I had the great opportunity for this month Members Spotlight to sit down with Dan Williams, P.E Senior Mechanical Engineer at Sage Engineering Associates, former ASHRAE Northeast chapter president (2015-2016) and RPI Graduate.
We talked about how he got started in HVAC design, his favorite projects, what drives him, and when he is not busy engineering what he does for fun. See the interview below.
Tell me about yourself, where you're from, how did you get into engineering and where you are at now?
I grew up in the South East Pennsylvania in a small suburban town called Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, it is 5 hours away from Albany. That's where a lot of my family still lives. I became interested in engineering because I used to like to work on cars with my Dad. I really was interested in understanding how assemblies and mechanisms worked and made things work. So I actually wanted to design cars and engines, which is why I went into an engineering school and I just kind of fell into this industry. My wife started a job up here in Albany and she found out about ME Engineering. It was in the next suite over in the same building she worked in. So I ended up interviewing with them and I got a job with them in 2005.
What aspects of HVAC have made you stay with it for all these years now over pursuing automotive work?
The assemblies and systems are different but there are many components that work together to make a system work. So there are some similarities like the components of an exhaust system or an intake system you could correlate to a duct system are piping system. You can think of the boiler, or air handler, or chiller as a power plant for the engine of a car and all the peripheral systems has the ductwork and piping and then ancillary components that make the whole system work. So there are some parallels that I've drawn that kind of keep me interested in it. And of course, you know there are always new types of systems such as VRF. That came about over the past decade. You apply them every now and then. Every time you try to apply a VRF, a ground source heat pump, or a different type of system it is a new experience. So even after 15 years, I still learn something every day. That's the big thing with me that keeps me into it.
When and Why did you join ASHRAE?
I'm sure there must have been a colleague along the way that encouraged me to become a member of ASHRAE. I don't remember if it was when I was in Syracuse in 2005 or after I transferred to Albany in 2006.
What led you to stay involved in and then work up through the ranks to become president of ASHRAE Northeast?
The encouragement and support of my bosses and senior staff where I work are past presidents in Evan Walden and David Layton. They are the principals two of the four principles at Sage Engineering. They encouraged me along the way, supported my time out of the office to do that. The biggest value from ASHRAE are just personal connections. I just like getting to know people too. That kind of kept me going along the journey with ASHRAE.
What did you enjoy most about your time as President?
It was definitely working with the other members of the board and the other chapter officers like the secretary and other presidents. The personal connections are one thing but to actually sit down and spend time and work through coordination efforts with them. I mean that takes it to another level.
What would like to see ASHRAE Northeast improve on?
I think kind of the trajectory of the chapter is on it's setup and in moving in the right direction. I think we get good content for the meetings in general with good presenters. It varies from presenter to presenter and topic to topic. In general, we've got so many great people in the local chapter. The young people come on board in the BOG. They become chapter president eventually. It's a good amount of turnover and it's good to see new faces. It's been like four or five years since I've been president and sometimes I come to the meetings after missing a few and I'm like man, I don't know there's so many new faces. I don't know, it's just more opportunity to get to know more people.
What was the first project that you designed?
I remember two projects that stick out in my memory. The first project, I worked on a small rooftop unit for SUNY Cobleskill. It was a classroom where they worked on a tractor or something to that effect. I remembered designing that system selecting the air handler working with the vendor to pick the air handler to rooftop unit sizing everything sizing the duct work, doing the specs. That was one of them and there was the New York State United Teachers Association in Vestal, NY. They were small jobs. I mean thinking about the jobs I worked on since then; they were really a launching pad for me.
Was there someone who inspired you to come engineer?
My dad he was trained as a mechanic not like formally trained, he learned from people and now he did all his own maintenance on his car. So I had to help him with oil changes and whatever. I wanted to get a car, we bought a cheap Camaro and we had to replace the clutch right away and stuff like that.
What technologies or trends are you excited about for the future in our industry?
Anything that reduces energy use. I would love to get into some more design of ground source heat pumps. I don't think I've worked on any of those systems in 7-8 years.
If you're burning fossil fuel at your building. You can't change it. I mean you can go from a non-condensing furnace to a condensing furnace. But if you've got a heat pump system weather its VRV or a geothermal heat pump the gird does get cleaner over time.
What is your biggest challenge in designing HVAC systems?
The biggest challenge consistently is coordination on dealing with people making sure that everybody on the team has the right information from everybody else. Whether it's having the information from the client from the customer. Whether getting the right information to the electrical engineer to run power, whether it's coordinating with an architect or civil engineer. There's so much coordinating. It's so much passing information around back and forth that sometimes that gets overlooked while you're here zoned in on your own design.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Recently, we had a project that we're still trying to wrap where we had plans to use temporary air handling units on a trailer to supply heating ventilating and air-conditioning to the spaces while we're replacing 17 air handlers in the building. The big accomplishment with that was we were able to figure out a way to instead of doing temporary air handlers we able to run temporary ductwork across rooftops and within the building. We figured out and draw up the plans for temporary ductwork from one to another so that we could omit those temporary air handlers.
What do you think is the most important skill you develop in your career?
The ability to listen. Listening to the client's needs, what they want, listening to the designer or drafter to understand. what additional information they need to do the job.
What is one thing HVAC related or not that you learned last month?
Well, I learned very recently that Trane and Mitsubishi teamed up for their VRF recently. I also learned with new electric Mustang the MachE is going to be assembled in Mexico.
What is your most memorable project that you've done in the past?
Yes one that I do think back on that was a big learning experience for me was Cooperstown Biological Field Station. I learned a lot when I worked on that job because every now and then the question will come up and I'll refer back to that one. That one is at least eight years ago There's just certain things that I learned during that job that I feel like have applied to a lot of other jobs. Like opening protectives like fire dampers, fire smoke dampers and in duct shaft enclosures, refrigerant monitoring alarms. It the first time I dealt with a remote for condensing unit for a chiller. It was the biggest laboratory exhaust system that I had dealt with at the time.
There's just so much to it that I learned from that stuck with me.
Chilled water or DX?
In the past I would have said chilled for efficiency say but in the past few years or so, I've gained it a much greater appreciation for the maintenance of the systems. So there certainly is a simplicity that a DX system that helps with from that respect and DX systems have gotten a lot more efficient.
Fun fact that many people might not know about you?
I enjoy singing. I wouldn't say I'm good at it. Like I enjoy singing but I never liked my own voice when I hear it recorded back, so I don't like to put people through it, but when I'm in the car or by myself I’m the best!
If you had to eat one meat everyday for the rest of your life what would it be?
When I was in high school and college, I worked at Subway and I did have Subway like everyday. That's a really tough question. I would probably say filet mignon. I don't have that much at all, like once a year but I really enjoy it.
If you could meet anyone in the world dead or alive, who would it be?
Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. A lot of his music connected with me at one point. It is more of the feel of it than lyrics or the message of it, but from the interviews that I've seen recorded of them, I just think it'd be really interesting to discuss very esoteric and existential things with him.
What is your favorite sport favorite sport?
I like to play golf, but I'm an Eagles fan. I like football.
Best advice you ever got?
I used to try to dedicate myself to just learning something everyday like just continue learning. But this guy that I was working with at the time took it a step further. He said learn and then apply what you learn and have fun.
Favorite late-night snack favorite late-night snack?
We had leftover birthday cake last night at like 12:30 AM. Typically probably ice cream. Mint cookie crumble from Stewart's.
What advice would you give young individual start out in HVAC today?
Be an active listener so that you can learn things, once you learn them then you can apply them in advance.
Membership Promotion Chair