Moving Air: The Joys of HVAC: If you're warm in the winter and cool in the summer, thank a mechanical engineer.

Author:Orr, Vanessa

It's not a stretch to say that mechanical engineers breathe life into a building. While architects may conceptualize them and contractors may build them, without the efforts of the people who design and maintain their central systems--including the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems--the spaces wouldn't be habitable.

This is especially true in Alaska, where huge temperature variations can cause buildings to be too hot, too cold, or too dangerous to occupy. Add to this the fact that these systems have a myriad of challenges of their own--cost, size, capacity--and it's no surprise that those who do the work have passion for the job.

"Being a mechanical engineer is like taking a drink out of a fire hydrant," laughs Dave Shumway, a consulting engineer for AMC Engineers for the past thirty years. "But you're always dealing with new and interesting challenges on every project, and there's always something to learn. It's never boring."

"The job is a lot of fun, and it's definitely technically challenging," agrees Mark Frischkorn, principal mechanical engineer at RSA Engineering. "Every job has a different set of challenges, and you only get one shot at it. You have to get it right the first time."

Putting the Pieces Together

Even in a temperate environment, there are many factors that influence what type of HVAC system goes into a building, including where it is located, heating and cooling load requirements, indoor air quality requirements, maintenance requirements, energy use, initial cost, and whether it needs to tie into other systems, including those in other buildings.

"We're the guys who put energy where you want it instead of where it is," says Frischkorn. "Nobody builds a building for the sake of having one. They want to do something inside of it to make money. The building is just an expense, and they want the lowest expense possible.

"Unlike in a big warehouse, where you can keep it at one temperature, in a building with twenty-five offices, everyone wants a different temperature," he adds. "Owners want their employees to be happy, but they don't want to use any energy they don't have to. Some clients don't care if they see the HVAC system, and others want it buried. And they don't want it to take up a lot of space, because that space isn't leasable."

As if that wasn't enough, add in the fact that Alaska has its own challenges, from remote locations to transportation expenses to extreme heat and cold. While there are some materials that perform better in Arctic climates, quite often the key to a...

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