March 2021

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Discussion Regarding Technology, Climate Change, and Education in the Building Automation Industry

By Kimberly Brown, Tech Services Manager,

Cochrane Tech Services

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When sitting down to write an article for this month’s issue for Automated Buildings, two of my passions came to mind: climate change and education on energy efficiency. I struggled to decide which topic to write about as I feel both issues should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind as the building automation industry progresses.  But what I realized as I brainstormed, is that both of these issues are intimately intertwined, and they both require two precious resources in order to continue to progress – time and money.


I know we have all read articles about how building efficiency matters. And we have all read articles about how the building automation/controls industry is starved for talent. We continue to pose the questions asking, “what can we do about this?” We sit through panels that discuss the subjects to death, but we walk away with more questions than answers. With a lack of cohesive industry organizations and strategies for pushing the industry forward, we are left to individuals to step up, become leaders, and drive the direction to help the industry as a whole to keep up with new and emerging technologies.  


kimRunning technical support, development, and training departments, I talk to people from vastly different backgrounds in the building automation and controls industry. A common thread amongst many conversations is how we as an industry are not investing enough in buildings to keep up with evolving technologies. It’s a running joke that buildings move slowly, “Building technology is about 10 years behind other industries,” and everyone laughs. Buildings stand today with technology from the 1970s installed, 50-year-old technology. And we continue to try and retrofit them due to the cost barriers of putting in more advanced systems that will save energy in the building each year (but that is a whole separate conversation).  Yet, the side of the industry that has been attempting somewhat to keep up on installing newer technology is starting to realize that when you use controllers (aka mini computers) to control your building, they become obsolete much faster than you would like. You cannot simply install a controls system and then not touch it for 20 years anymore.


Think about personal computing technology like laptops and how quickly and often they need to be replaced. Most have a two- to four-year lifecycle. While we can’t expect building owners to fork over money every two to four years for new hardware, they should at least have a plan in place to keep the technology up to date. Software updates happen even more rapidly than hardware, and obsolete hardware that is 20 years old cannot support it.  Software revisions are constantly pushing out new features and updates that allow us to keep up with new ways to control buildings and keep them more efficient.  More efficient buildings mean we reduce our overall energy consumption. Therefore, buildings with up-to-date, innovative technology helps to reduce the commercial and industrial buildings’ greenhouse gas emissions globally, which will ultimately lead to the buildings industry doing our part to affect climate change.


So, what does this have to do with education? In order to install and program these energy-efficient and innovative systems into our buildings, we have to invest time and money into educating the next generation of building automation and controls professionals. As of right now, companies like Cochrane Tech Services and others in the industry are evaluating our curriculum and how we can help bridge the skills gaps among technicians and programmers. However, we also need to start looking at higher education institutions and how we can affect their curriculum to produce more highly skilled workers directly from the programs that are currently being offered. There are a handful of colleges and universities looking to update their curriculum already to include building automation and controls into their programs, but by and large most programs focus on HVAC from a mechanical and residential/commercial technician standpoint and leave it at that. While it is absolutely critical to continue those programs, as there is still a skills shortage among the trades, we need to get building automation/controls added to the curriculum. Ask any contractor right now, and they are all desperate for talented BAS technicians and programmers. Updating curriculum or adding additional classes or programs to teach current building automation and controls technologies in the market will be critical to get newly graduated students setup for success.


With so few colleges or universities even teaching building automation or controls, we cannot have the ones that have picked up this charge left to figure out what to teach on their own. And the institutions that want to add to their programs need help in how to get started. They need guidance from industry leaders that understand how the industry is changing and evolving in order to update curriculum in real time. Colleges still teaching “direct digital controls” classes are mostly likely not on the leading edge of technology available.


So where does this leave us? We need more people to take this as a call to action to look at the ways they can use their time to help. Reach out to your local community college or university and ask if you can become an advisor for the HVAC or BAS programs. Help guide the educators that are teaching the new generation of talent on what should be included in their programs and the skills the students will need when they graduate. Help start local industry apprenticeship programs to help students that show an aptitude for the industry and give them summer internships, work-study programs, or scholarships to these college and university programs.


For people already in the industry, setup industry mentorship and sponsorship programs (see article discussing the difference and need for both mentorship and sponsorship for career advancement) in order to assist green and mid-career talent in gaining a deeper understanding of the industry and develop a stronger skillset. We should also look at people that have come from adjacent trade backgrounds (including electricians, sheet metal, pipefitters, installation technicians, etc.), that may have an interest in controls, and reduce the barriers to learning new skills. Also, how can we as an industry better partner with unions or institutions that support skilled tradespeople and help get more people in these programs? And for the unions that are introducing BAS and controls to their members, how can we better support them to ensure they have up-to-date learning materials and technology? We can even start by educating people in the skilled trades on what building automation and building controls actually are. “Controls” or “BAS” don’t have to be scary words!


And let’s not forget students going to school for IT degrees. These students are learning valuable skills that can be applied towards a career in building automation and programming. These students are typically analytical in nature and learn debugging and troubleshooting skills in their degree programs. They have a deep understanding of computers, software, servers, and how all of the technology works. Didn’t we discuss earlier how building controls are just mini computers?  The HVAC and building side can then be taught to these students, as there are many programs already developed for that side of the industry.


Trying to bridge the skills gap is going to continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future, but there are steps we can take today to make a brighter future for our industry. Energy efficient buildings with leading, innovative technology can be a reality if we invest time and money into the education of a future generation of talent to engineer, install, and program updated technology into our buildings. This ultimately can lead to a greater impact on the world as a whole by doing our part to help with the climate crisis.


Kimberly Brown - Tech Services Manager 

Kimberly Brown is the Tech Services Manager at Cochrane Supply and has been with the company for over 12 years.  She has worked in various positions for the company including Administration, Marketing & Training Coordination, Special Projects Management, and Business Development. She was responsible for implementing and coordinating energy efficiency efforts with multiple clients, including the State of Michigan, utilizing the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager tool. Currently she manages both the Cochrane Tech Services and Training Teams. She is responsible for the day-to-day operations of both departments that provide technical support, consultation services, custom development, and technical training to the building automation industry.


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