Meet Doug Lucht, a mechanical engineer for Sebesta Blomberg & Associates.

Please share your name, title, and a description of your job duties and responsibilities.
My name is Doug Lucht. I am a mechanical engineer for Sebesta Blomberg & Associates. Most of my work focuses on mechanical and HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) systems for commercial buildings. We help size, design, troubleshoot, and commission systems to improve the building’s energy efficiency.

Engineering essentially is using math and science to try to predict the future. For us, we’re using math and science to understand how a building will perform and consume energy before we ever start construction. My engineering specialty is in HVAC. Essentially, my responsibilities include the design of these systems for new buildings, conducting studies or upgrades on systems in existing buildings, and working with contractors during construction to make sure systems are built and installed in a way that is consistent with our intent.

Being an HVAC engineer in Minnesota has its own challenges. In this climate, you’re exposed to so many temperature and humidity extremes. It’s much different than being an engineer in California. For us, we have to design systems for days with temperatures that are more than a hundred degrees as well as for days when the temperature is well below zero.

What is a typical day like at your job?
I usually start my workday around 8 to 8:30 a.m. My daily work can involve calculations to determine heating and cooling loads or the energy requirements for a building. Often, I am working with a vendor that sells a product we use and am talking about options, limitations, and how their product will work in my project. The work involves attending construction meetings, going to the project site, reviewing the construction and installation of our systems, meeting with building owners, and more. The day can involve any number of those things, plus internal meetings where we talk about our projects and current assignments. There’s a lot of communication happening and a lot of meetings. Depending on the type of project, there’s varying amounts of travel. If you are working on a project that involves a new building, most of that work is usually done from the office. If it’s a commissioning project or an existing building, there’s travel to and from the site involved.

How did you get started working in this field?
Growing up, I knew I wanted to go into this field without being able to call it engineering. I grew up on a farm and I was always around machinery. Initially, I wanted to design combines and tractors. I loved them and wanted to understand how to build them. I didn’t actually know what engineering was though. I just knew I liked building, constructing, and tearing things apart. During my senior year of high school, my physics teacher recommended I look at engineering, and I literally thought he meant a train engineer. Once I realize what he was talking about, I didn’t think I would make it because I didn’t have a great aptitude for math. I enrolled in the engineering program at South Dakota State University with the plan to go back and farm if it didn’t work out. I succeeded though. After I finished my education, I worked for a few different engineering companies and eventually landed at Sebesta.

What sort of training or education do you have?
After I went to high school, I went to South Dakota State University (SDSU) and enrolled in mechanical engineering. I didn’t expect to do as well as I did. Early on, I really had to buckle down and study. The classes got easier for me the further along I went, because they were more in line with my aptitude. It was a sign I was in the right spot. While I was at SDSU, I had the opportunity to work for a professor as a lab assistant. I was doing testing on soils for ground source heat pump systems, which gave me an exposure to the research side of the business. I also had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for engineering courses, which was also very rewarding. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided to stay and get my master’s degree in mechanical engineering. I graduated in 1995 with my master’s degree.

There’s a very formal process to become a licensed engineering. I took my Engineer-in-Training (EIT) test as a junior in college, because my school was very proactive in encouraging us to take the exam. I passed the test, and then worked for four-and-a-half years for a local engineering firm before taking and passing the Professional Engineer (PE) test.

What sort of tools, machines, or equipment do you use regularly?
The tools we use every day are mostly software based. We’re constantly on a computer running simulations of energy performance and load calculations to predict how much energy will be required to keep a building at a stable temperature or humidity. We also have software we use regularly to predict the temperature and pressure inside pipes and ducts. We use these tools to build the systems virtually and run tests to understand how the system will perform under different conditions. Other tools we use include handheld temperature and pressure measuring devices and data loggers.

What skills or personal qualities are good for this job?
As a mechanical engineer, the two most important skills are problem-solving and communication. You need to know how to approach and solve a problem through the process of elimination — to rule out certain factors and hone in on what you need to do. You also need to understand where — and where not — to spend your time to solve the problem with the least amount of wasted effort. Then you need communication skills to speak and write clearly so your coworkers, clients, and product vendors understand your idea. It’s not enough to sit in your cubicle and crunch numbers, because if you can’t effectively communicate what you’ve done and what you’ve found, your work is lost.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
The thing I like most is the interaction with clients and problem solving. I really enjoy digging into an existing building and understanding the history, the problem, and the solution. There are so many ways an HVAC system cannot perform, and only a few ways it can. I really enjoy troubleshooting and using the process of elimination to figure out what the problem is. It’s so rewarding to do project like that because a lot of times you’re coming in when a chronic problem has become really bad. The building operations people just really want it solved. If you can be that person to come in solve that problem, they are forever grateful. It is tremendously rewarding to come in and solve something that’s been broken for a long time that no one else could fix.

For example, a few years back we were working on an expansion project for a museum that had been dealing with a problem for 20 years. It was really creating an energy consumption issue for the building and frustrating their staff. We came in, took some data on the air system, evaluated that, and proposed a fix that saved them energy, improved their occupant comfort, and solved a problem they’d been dealing with forever. That kind of thing makes this business enjoyable for me.

How does your job benefit the environment?
As an HVAC engineer, we have a unique opportunity to help save energy consumption for new and existing buildings. A large percentage of the energy that is used in the United States goes to heating and cooling buildings for occupant comfort or safety. As an engineer in that industry, you have tremendous opportunity to reduce that consumption and improve efficiency for the buildings you’re working on.

A lot of the buildings that were built in the 1980s and earlier had much less focus on energy use consumption. Technologies today are so advanced, and the expectations are that new buildings and systems be more energy efficient. If you can bring an old building up to speed, that’s great, because they’ll save money and energy. With new systems, you can design systems to work in the most efficient way possible.

Are there any common misconceptions about this type of work?
One of the common misconceptions is the people in this type of work only like numbers, are good with numbers, and only want to work with numbers. It’s true that you work with numbers every day, but you also need to have interpersonal and communication skills. Communication skills are the most valued skills in this business.

What changes in this field do you expect to see in the future?
The changes we expect to see in the future will come from the advancement of technology, as we’ve seen in the past 10 years. More technologies are being invented for HVAC systems, and more people are trying to apply them. Energy prices tend to drive awareness of energy consumption. As prices go up, owners come to us with ideas about how to save energy. It used to be that if you had an efficiency idea with a higher cost, you really had to sell that. Often, the owner wouldn’t consider it if it didn’t pay itself back within three years. Now owners are accepting a five or even a 10 year payback, and they are coming to us with ideas about what they think would work. They are coming to us asking for an evaluation, rather than us selling the ideas to them. It’s been a fun and refreshing trend in our industry.

What is your advice to someone interested in this field?
Really think about you’re aptitude for mechanical systems. Math is important, but as I explained in my example, it’s not the most important thing to this field. I had an aptitude for mechanical things: I wanted to know how things worked, tear things apart, and rebuild them. As an engineer you should have an aptitude for how things work. I’ve talked to many other people in the field, and it is a common curiosity for us. If you have that, I think mechanical engineering might be a good choice.

Why are you passionate about what you do?
This field is interesting and different from other engineering fields. Many other engineers can propose and test their product in a lab with a prototype. In HVAC engineering, we have to get it right the first time and be able to think on our feet and make adjustments as needed. It’s rewarding to come in and help solve a problem, design a new system, or apply a technology that hasn’t been done before — and then get to see it built and functioning!