.

This means regularly tearing apart and rebuilding components on a schedule, as well as testing and logging results to help detect problems before they become critical. If a compressor unit is running more than it used to, for example, it’s a clue there is something wrong elsewhere in the system, and a good building engineer will track it down before the compressor motor burns out.

But although they spend a lot of time alone in basements and on rooftops, engineers are also heavily customer-service oriented. Work orders and support calls come in constantly. Engineers have to work with other facility staff and employees to handle requests and troubleshoot problems.

Building Engineers are Experts in High Tech and Low Tech

One thing you find when you talk to anyone in HVAC today is just how overwhelming the effect of technology has become on the industry.

But many building engineers, particularly along the East Coast, where buildings are old, have to become experts at the other end of the technology spectrum—working with and coaxing along ancient systems that have long since been out of production. Parts are often unavailable and no contractors exist to provide service. It’s up to the building engineering crew to keep these antiques running.

Some of these engineers are more like archaeologists than technology professionals. Their work sends them pouring through technical manuals printed on paper that is fading and falling apart; they may end up combing through junkyards or scouring eBay looking for outmoded parts that will still work on their ancient machinery. But it’s not all old-fashioned work.

An even more challenging aspect of the role is being asked to incorporate new high-tech systems together with the ancient bones of buildings and machinery that was never designed to be integrated.

Such Frankenstein systems take even more knowledge and experience to operate. Engineers might find themselves managing a system that uses a 1920 air handler cobbled together with a 1970 Trane condensing unit, all run through modern, smart-control-equipped ducting systems. Getting the parts to talk to each other and operate efficiently is as much art as technology.

And those new control systems are revolutionizing building management. The Internet of Things is allowing smart, interconnected sensor and control systems to generate massive amounts of detailed data on system use and energy consumption. Tuning building HVAC systems can now be done using thousands of data points, and might require as much programming expertise as mechanical skills.

And from time to time, what is old becomes new again. Old-fashioned two-pipe HVAC systems from the 1950s fell out of favor because they could not rapidly switch between heating and cooling functions.

But as one Indiana school district found, the old style method could be effectively implemented and realize significant cost savings over modern four-pipe systems with the use of modern electronic sensor and control systems.

Although it’s challenging to keep old systems up and running, building engineers have the advantage of getting to know their equipment like no one else in the business.

It’s effectively having a specialization in one particular installation, and learning it down to the last detail. The way a particular unit needs a little extra juice at startup, or how to set a valve just right to balance the system head pressure… these are things that survive in the institutional knowledge of a building engineering crew that no outside contractor could ever hope to match.

Licenses and Certifications for Building Engineers

Building engineers may have to become licensed even in states where residential HVAC technicians do not need any credentials. New York, for example, does not license HVAC technicians, but New York City has three different types of credentials for operating engineers, each with stringent qualifications:

  • Refrigeration Operating Engineer Certificate of Qualification
  • Oil Burning Equipment Installer License
  • High Pressure Boiler Operating Engineer License

Of course, like any technician who works with refrigerant gases that are controlled by the Clean Air Act, such as ammonia or freon, building engineers will usually need an EPA Section 608 Certificate. You will almost always need at least a Type II certificate to work on high-pressure systems common in large buildings, but most technicians opt for a Universal certification to work on all types of equipment.

Because of the regional distinction in building HVAC (and particularly heating) systems, it’s more common for Eastern states, and particularly those in the Northeast, to have distinct licenses for stationary engineers. These may be called:

  • Engineer or Stationary Engineer
  • Fireman
  • Oiler
  • Boiler Operator

Getting Started as a Building Engineer

A community college or trade school program in HVAC is always good preparation for a career as a building engineer, but not usually a complete one. Because building engineers typically have such a wide range of responsibilities, you will often have to gain a great deal of practical knowledge through a variety of schooling and work experiences. An HVAC certificate or AA degree may qualify you to work on a boiler or cooling system, but engineer positions that only deal with those aspects of the job are rare.

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Engineering jobs are often union jobs. And getting into a union usually means going through an apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships can last up to five years and involve a combination of on-the-job training with several hundred hours of classroom instruction. Depending on the jurisdiction you are in, apprenticeships may also be a requirement (or at least one path) to state or municipal licensing.

Nor are all apprenticeships union apprenticeships. Some non-union workplaces also hire through apprentice positions, particularly large organizations with a number of engineering positions on staff.

Some companies also hire engineering helpers, or provide ways to advance from regular maintenance staff positions into engineering. Although these are not always guaranteed routes into building engineering, they do provide a broad base of experience with all the different types of systems that an engineer will regularly encounter, and will always look good on your resume when you apply for those positions.