Field Lessons in HVAC Physics, Physiology, and Psychology

If you go out and operate a building for a while, you will
soon discover that human physiology and psychology are inextricably
interwoven with the design, construction, commissioning, and
operation of its HVAC systems. At their
most fundamental level, HVAC systems are real time science
experiments in applied physics; hardware moves, fluids flow,
temperatures and pressures change, and occasionally, things fail to
work as intended or simply fail. But, interestingly enough, HVAC
systems are also real time experiments in physiology and psychology
and, like any other science experiment, they have their share of
successes and failures in these arenas as well.

Physiology is there
because at their core, the systems we develop and operate are
intended to provide comfort and safety for the building’s
occupants; i.e. the are intended to provide an environment that
supports the “functions and activities of life or of living

Psychology has a big
role to play too. When I teach, I often reference an old joke I
once heard that asks:

      How many psychiatrists does
it take to change a light bulb?

The answer is:

      Only one, but the light bulb
has to want to change.

In my experience, for a building and its systems to succeed at
their intended function, everybody has to be dedicated to that
goal.  And the word everybody encompasses a pretty large body
of humanity; from the design team to the construction team to the
operating team, with the owner and building occupants closing the
circle.  The goals of the design team are typically set by the
needs of the owner and occupants, and the project will only be
successful if in the end, those goals and needs are met. 

The path between the beginning and the end has its foundation
laid not only on sound engineering principles, but also on using
those principles to meet the physiological and practical needs of
the occupants.  Herding all of the cats down the road to
success requires applied psychology – the “science of mind and
behavior” – in addition to the practical knowledge associated with
fabricating structures and systems.

By its nature, my occupation as a commissioning engineer takes
me out into the field a lot. As a result, I am presented with a lot
of lessons, some of which can be sobering,
some of which can be
, and all of which involve more than engineering
principles. Every week, I learn something new:

  • Diagnosing a problem may reveal a phenomenon I have not
    encountered before or deepen my understanding of something I am
    already familiar with.
  • Answering a question from an attendee at a lecture or training
    session may raise questions of its own and send me off to discover
    answers and resources.
  • Resolving a problem may expose me to “people problems” that
    require “people skills” that I have not called on before if I am to

Ultimately, I think it’s the interwoven nature of the
business – the mingling of engineering dynamics with human dynamics
– that makes it so interesting and challenging.  Towards that
end, I hope to share these experiences with you in this blog by
opening the door not only to the things I’m learning out there in
the field each week but also the door to the things you are
learning.  By sharing lessons, insights, and resources with
each other, we can open the doors to discussion and greater
understanding and all learn something; especially “yours truly” who
until a couple of months ago though a blog was a sort of swampy
area in northern Scotland.

Check back in a few days and I’ll share something I
learned recently about damper performance where theory didn’t match
reality in a test I performed with several colleagues at the
Pacific Energy

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3 Responses to Field Lessons in HVAC Physics, Physiology, and Psychology

  1. Welcome, David! As busy are you are commissioning complex buildings
    and systems and training so many professionals in the field, we
    greatly appreciate your taking the time to share your wealth of
    knowledge and experience.

  2. Facilities Managers are often faced with the task of putting a
    building on “idle” for unknown lengths of time. What wisdom can you
    share with us on the best RCx approach for this situation?

  3. Hi Virginia, That’s a good question, and I’ve had some experience
    at that when I helped idle the silicon wafer clean room facility
    that I worked at in the late 1990’s. I’ll start a new post and
    explore the topic as soon as I get through the current string on
    the economizer damper tests at the Pacific Energy Center. Thanks
    for commenting. David

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