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Hey folks, Phil Zito here and welcome back. In this episode, we're going to be talking about the five core skills of successful BAS Technicians.

Alright, I've seen a lot of techs in my time get promoted and I've seen a lot of techs get fired. I've also seen a lot of techs stalemate. So, if you're sitting there and you're like, “Man, I've been doing this for a long time and yet I see all these people around me and they're getting promoted.” You see them getting jobs, and maybe you even feel, and maybe rightfully so, that these people are not the most skilled.

You may see someone who is not very good with installation or they're not very good with point-to-point checkout. Maybe you have to go behind them on their work to make sure stuff is wired up, but yet they became a programmer. In reality, some people do fail upwards, but there tends to be some core skills that matter when it comes to being a successful BAS technician.

I don't ever see anyone talk about this. You know, so many folks I see brag about their ability to work with all these different systems, or their ability to tune a PID loop so tight that you couldn't fit a human hair through the difference between setpoint and process variable. But is that what really matters? Well, that's what we're going to explore today; the 5 core skills of successful BAS technicians.


Sell Yourself

The first core skill of successful BAS technicians, and this is probably going surprise you, is being able to sell yourself. Alright, now I know when you think about being a successful BAS technician, the thought that pops into your head is not immediately selling yourself, but bear with me. This is super important.

It is probably the single greatest factor on you having a higher salary, getting more customer retrofit work, and achieving higher positions. You need to be able to take an honest inventory of your skills, compare that inventory of your skills to others, and then communicate the value.

Now what does that look like? Alright, so if you asked me, Mr. Phil Zito, to install a fan motor right now, I could not tell you how to do that step-by-step, but I do have an ability, that really helps me out a ton. It's an ability to research. I would be able to, using logic, figure out how to wire up a fan. How do I size the fan? How do I determine to install it?

It's that ability that I've been able to sell to others as a value. So, my ability to learn how to integrate, my ability to teach, I've been able to sell that and create a training business.

So, you have to ask yourself, what can you do? Oftentimes, those folks who become designers, or become graphics folks, or become programmers, they become those roles because they convinced someone that they can do that. That's why you can see, and you hear about this, and you see people who are clearly not a fan of this.

In some respects, complaining about this makes sense, but in other aspects, I just think people are being sore losers. So, you'll see people who will say, “I have this programmer who doesn't understand HVAC systems, never was a mechanic and yet, he's a programmer. Why?” You can almost hear the complaining voice that I'm trying to project to you.

It's most likely because that person was able to understand a sequence, understand logic, and translate that into programmatic form. They were able to communicate that in such a way that the hiring manager, or their manager, was able to accept that they can do it and move them into that role.

I've seen some amazing technicians who've been in the field 8 to 10 years who know how to program, but no one else knows that they know how to program. They'll go on job sites and the job site will be behind, and they'll clean up the code, but they don't ever tell anyone about it. The commissioning agent’s out on the job site with the technician and they see a sequence doesn't work. The tech makes the programming change, and they go about their day. And no one knows.

That is why the number one skill for being a successful BAS technician is to sell yourself. So how do you do it? Well, it's often very difficult to sell yourself in the moment. You often forget what you've done. It's hard to tell a story about your successes and capabilities on the fly.

I even struggle with that when asked about our company success stories. I’d have to dig for that kind of information. It’s not because there aren't any. It's just because I'm not paying attention to those success stories, because I'm focused on my job. Well, the same goes for a lot of technicians.

So, what I highly recommend you do is, get a notebook, create a One Note, a Google Doc, whatever and if you do something that you're particularly proud of, or that seems a little difficult, take note of it. Go into detail. Use this framework:

  • What was the problem?
  • How did you solve the problem?
  • And here's the big one: How did you, solving this problem, benefit either your customer, or your company?

Now, you start to keep a log of these, and you'll start to notice trends. Maybe you're someone who's really good at troubleshooting, maybe you are cleaning up job submittals, maybe you're cleaning up programming. You're going to notice a trend of what you're good at. You're going to have stories around what you're good at, and you're going to be able to communicate that to your customers, and to the company you're working at.

So, you're able to communicate these things and you're able to use data to communicate them. That is the one single greatest thing. Because yes, you can be that one unicorn technician who just happens to have the right person at the right time, see you do the right thing, and then offer you a role. However, it is somewhat true, but it's also somewhat false that if you are alive and breathing, you can get a job in BAS. Everyone is hiring anyone with any experience in any skills. Yes, that is true.

So, you most likely right now, if you've been doing this for a while, could go find another job, or could find another position. But how much will you earn? Your salary is going to be kept on the ability to communicate your value. If you're trying to go become like a Facebook data center tech, or you’re going after those large, six-figure jobs, you need to be able to sell your value.

Well, how do you sell your value? You have a record of your value. So that's number one, right? The ability to sell yourself.



The second core skill of BAS technicians, and I've already hinted at it, is the ability to research. So, I was talking with our Workforce Development students recently, and we were going through our HVAC sequencing course. We're talking through the modules, and we were just explaining how everything works, like what are the nuances of integration sequences.

I was talking about one of the problems I used to have when I was a lead service tech leading a service team. A problem I've heard from a lot of our customers is their techs, who have done 30 to 40 to 50 integrations on like a York, or a Trane, or a Carrier rooftop unit, still call them every time struggling to do the integration.

Now at first glance, you may think, they're incompetent. But as I started to discuss this with the students, I remembered a post I saw on the Controls and Building Automation Facebook group. It was this guy asking about a York rooftop unit and he was trying to control the fan speed. Folks were giving him some pointers, but he kept saying that no matter what he did, he couldn’t get it to work.

Well, that's where the ability to research comes in. In my experience, integration interfacing, programming, sequencing, installing, almost anything you need to do, you can Google it and find an answer to it within 10 to 15 minutes.

So, how could research have benefited this person? While this person could have first researched and understood, through talking to the customer, and the sequence, why am I having to bring in these points? Then, once he understood the why, he further could have researched a York BACnet points list, and once he had that BACnet points list, he could have researched, read and write: which points are read, which points are write?

I can't tell you how many times I've met folks who map in read only points and bash their head against a wall as to why they can't command this point. I mean, it's a piece of equipment with an embedded controller on it. All you have is a set point and an enable point, and yet you're trying to control fan speed, you're trying to control valve position, and you can't do any of these things because all of that is inside the embedded controller. So, you need to be cognizant and have the ability to research.


Ask Good Questions

Which brings us to the third core skill of a BAS technician which is asking good questions. Now, I asked a lot of questions when I was growing up in the field. Some people think a new tech should be quiet, some people think you shouldn't make a lot of noise. It shows that you're incompetent, it shows that you don't know what you're doing.

Well, I disagree with that wholly. I'm constantly asking questions. I'm constantly admitting where I don't know things. The successful BAS technicians that I've run into ask a lot of questions. The stupidest thing you could do, and I’m guilty of this, is saying you know something, when you really don't know something, just because you’re too embarrassed. I actually got called out on it.

One of our electrical subs back when I was working service, said to our salesperson, “That guy doesn't know crap about electricity.” I was saying stuff, but I was using the wrong terms because I was trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about. I was too embarrassed to ask a question. I was too embarrassed to look stupid. So, therefore I made myself look stupid.

I've learned though, watching a lot of the best technicians, they ask a lot of questions, they don't assume they know the answer. Now, at this point, you're probably shocked that nothing I've said, is technical. The reality is, the stuff we know is not that complex. It really irks me when I go on LinkedIn or Facebook and I see these seasoned professionals making the younger folks or the inexperienced folks think that our field is so darn technical, that there's no way they could ever learn how to do it. I don't know why folks do that, but the reality is, there's only a couple concepts in the electrical side in the HVAC side and the BAS side, and then it all comes down to processes.



That brings me to the fourth core skill of a BAS technician, which is processes. If you are relying on knowledge and not processes, you are doing things the hard way.

If I look back at every time I screwed up…when I decided to download an optimized chilled water program on a Friday to upgrade a program and it's spraying water at UNT Dallas onto students as they walk by, or the time I wiped out the LON database of a Native American hospital south of Seattle.

I look back at all these things that I've done, the mistakes I've made, because I did not follow a process. Granted, in my defense, each time I screwed up, I created a process afterwards, but that's the thing. What I hammer to companies that do business with us is you need to have processes.

If your technicians cannot point to a process for how to mount a VMA controller, a VAV Modular Actuator controller, on a VAV box, and commission that VAV controller; if they cannot point to a process, a written process on how to do it, then your company is not doing it right. I know that’s a little harsh and may upset some people, but it’s just a no-brainer.

What is the most common thing we touch in building automation? It's VAV boxes. Do they change? Have VAV boxes really changed significantly in the past 20 years? Not really, except for shifting from pneumatics to DDC. So, why would you not have a standard process for your electrical subs and for your technicians? It just does not make sense.

Then for backups, why would you not have a standard backup process? Why would you not have a standard process for deploying servers, maybe with a virtual machine image, to speed it up? Why would you not have a standard process for mapping and controllers, for addressing and setting up controllers? Heck, why would you not have standard processes and operating procedures for doing point-to-point commissioning, for creating your submittals, for doing takeoffs? The list goes on and on.

Okay, how do you approach this? This could feel really overwhelming. In my opinion, you should have a process for everything, but not every process is equal. So, where do you start?

Well, quite simply, you start by looking at the stuff you do the most. If you think about what you do the most, on a day-to-day basis. This is why it's important to not only track your success, but also just track what you do in general.

So, if you find yourself primarily doing VAV boxes, exhaust fans, or rooftop units, and you find yourself doing point-to-point functional test, you find yourself mapping those in, and you find yourself creating graphics for them, then guess what? You've just identified six processes, potentially even more, that you can document. The good news is, once you've documented a process, all that's left to do is use the process, see what doesn't work, and improve on the process until you reach a point of diminishing returns.

When it starts to take you longer to improve the process, than it does the return you're getting for the improvement, then you've met a point of diminishing returns. That's something folks often ask me is, when can they stop improving the process? When it starts to take you longer to improve the process, than the return you get, that's when you know you've got a pretty good process.

So, if your VAV box process is that I can spend another day working on it, tweaking, adding documentation, images, and videos and that might save me five minutes on 10 VAV boxes, it's probably not going to pay off, right? It's probably not a worthwhile investment. That being said, if you have no process, and you need to start from nothing, well, that's good. Anything you do is most likely going to increase your efficiency.

Picture it this way. And it still boggles my mind that companies have not done this. If companies were creating standard processes for building operators that they can buy as a package, like having a QR code that they can scan, and there's the standard process with a video that guides them through how to do that. That would reduce the owner operator’s time, reduce their dependence on contractors. You're making it stupid simple. That's the problem of owning a business. You have more successful ideas than you can execute.


Understand Technology

The fifth and final core skill of a BAS technician is the ability to understand technology. I’m sure some of you probably thought I was going to say HVAC, or BAS, or electrical. Now, this is not to be confused with IT. I want to be very clear on that. So, it's having a technical acumen. In a way, it does mean HVAC, it does mean electrical, it does mean BAS, and it does mean IT.

There's just this technical bent. I don't know really how to develop that in someone. There are people who, with enough hard work, and I've seen this happen, can learn HVAC, can learn IT, can learn electrical, can learn BAS, but we've also seen that person who it just comes natural to them.

So, I'm going to tell you what I think develops that and what I think works to create that, because I've seen that in my daughters, I've seen that in myself, I've seen that in other technicians. I think it comes from a natural curiosity as to how things work combined with an ability to see patterns.

Let me explain what that means. So, if I were to go and look at a chilled water system, and you were to ask me to do load calcs on a chilled water system, I don't have those things memorized, but I could figure that out with searching. A reason I would be able to figure that out is one, I have a curiosity. So, I asked myself specific questions like, “If I need to get water to this chilled water coil in this air handler to chill the air, how is that going to happen? How does that happen? What needs to happen to make water move?”

This may seem very simplistic to you, but if water moves in life by wind or some sort of power, waves, etc, with gravity, well, we know something makes water move. I would ask myself, what makes water move and I would search it. I'd see pumps make water move. Then I’d ask myself, why do we have pumps? And you can see the logic pattern that I would just kind of start to explore.

Now that's a very simplistic pattern. Being able to understand these patterns, like if a pump makes water move, and I need to get water to a coil in order to chill, and I'm not chilling the air, and the fan is on in the unit, then what's possibly going wrong? Well, if I know the water’s removing the heat, then it's got something to do with the water. So, it’s that natural curiosity.

So, how do you develop that? By questioning, by creating a mindset of curiosity. When your car breaks down, you could take it to the mechanic, or you could try to research and figure out why it doesn't work. Your internet is slow at home, why could that be? Maybe you run an Internet Speed Test and you figure out what's going on. Try to be curious about any technical thing. That curiosity will carry over into your professional life.

I've seen that time and time again, people who are curious, tend to pick up technical concepts faster. If you're literally looking to check the box, and just kind of go on your merry way, then don't expect to pick things up fast. Expect to struggle, unless you're just naturally gifted.

Alright, so those are the five core skills. There, obviously, are many more things that make someone a successful BAS technician, but these are the five that I've seen in my experience that a lot of people don't talk about.

Thanks a ton and take care.

Phil Zito

Written by Phil Zito

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