May 2012
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Twenty Years of Controls Contracting

From pneumatics to wireless, and everything in between

Steven R Calabrese

Steven R. Calabrese
Control Engineering Corp.

Contributing Editor


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The company that I work for, Control Engineering Corp. is in its twentieth year of being in business. To commemorate this, we’ve come up with the slogan “Celebrating 20 Years of Keeping You in Control”. As a retrospective on the last two decades of life in the controls business, I’ve dedicated this column to retracing my career, how it ties in to the technology through the years, and how Control Engineering Corp., hereto affectionately referred as CEC from this point on, paralleled and ultimately merged with my chosen career path. Fun stuff, right? I’ll try to keep the article relevant to controls, however I can’t promise that I won’t go off on a tangent here and there!

I started my career upon my graduation from college in 1990, going to work for a mechanical contractor, if for nothing more, to gain experience in the working world. I didn’t even know what HVAC stood for when I interviewed for the position, but I kept my mind open and my mouth shut, and I got the job!

The company I worked for did some controls, albeit not much, yet it was there that I discovered my passion for temperature controls. It was, to my recollection, the tail end of the pneumatics heyday. In fact, the closest I ever got to learning pneumatics was to be signed up for a week-long pneumatics course, only to have my boss yank the registration on me due to my workload at the time.

So I began to learn about electrical and electronic controls, and started to design control systems with these types of products. No DDC, even though it was available. Strictly stand-alone systems, yet it gave me a good education on the basics, including ladder/relay logic and simple proportional control.

Two years later in 1992, Dave Dickerson opened his business and named it Control Engineering Corp. I’m told (by Dave, who is a registered professional engineer in the state of Illinois), that a company cannot include the word “engineer” in their name unless an officer of the company carries a P.E. Dave’s motto was, as it still is today, “To be the best, not the biggest”. The company logo is a graph of a PID loop going from oscillation to straight-line stability (clever).

Fast forward a few years, and I’m now working for another (larger) mechanical contractor that has a line of DDC. I become formally trained on the product, and am responsible for the engineering, purchasing, installation supervision, and the programming and commissioning for projects of which we install a DDC system to go along with our mechanical installation. The first project I became involved with was in the same office building that I now work in. Talk about two ships passing in the night! Here I was in another part of this building, commissioning this large packaged rooftop unit project, and my future employer is right on the other side of the wall.

I did end up happening upon my current company’s office suite a couple of years later while visiting the building on a trouble call, simply making a mental note of its existence. At that time I was on the move within my company, making my way through various roles from Design Engineer, to Controls Engineer, finally to Manager – Temperature Controls Group (round about the turn of the century…Y2K anyone??). I hired two engineers fresh out of college, and we picked up another line of DDC.

As I was training these young up-and-comers, I recognized my “knack” for teaching and writing. I began to keep a binder for all of these little “papers” that I was generating to help me share my experience and knowledge. At some point it dawned on me to write a book on controls, from the mechanical contractor’s viewpoint. Twenty-two months later (in 2003), my book, Practical Controls: A Guide to Mechanical Systems, was published. This led me to my current gig with AutomatedBuildings.com, of which I’m celebrating five years of writing my column (thanks Ken!).

So working for a full-service mechanical contracting company, we packaged controls with our mechanical system installations. And for a number of years it went along pretty well. But like anything, nothing lasts forever, and I ended up leaving the mechanical contracting business to go to work for a temperature controls contractor (some of my mechanical contracting associates would later say I went to the “dark side”!).

Working for a true BAS contractor, I was in essence a competitor of CEC, and by this time I was well aware of their (our) existence. I ran up against CEC on several occasions back when I was working for the mechanical contractor and hawking our own controls. Now I was head-to-head with them, and after a few years of working in the trenches and weathering the dissolution of the small company that I was employed at, I went to work for them.

My career in this industry spans the twenty years that CEC has been in business. I’ve seen the downfall of pneumatics and the rising of DDC. And everything in between, from the rise and fall in popularity of stand-alone electronic control systems, to the introduction of the shaft-mounted damper actuator, straight through to the wireless revolution. All of that time, CEC has been right there alongside of me. A pioneer in the building automation industry, CEC differentiates itself from other controls contractors as being a true systems integrator, and not just a one-trick pony. We rep several product lines, and our experienced technical staff transcends the norm. In fact, many of our employees have actually been with the company for a good part of those twenty years. Had I taken an alternate path in my career, I suppose that could have been me as well.

Reliable ControlsOkay, enough with the gratuitous promotional propaganda. I do want to end with how we currently go to market, as it relates to the industry in general. In these times, energy conservation is of course a critical issue. We recognize the need for our customers to have an experienced and knowledgeable source for their building automation needs, as well as consultation on how to improve the efficiency of their mechanical systems, through replacement, retrofit, and retro commissioning. We offer all of these services, and we approach our prospects by offering an energy audit, given free of charge if any of the energy conservation measures that we propose are taken. Additional areas of growth for CEC include the following: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), Demand Controlled Ventilation (DCV), Metering and Utilities Monitoring, Lighting Control, Expanded Third Party Systems Integration, Variable Frequency Drive (VFD) Upgrades, and of course, Wireless.

I thank you for enduring the written advertisement for my company, but I do believe that if you treat your customers and your employees right, a company can not only survive, but thrive for many years (and many years to come). I leave you with this month’s Tip of the Month, which is straight from our software engineers. Makes you wonder…how do they come up with this stuff!?

Tip of the Month: How do you ascertain filter status with a differential pressure (dp) transmitter, on a variable air volume (VAV) air handling unit? On a VAV unit, the air velocity across the filter bank varies (with fan speed), as does the pressure drop across the filter bank. So how do you get an accurate representation of particle buildup, if the dp reading is always changing?

Read and display (on the AHU graphic) the pressure drop value whenever the fan speed crosses the 60% threshold (going up or coming down). The graphic reading is thus a “static” value in that it’s not continuously reading the drop across the filter bank, but rather updated periodically.

There’s more to it than that, but you get the basic gist of it. As the filters get dirty, the pressure reading, always taken at the same fan speed, increases. Of course at some point the maintenance staff needs to physically inspect the filters, to determine if/when they need to be changed, and to note the dp reading at that point, so they know from there on how to interpret that reading as it relates to filter status. Still, pretty cool way of doing it, no??


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