Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning mechanics George Sagias (left) and James Carpenter. During the period when HVAC staffers switch campus building systems from air conditioning to heat, says Carpenter, "we're on the move all day long." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Their Job Is Running Hot and Cold
October is one busy month for University's HVAC staffers
By Stephen Gawlik
For the members of the University's Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning staff, there are two signs that October has arrived: The Red Sox are finished for the year - if they are not locked in yet another epic battle with the Yankees - and the phone is ringing off the hook.
Red Sox fortunes notwithstanding, the HVAC shop's 13 mechanics have a lot of work to do every October preparing each one of BC's more than 100 buildings for the wicked New England winters. It's no wonder the phone calls are rolling in.
"This is definitely got to be the craziest time of year here," said shop foreman Brian O'Connor, who joined the University four months ago and is nearing the end of his first October in BC's HVAC shop. "But we're up to it."
While many in the BC community may take their temperate classrooms, offices and residence halls for granted, it is the efforts of O'Connor and his fellow staffers during October and May that make Boston College a warmer, or cooler, place.
Under the direction of Assistant Director for Technical Services Terence Leahy, the HVAC shop is responsible for all the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration needs on campus, which includes building systems as well as kitchen equipment, rooftop heating and air conditioning units, chillers, steam production, hot water and boilers.
Because the range of systems in BC's facilities are so broad, the HVAC shop requires a staff that has to be highly knowledgeable and very skilled, said Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Michael P. Dwyer.
"This is really a top notch, professional crew and they possess a wide range of experience, skills and abilities," said Dwyer. "Whether it's the simplest residential units or highly complex commercial heating and air conditioning systems, these guys can handle anything."
According to the mechanics, for approximately three weeks in October and May every day is a marathon of hard work as nearly every building on campus requires conversion from an air conditioning to a heating system or vice versa.
"This time of year when we make the switch it's pretty hectic," said HVAC Mechanic James Carpenter. "When you add in all the other work, we're on the move all day long."
Mechanics say one of the most difficult aspects of their job is something over which they have no control: the weather. Turn the heat on in a building, and a dose of Indian summer often arrives to spike the temperature, they note, and unfortunately, it is simply inefficient to readjust the HVAC system for such a small period of time.
"It can be difficult to tell people that we simply can't turn their air conditioners back on," said Carpenter.
"In this job we provide comfort, but we're always working where it's either too hot or too cold. No one calls us in when they're comfortable; it's only when things have broken down."
Another difficult situation, says HVAC Mechanic George Sagias, is working in a building or office where people can't agree whether it's too hot or too cold.
"You don't want to be in the middle of that," he said.
Carpenter added: "That's when you tell them they have to work it out for themselves."
As with many professions, the tasks of an HVAC mechanic are now assisted by computer technology.
"Most of the campus is on a computer controlled energy management system," said Sagias, who has worked in the HVAC shop for 30 years. Where in years past each building had to be monitored individually, he said, today the system can alert the mechanics and they can manage some functions with the touch of a computer keyboard.
"It is much easier," said Sagias. "But you still have to pay attention."
The mechanics said some areas of campus, such as the Higgins Hall laboratories or the McMullen Museum of Art, require more attention than others due to the sensitive nature of the work done there.
It is not the HVAC shop alone that is responsible for keeping Boston College warm in the winter. The Central Heating Plant on Middle Campus operates 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, and maintains three high-pressure steam boilers providing service for 22 buildings.
In addition, the Facilities Services organization of which the HVAC shop is part has many engineers, technicians and skilled trades workers who help keep all of the systems in all of the University's buildings functioning efficiently.
But this time of year, it's the HVAC Shop that has to step up to the plate.
"We've got a whole team full of aces and clutch hitters in our HVAC Shop," said Dwyer. "If this were baseball, these guys could give the Yankees a run for their money, without a doubt."