Building Technology Podcast – Guest: Phil Zito

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00:07 Scott: Hi everybody, my name is Scott Holstein with Computrols. I am joined today by Phil Zito on our building technology podcast. Phil is one of the better known names in the building automation industry known for his Building Automation Monthly website. He has tons and tons of awesome information on building automation. It’s basically a resource for videos, podcasts, blogs, you name it, but Phil is the fastest growing provider of online training for building automation. And we’re very excited to have him here today Phil welcome to the podcast.

00:46 Phil: Hey, thanks, Scott. It’s great to be here.

00:49 Scott: Phil I gotta say, as somebody who has been in the building automation industry I guess three years now, I was very appreciative of Building Automation Monthly as a resource because I really came into the industry, looking for information, looking to learn and found there wasn’t a lot of content out there so it was a huge help to me and I’m sure it’s been a huge help to a lot of other folks in the building automation industry. How have things been going with Building Automation Monthly? How is the business going and where do you see it headed?

01:25 Phil: Yeah, so way better than I ever thought it was going to go, I mean, I never envisioned this to become a training company otherwise I would have picked a different name than Building Automation Monthly. And kinda confuses people so. But it started off as a way for me to document my research. So I’ve only been in the industry 12 years. A lot of folks don’t realize that they, for some reason, maybe it’s ’cause I’m balding and I got a great beard but for whatever reason they think I’m much older than I actually am, like, “Hey what controls line, did you work on in the 80s? I was like, I was two years old, in the ’80s so not many but I came in too like you with only the Honeywell Gray Manual. I had a mentor who gave me a control stencil literally a stencil piece of plastic and had me write my programs on a piece of paper before he’d let me program anything. And so I learned a lot, I learned the art of Google-fu and in this industry, you gotta be able to research stuff.

And so, Building Automation Monthly kind of became my resting place for all those thoughts and no one else was out there, doing it at the time and it turned into more than just a resource for me to share information started having a lot of people asking me for more information. So I put a book together and a podcast together and our first course together, which was on IT. Folks, then were trying to figure out, IP controls at the time… Everyone rolled out IP controls. Almost like, “Hey IP controls is the thing to do”. A lot of folks don’t realize the reason IP controls kind of became mainstream was because there were some manufacturers who got their IP controls lines splat spec’d and that was excluding other manufacturers. And so it’s kind of that… “Oh crap, we’re losing jobs, we better get in the IP product, too”. And so it came out that’s how IP controls came about, and our IT course at the time, was there and nothing else was there, so folks started buying that and we turned into a full-time training business.

And since then, since ‘2017 November 2017, when we became an LLC, we’ve had 4200 students go through. We’ve created eight courses. We’ve worked with pretty much all of the major OEMS, and a lot of the system integration companies as well as a lot of owner organizations, and consulting engineers. So now, our focus as we’re starting to close out our technical tracks, so we’ve got a track focused on technicians, designers, programmers, and instruction sales and we’re wrapping up a track focused on integration service operations and project management. Once those are done kinda around summer time, we’re then gonna be switching our focus on the owner-operators, because I feel like that is a very underserved market on as far as training goes. Your options and usually are a $99 slide share presentation often presented by someone who hasn’t actually worked in controls, and I feel that that’s very limiting to operators. I feel they are a very neglected segment of our industry, and that’s what we’re looking to focus on shifting our business to focus on towards the end of this year, probably for a good six months we’ll be producing course content related to that market.

05:17 Scott: Well that’s great, and I noticed, I noticed earlier this week, I think you had posted something on LinkedIn, which is what needs to be included in BAS operator course and I love when you ask those questions on LinkedIn because you generally get a lot of engagement because of your network and I feel like you get great feedback based on that. And the operator is really somebody that Computrols focuses on as a company, and I think training operators is something like you said it’s done on a case-by-case basis, and then as you have turnover and things change, it doesn’t only get passed along. So via the operator, the individual is also a case-by-case basis, as well. You have operators who are really familiar with HVAC systems, you have operators who have no experience there, and then you have operators who are really good in the IT space very technical, the software side of things, but maybe not the mechanical side. So what have you learned in your research for this course? I saw a lot of great responses to that LinkedIn post but What have you learned so far?

06:37 Phil: Yeah, so that was really interesting. I did post on LinkedIn, I did post on Facebook. I haven’t sent anything out through our email list yet, but I’m gonna be doing that. Something we do when we create all our courses is we do a beta. And I don’t mean this to be an infomercial for our courses. So the reason I’m giving folks who are listening to this background is because it’ll help paint the picture of the conundrum I’m in creating an operator course. But whenever we create a course, we do a beta, we actually open it up for a discounted price, and we don’t actually create the course. We bring in students before we’ve created the course and then we create the course alongside the students, and they give us feedback as we create the course. Well, as I started to solicit feedback on LinkedIn and Facebook, which is kind of step one, of our strategy, we first see how folks respond to see if there’s even interest, then we take their feedback and we try to lump it up together. And what I got was actually quite confusing, because there was a lot of different feedback some of the feedback I thought, was quite frankly, overkill.

There were folks who were… “Oh, well, they need to understand how to do complex engineering”, and I’m like… “This is operators operators, we’re not talking facility engineers operators”. So what I noticed is that there wasn’t a consensus on what an operator should do. It seemed to break out based on if the operator is part of an institutional organization like a school or a higher ed or municipality and then there’s operators for private entities like corporate campuses and then there’s operators for investment real estate like strip mall and medical office buildings, and small-scale commercial real estate and they seem to have no clear definition of what an operator was. So that was the first insight. The second set of insight was that there was a lot of legacy systems that operators are currently operating that are no longer supported by manufacturers and as soon as these operators decide to retire, you can’t buy these parts off eBay anymore. So, there seem to be… How do you even train that because you’re gonna have an operator who’s saying I’m not interested in training because I already know this stuff, but you can’t go and train a new person really on a product that ultimately has a two, three-year life span, and you can’t replace…so there’s the conundrum. What do you train that person, on?

Because you don’t wanna train them on a new product because you don’t know what they’re gonna use, but you can’t train them on the existing product because that product is obsolete and you’re wasting investment dollars. So that was the second thing, and then the third, and this kind of the last point I’ll make was just this shift that is occurring from capital investment and resources to operational investment…seeing a lot of organizations that are choosing to use service providers. And the reason why is that it’s an operational cost that they can contract if they hit a bad time or they’re not revenuing or a tenant is out, and they’ve got empty space…they don’t have someone on staff they just contract that contract so that operational cost can be load shed really fast versus a capital cost of investing in the employee hiring the employee, training the employee, keeping the employee. We’re seeing a lot of mid-size and smaller organizations that are avoiding that model actually.

10:38 Scott: Very interesting and something that you brought up that I had thought about myself previously, was it is interesting to see the different levels of operators in various industries. You brought a higher education and commercial real estate as two them and those are two that I’ve seen kind of the opposite into the spectrum, on… And then you look at healthcare where you feel like maybe you need to have somebody on staff who really does have that high touch because health care is held to such a high standard for all of those HVAC purposes. So when you’re dealing with that broad range, how do you start to position your training for someone who has that experience versus somebody who doesn’t maybe?

11:34 Phil: Yeah, so that’s a dilemma, right? That’s something we’ve been racking our brains on. And I think what I’ve concluded from this is it’s gonna be a multi-tier training structure, there’s gonna be an entry level which is familiarity, training, then there’s going to be an actual process specific training that sits on top of that. So I think the familiarity training will help a lot of folks. And then what I did was I mapped out the use cases that the majority of operators will do they gotta log into the building automation system, they gotta change setpoints, they gotta view alarms, they gotta create schedules and then you get to the more complex use cases ensure you know changing graphics reloading controllers, etcetera. So when you start to figure out those use cases you can then go and start to actually structure a training path. And whereas most of our courses for technicians and designers and programmers are kinda omnibus programs, they’re 33 hours long all-encompassing these courses. I’m envisioning them being much shorter and being modularized so that it will be applicable to that kind of a very broad definition of what an operator is.

13:05 S?: Got you. Something else that you had mentioned that I think is something that I’m sure a lot of property managers struggle with is is it feasible to train in-house or is it not? So can you talk about some of the advantages and disadvantages you found in doing your research on this?

13:26 Phil: Yeah. So whether to train in-house or not the train in-house is a good question. And it also depends on is this part of an existing project or is this just an ongoing decision? Because one of the strategies that your listeners can implement right now is if they have a project ongoing, they can get very clear on the use cases that they want their operators to execute. What I mean by that is they can say, “I want my operator to be able to log in, I want them to be able to check all the room temps, I want them to be able to check alarms, to print a report on temperatures, etcetera, etcetera. Whatever those use cases are, spend an hour or two, document out those use cases.

14:14 Phil: And I don’t want them the phrase “use cases” to be intimidating to anyone. A use case can be as simple as saying, “Log into the BAS and check temperature.” You don’t have to get any more detailed than that. But what you do is you list out these use cases, you work with your contractor who’s actually putting in the new or retrofitting the existing building automation system, and then you work these use cases into the training that should in your spec, you should be specing 8 to 16 hours of training. And then once that’s built into the spec, you actually videotape that training when it occurs, you store it on a server, locally or in the Cloud, and then as new people come on board or as people need to be refreshed, they simply go view that recorded training, and you’ve basically created a training library.

15:04 Phil: And I think we need to get away from the mindset of we have one person who had all this tacit knowledge, and we need to focus in on a continuous training model where we’re building that knowledge, utilizing the tools available to us, like Cloud and data storage, to create a training library. Now, that’s a need to decision to make if you’re doing new construction or retrofit work. But what if you’re doing just operating the building? Well, in that case, it really comes down to a revnue decision. Are you going to be able to avoid… And it’s less of a does it cost less for me to train my ops team than to use an integrator or a contractor? That’s not the question you should be asking. The question you should be asking is the likelihood of a system failure occurring, that if I trained my team, they could address faster than potentially the contractor who’s servicing them, and is the benefit of that faster response or preventative response going to generate enough positive revenue in my business that I should invest in that?

16:24 Phil: So an example that would be a school district. If students aren’t in their seats, then you don’t get paid that day for student attendance, ’cause they’re not attending. So having someone who de-couples you for relying on a contractor to service you in-house, so having someone trained in-house who can go and solve the majority of those issues, in my opinion, makes sense from a profit perspective. That’s how I look at these problems. It’s a little different than looking at does it cost… ’cause that first cost of training someone is going to easily be eclipsed by the damage to your business profitability if, for four days, students aren’t sitting in their chairs, or if you have to go… You’re maybe running a test lab in a production facility and you have to restart a one-year test because the environment went out of control, those kind of things.

17:26 Scott: Yeah. And that was actually gonna be my next question, was how do you determine what those use cases are? And from what you explained, and in my perception, is that it depends. It depends on the facility, it depends on who you have in place, and what you can realistically do in-house. And like you said, you look at the business case for if I have to call somebody to do this, what is it gonna cost me, from a business perspective, and then what is the monetary cost of getting someone out here for maintenance as well? I really do like the idea of having some kind of training library because I do think that oftentimes that training does not get passed down as turnover happens or whatever that might be. So I think figuring out what those use cases are, and then building some kind of training library for those use cases is a really great start.

18:26 Phil: Yeah.

18:29 Scott: As we talk about passing things down to the next guy, we see in the facility management history right now, a shift, a lot of those individuals who are retiring have not necessarily… It’s not really a workforce or a skilled workforce there to replace them at this point. So is the library and the training that goes into that is that something that you see getting passed down? And then on the same… Along the same lines going, you had brought up earlier, legacy systems who are run by these individuals who may be on their way out. How do you recommend managing that situation?

19:14 Phil: Yeah. So first question, how do you go and manage technical knowledge? How do you pass that down? There’s kind of a running joke right now in the building automation industry, which is that if you’re breathing, and you can spell BAS, you can get a job.

19:31 Scott: It’s not quite that bad but it’s pretty bad. Anyone who wants to work is working and if you are getting an experienced person, you’re either paying them a huge premium, they’re not really as good as they say they are, because folks aren’t leaving companies right now. There’s just so much backlog. The same is to be said about operators. Now we have to get a little clear though, on the definition of a an operator. If we’re talking about a janitor who flips a switch in a mechanical closet to turn the building on and off. That’s probably not the audience we’re targeting here. We’re looking at more folks and we’re also not looking at folks who are at the university level, who have the mechanical engineering degree, have been to every manufacturer training course, have their own controls team and are using interns to run a Remote Operation Center. Those are kind of two extreme examples. We’re looking at something more in the middle of someone who is multi-talented. Maybe has a mechanical background, maybe doesn’t maybe has an electrical background, maybe doesn’t, but their sole goal is come in in the morning, make sure, the things running, make sure nothing is out of wack, and if something is out of wack, try to initially figure out why it is, and maybe do some generic level troubleshooting.

21:02 Scott: That is your typical operator profile. So how do you train to that? Well, you can do that pretty consistently across multiple different verticals because you’re thinking right, life safety, comfort, and efficiency, those are your three outcomes, life, safety for efficiency. And you could also throw in business processes as well. So life safety being, “Hey are the lights on, is the infectious control room in the hospital, is it properly pressurized? So infection and whatever viruses, floating around isn’t escaping into other rooms.” So that’s life safety. Business process will be making sure that the OR’s at the right temperature so that we can actually do surgeries or make sure that the imaging room’s at the right temperature, so we can run the MRI machine to make profits. And then you’ve got actual comfort. Making sure everyone’s comfortable. And your effectiveness of your equipment, making sure it’s running well.

22:12 Scott: So once you’ve got those four areas focused in on, then it’s pretty easy to generate use cases and build a training library around those. You would go and say, “Okay to do this. What do I need to do?” Well, as I mentioned, you need to be able to log in the system, you need to be able to check the variables, you need to be able to run reports, you need to be able to do some basic level troubleshooting. So then you build use cases around that. You get your training around that, you build that training library. Now, when you’re looking at existing buildings with legacy systems which just to define what a legacy system is, ’cause we hear that term thrown around so much. Legacy system is a system that is no longer in production, and that you can no longer buy parts for. It’s legacy it is a system that is no longer around. And a lot of these systems exist. You’ve got pneumatic systems which pressurized air, you’ve got old electro-mechanical system, then you’ve got some first generation DDC systems. So what do you do with those? Well, you’ve got three options. I know you guys specialize in the integration option, so you’ve got that piece. That’s one option to do. Other option is rip and replace in some cases that makes sense, if you got an old pneumatic system that’s leaking all over the place and you wanna move to a DDC system, that may make sense of ripping and replacing that.

23:45 Scott: And then your third is kind of a hybrid option which is maybe top level integration and leave the existing system in place and then as this fell off, but you’ve got that talent there that has all that tacit knowledge. And the thing is, is that what we don’t realize is that tacit knowledge is often product-specific knowledge. So even if you were to capture that and train someone on that tacit knowledge, you’re training them on knowledge that isn’t really applicable to any other system. So I think you need to go a level higher than that rather than saying, “Okay, there’s an old teletron system, this is how you use comport, whatever, to go and Telenet into it and use your green screen to mess around with it.” Instead of doing that, maybe train people on what actual points are. What’s a physical point? What’s a logical point? What’s a graphic? How do I even turn on a computer? I got this one call back when I was in service, it was kind of funny, I had this guy and he was like, “I’ve got 60 Hz on my screen, I can’t get it to go away. I’ve re-started the BAS and everything.”

24:54 Scott: Well, it turns out he was in monitor configuration mode, on his monitor, and so he turned off the monitor, and turned it on and for at least a couple of seconds I was the smartest technician in the world to him, because I was able to figure out the problem is the monitor. But I mean that’s just, there’s no fault on people like that. I’m not at all demeaning that. I met many folks who can’t operate a computer but yet know a way more about mechanical systems than I possibly ever could. So we each have our strengths. It’s just simply knowing where your team is at, training your team to that baseline level, whatever you decide it to be, but not focusing on that existing system, in that tacit knowledge, because the likelihood is for every dollar you invest in someone learning that, the likelihood of that dollar paying off is becoming less and less as the systems age. So the ROI on that investment of knowledge is not very high.

26:00 Scott: So something that you alluded to a little bit is that you don’t necessarily have to have all of this knowledge to get started in being more proactive about managing the building automation system in your facility. I think a lot of facility managers out there are intimidated to some degree to go and get their hands dirty, and actually start tweaking things and moving things around, and I think you hear a lot of the jargon thrown around the IOT and artificial intelligence, and I think that a lot of that is off putting to people who are not necessarily comfortable with the building automation system to begin with. So how do you make those individuals feel comfortable enough to get started?

26:56 Phil: Yeah, so first off you gotta accept that you’re never gonna know everything. You’re always gonna meet someone who knows more, so the question is, when do I know enough? And that’s why I always bring it back to the use cases. Do you know enough to do the use cases? If you don’t know enough to do the use cases, who does know how to do the use cases? And then go to that person or persons, and find out what they know that you don’t know. So if I was looking to log into a building automation system and I said, “That’s one of my use cases.” And my other use case is to change temperature. I don’t think you need to know all the jargon or even know what a building automation system is to know that you can log into it and see the temperature in your room. I think that’s fairly common knowledge.

27:56 Phil: So knowing that the question then becomes, how do I log in and see the temperatures in my room? That is a question we can answer, and you can answer that by going to manufacturer training, you can answer that by asking the manufacturer to just swing mind by and give you a quick overview, you can answer that by building it into your training in a new construction or existing retrofit project. There’s so many ways to address it, you just have to decide how you wanna address it. The thing is, is that you don’t wanna do is say, “Okay I need to know every single thing about this building automation system.” I’m a big fan of just in time learning, it’s how we set up our business model. That’s the reason we do online courses, that’s the reason our courses are asynchronous meaning they’re pre-recorded, is because we want folks to be able to hop into a lesson and say, “Oh I need to do this.” And so, they hop into that lesson like in our install course. “Oh, I need to set up an input” or “Oh, I need to set up a trend”, and they hop in and they watch that video.

29:00 Phil: I’m a big fan of that and I think that’s the model that operators should be focusing on. What are the key use cases they need to do and then as they need to do ’em, either refer to an existing training library or go and seek out the resources, and when you take that approach I feel that in my experience working with our students, learning building automation becomes much more reasonable, it becomes much easier to approach that because it’s not this overwhelming beast of, I’ve gotta learn everything about everything, it’s I need to learn how to turn on my computer, log in and check a set point, and that is much easier than I need to learn every aspect of the BIS.

29:52 Scott: I think that’s a great approach. I think baby steps are definitely the way to go, like you said. Figure out what those first few use cases are, get the individuals comfortable with checking the temperature, changing the schedule, really, really basic. Pick a handful of things that you wanna learn how to do, learn how to do those, and I think honestly a lot of people are gonna get in there, it’s gonna be easier than they expected, and from there they may get a little bit more interested and wanna poke around, and do a little bit more and then as those service calls come up they might have an interest in, “Okay, well, how did you do that? So next time I can do that.” So I think that’s a great way to start.

30:40 Phil: Yeah, and it’s less overwhelming and that’s something literally your listeners could do right now. They could pause this and write down five things they’ve done with their BAS this week, and then they’ve created five use cases and then all they have to do is remember those five things when they come up to a new retrofit or a new project, or when their service tech comes to visit their site, and say, “Hey can you show me how to do this?” And then if they’re really feeling, really ambitious, they grab their iPhone and record it while it’s being done, and then save that video to the cloud or save it to a local server. And there you go, and then they’re like, “Oh I gotta remember how to log in and configure that point or change that setting.” “Well, oh I remember I got a video and the I’ll watch the video again”, and I mean that literally that five minutes of them recording that will avoid a three-hour service call potentially.

31:47 Scott: Yeah, absolutely, and then they look like a hero. So I really appreciate you taking the time down to sit down and talk to us today. I think there’s a lot of really good take aways from this. Everybody listening please keep an eye out for Phil’s operator course coming out. If you haven’t already go to building automation monthly, see Phil’s content it’s second to none, in terms of education for the building automation industry. I highly recommend it myself. Phil thanks again for your time and hopefully we’ll have you back on the podcast some other time.

32:22 Phil: Yeah, thanks for having me.