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Focus – Construction Education – Controls in the classroom

image Greg Schulmeier, Automation Project Manager/Instructor, Texas Chiller Systems/UAPP Local 142, San Antonio, TX

SAN ANTONIO – Students coming up through apprenticeship programs in various trades will have to deal with building automation systems (BAS) at some point in the field, especially as they become more common, explains Greg Schulmeier.

    As an instructor for UAPP Local 142, he has enjoyed passing on what he has learned in the industry over the past two decades, as well as seeing several apprentices become journeymen who were so interested in his BAS class that they decided to go into that field.
    With more people wanting to control various aspects of their building or home digitally, HVAC especially and lighting and door access as well as other trades are affected.

How do you teach students about building automation? And what are the most difficult aspects of teaching it and for the students to learn?
    Since the BAS industry is so diverse and you have different vendors, I try to teach more of an open, overall [view of] how everything kind of ties together. I don’t teach the specific vendor, like a Honeywell or Johnson – we strictly do Honeywell [in his work], but I try to show everything there.
    I try to show them the programming of what’s behind the scenes, what’s on the computer as far as the programming and the graphics. And I think the hardest thing for them to understand is the actual programming of it and how that’s done and how that links with the graphics that the user ends up manipulating on a day-to-day basis.

Is that something that they need to know for their jobs or does that help them to understand it better?
    I think nowadays, with as much diversity as there is coming as more and more companies are going with the BAS, I think it’s something that they need to understand.
    A problem we have in the industry is that a service technician who is not familiar with BAS goes out on a service call and as soon as they see a BAS, “Oh, it has to be controls.” So, they’re passing that on to somebody else, and I’m trying to teach them that instead of seeing that and getting worried about it, understand what’s going on.
    Maybe you can look at that, and you may not be able to understand everything about the system, but maybe you can go in there and troubleshoot and realize, “It isn’t the program. It is a mechanical problem.” Because we have a lot of times where a service tech will be out there and say, “It’s controls.” And we go out, look and say, “No, the controls are just fine. It’s a mechanical issue that needs to be fixed,” and now the mechanics side has to go back out there again. That’s the biggest issue we’ve seen in the industry when it comes to [BAS] – people who don’t understand how it works.

Is the training for building automation especially important or widespread today? Will your service techs be dealing with this so often that they will need this training?
    I think they’re definitely going to need it. I’ve been doing this for a while, and when I first started doing this, BAS, as far as computer-based was more of a luxury, an option. And nowadays because of energy conservation and stuff like that, more and more buildings are moving away from the older pneumatic styles and are going to the computer digital control field.
    I think the more that an apprentice is going to be in this field, he’s going to see this more and more. And it’s becoming more and more prevalent than it was 5, 6 years ago. So instead of them being able to work on pneumatic controls – which if you know pneumatics, you don’t need to have any special training – whereas nowadays, because everyone is going to [BAS] and it’s becoming more of a necessity, they’re going to see that a lot more in their industry.

What have you seen evolve in building automation in your 20 years working in this particular field?
    The biggest change I’ve seen is how open everything is becoming, whoever the vendor is, and how everything is starting to become more and more communication-friendly between dif-ferent vendors. When I first started doing this, it was very proprietary. Now, I’m seeing it become more and more open because vendors are actually building stuff that communicates with each other.

Why is hands-on training important in automation?
    Most of the manuals that we get are very vague. I build a small project there in the classroom, all computer-based, and I give them each a laptop that the school supplies, and I let them go into that system that I built and develop their own program so they can see how to control or how this is controlled, so they can see how the program coincides with what they’re actually controlling.

What areas of education in BAS do you feel need improvement to better serve the industry and customer?
    I think one of the biggest things is computer skills. The biggest problem I have when I’m teaching this to people is they don’t understand how a computer works. They get kind of swamped being on the computer, but I think, for our industry, we need [to teach] basic computer skills, because there are mechanics that work with their hands – they’re using tools, pipe wrenches – but when it comes to a computer, the biggest obstacle I have is getting them to feel comfortable behind the computer and [teaching them] how to work with a computer.

    Greg Schulmeier has been automation project manager with Texas Chiller Systems for two-and-a-half years. He has been an instructor at UAPP Local 142 since 2005. –mh

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Mary Hazlett mary@constructionnews.net