I'm often asked "How do I get a job in building automation?" or "What does a career path look like in building automation?".
Here at Smart Buildings Academy we train and develop people for work in the building automation field. Because of this we get to see the progression of professionals from knowing next to nothing about building automation to becoming "BAS experts".
In this guide you will learn:
- What roles exist in building automation
- How to train and develop yourself for a job in building automation
How to get your first job in building automation?
What roles exist in building automation?
So, what jobs are there? To preface this, when I talk about roles, I will not only point out what the role does, but also the salary ceiling. So, I want you to think about three things:
- What is my salary ceiling?
- What are my growth opportunities?
- Does this position potentially position me to be tightly coupled to a specific area of work?
- If there's not project work or service work, could I be let go?
- Is this a skill that even if there is not a lot of work, they can trade my labor to other divisions?
- Can I do a 1099-Independent Contractor route and render my services/programming/graphics/design to other companies?
Salary Range 30k to 60k USD Average
The first role is Installation. This is going to have the lowest salary ceiling. Installers are going to have the lowest salary ceiling, meaning that the highest amount you can get paid is going to be lower than pretty much any other role out there. At the end of the day, you're running wires, you're bending conduit, and unless you're unionized, you're going to be a pretty low Labor Rate.
Now, it’s a decent way to get into the field. A lot of people I meet though, have trouble jumping from Installer to any of the other roles. In my opinion, it's a very hard role to start out as, if you want to jump into other roles. It, in my opinion, unnecessarily adds a fair bit of time in your career journey. Whereas if you started in a Technician role, or a Designer role as a Junior Designer or a Junior Technician, doing some basic commissioning or basic point-to-point and functional tests, you would be better off and further along the career path.
So, I'm not saying don't ever go and install, but I am saying if you have a choice, I would highly recommend other roles over install. Now, let's not to put down installers because they do a great service. There are some whose work looks like works of art! It's amazing! They are very technically sharp.
That being said, there is just only so much you can install. Also, installation is dependent on having stuff to install. Whereas with programming, designing, and integrating, you can still do that kind of work, even if there are no projects on the books.
Salary Range 40k to 70k USD Average
The second role is Technician. These are the people who are going to make sure everything is properly calibrated. They're going to upload and download controllers, make sure things are installed properly, and do basic setup of the front end, etc.
Service technicians go out and support customers, troubleshoot problems, and try to solve problems for the customers. Also, you don’t just have Service Technicians, but you have Service Technicians who do retrofit, which is more install kind of work. You have Service Technicians who do planned service agreements, which is more service agreement work, and then you have Troubleshooting Service Technicians who troubleshoot issues.
Salary Range 50k to 90k USD Average
Designers are the people who create the control submittals. They design the panel layouts, and how systems will be installed and wired up.
Now, the BAS designer, in my opinion, is one of the most under appreciated roles in building automation. It has the most direct effect on whether a project goes well or does not, but yet gets, in my opinion, once again, the least amount of training.
I recall many times that to be a BS designer, you just basically do your time as a technician and then you stop off as a designer for a couple years or maybe a couple months. And then you're a programmer.
But the BAS designer is a critically important role and by regular gating it to this kind of intermediary stop between the technician role in the program, programmer role. I feel like we're doing it a great disservice.
So what does a BAS designer do?
Well, if you've listened to our previous podcast episodes or read some of our guides on project management, you know that one of the key aspects of project success is having a good takeoff, having good submittals, having good as-builts, and close out documents, all of those the BAS designer is involved in and then beyond that the BAS designer may be involved in things like graphics and maybe involved in things like setting up graphics and interfaces for test and balance and commissioning.
But the the big things are going and reviewing the sales to operations handoff, reviewing those documents and ensuring that they actually make sense going and creating the initial submittal set as well as the installation documents for your contractors that are out in the field, your electrical subcontractors and whatnot.
And also going and taking all of your documentation from field install in the form of red lines, and converting those to as belts for your final owner and maintenance or operations and maintenance manual or O and M documents.
So that is what a designer does.
While doing that a designer may be required to go and do valve sizing may be required to go and do damper sizing may be required to select specific integration options, or unique input and output devices that require engineering. So there is a science, it's not just selecting parts. And that's what I find a lot of people who manage ops teams, it's kind of a 50/50 split, you've either got folks who have been in the field or you've got folks who have never been in the field, the folks who have been in the field, I find take the time to train their designers and ensure that they have the technical aptitude to execute.
But the fields folks who have not served in the field, they look at the designer as basically a glorified part selector, which is a really bad way to look at the designer role. Because improperly engineering and I use the word engineering purposely because a lot of what the designer does is going to be engineering. Anyone can lay out a network riser but how you lay it out whether you decide to do 30 devices or 60 devices on a trunk run based on maybe length of run or potential access.
These are things and nuances that the designer will learn over time.
So that brings us up to the question of how do you learn to be a designer?
Well, like the technician role, you need to have a baseline knowledge of BAS, HVAC, and electrical those are kind of core knowledge skills. Beyond that, though, you need to have a more advanced knowledge of parts and pieces for building automation systems. Like off the top of your head, you should understand what safeties, what common inputs, what common outputs, you know, temperature actuators, etc, that you're going to be selecting that should be you know, stuff that well you may not have it memorized, you at least know where to find it immediately and you know how to select the different devices.
So how do you get to the point where you have that knowledge?
Well, it's a combination of things, as much as I rally against OJT, because I feel like on the job training is an excuse for keeping people in a role for way too long. There is an OJT component to this, but done right, it can be achieved fairly shortly. The reality is the majority of what a designer is going to be doing is repetitive. But it does require knowledge and understanding. Once you've learned how to size and select valves, it's pretty easy to continue sizing and selecting valves moving forward.
Sure, there will be nuances of special scenarios where you're having to do some really goofy valve setup. But the majority of the time, right, it's going to be those two to four inch ball valves or, you know, butterfly valves, right, just common basic valve types that you're going to be sizing and selecting for your different building automation system needs.
That also takes us into things like Flow Meters, pressure meters, you know, back when I started pressure meters that were much more difficult to select. Now you've got universal pressure meters that know you pick one, and they can do so many different ranges. So you've got that benefit. But as you're seeing, understanding the IO, understanding the parts and pieces, and really understanding the protocols, understanding what the protocol limitations are understanding, hey, I'm looking at this BACnet rooftop points list. And I realized that these are all AI's, and I understand those are read only points. So the likelihood of us being able to control this because it doesn't have any AV or AO is unlikely. So this is a red flag I need to raise up these are things that come with time and experience. Fortunately, if you've experienced this once, then you pretty much carry that knowledge for it on every design you've done.
That's why I say it doesn't require as much OJT as it does. And you can augment this, you can augment this by going in establishing this core knowledge. In addition to this, the next thing I'll point out, that is really under appreciated with design is proper electrical details and proper panel layouts. So not everyone has a panel shop. So having an electrical or sorry, a designer who is able to go into CAD or whatever you're using and do panel layouts at scale, so that they can be built, that's super helpful. Additionally, being able to build out electrical details, so that the electrician literally just has to follow the electrical detail in the designs middle is also an incredibly valuable skill.
So you've got all that, right, you've got all this submittal creation knowledge that requires it Bas and HVAC skills. Also some electrical skills as well. But then you've got you know, designers being asked to do graphics designers being asked to do things with point layouts and reporting and stuff like that. And in those cases, this is where you need to lean more heavily on the BAS knowledge. And there's one of the reasons I see technicians move into the designer role, because they have that basic graphic setup knowledge, they have that basic, you know, reporting setup knowledge, that doesn't necessarily require the skill level of a BAS programmer, but at the same time, it requires a higher skill level than a BAS technician.
So how do you get this kind of role?
What can you do?
While you could go in as a BAS technician, which I highly recommend, and then move into a designer role, I feel like having you know, at least six months of field experience really just makes you appreciate what the design conditions are for the sites that you're going to be designing systems for. And so you can appreciate the sensitivities to, Hey, I just because I can do a single trunk from a supervisory device that's 5000 feet long, does not mean that that is necessarily the best layout, it may make more sense for me to have a couple more supervisory devices and significantly shorter runs. And that may be something I want to bring up to the salesperson who's saying, hey, it's a one story building, you could put a Single Supervisory device in there and just run a big circle loop. Yeah, maybe you can do that. But that introduces points of failure that introduces complexities. And it may just be easier to do four supervisory devices, one in each corner. This is stuff you only really start to pick up. If you're out there in the field, doing this on a day to day basis, then you start to appreciate, oh, hey, that's why I should do this. That's why I should have you know, these kind of layouts with my supervisory devices.
Like I said, you can begin as a technician, but we have had a lot of people People who come out of school with electrical engineering or mechanical engineering degrees, and they go through our designer path, and they get hired by companies or companies rather hire them and put them through the designer path. And that is how they get placed.
Salary Range 50k to 70k USD Average
Graphics is not always a dedicated role. With some companies it is, but these are the people who are going to create the graphics for the projects.
Salary Range 60k to 120k USD Average
Then you have Programmers. These are the people who are going to write the programs that get installed in the controllers. This could be graphical block programming, or could be line code programming, depending on the manufacturer.
Salary Range 80k to 150k USD Average
Integrators fall into two buckets. You're going to have Integrators who are doing basic protocol integration, mapping and chillers, mapping and boilers. Then you're going to have Integrators who work with a variety of different systems, not even building systems, but just all sorts of systems. They tie them together into use cases, and these people often are called Master Systems Integrators. They integrate multiple different systems together.
Salary Range 60k to 90k USD Average
Then we have our Project Managers who are overseeing projects. There are three types of Project Managers:
- Financial Project Manager, who just manages the finances;
- Operational Project Manager, who manages the operations;
- Working Project Manager, who not only manages projects, but also executes projects.
Salary Range 40k to 200k USD Average (High-end includes commission)
Last, we have Sales. There’s inside sales, maybe working at a distributor doing lead gen, or stuff like that. Then we have outside sales, who works directly with either the construction side of the business, the engineers, architects and contractors, or works with the owner side of the business working directly with owners.
Core Skills Required for Building Automation
So as we think about these roles, there's a series of skills that stretches across all of these roles and they just flex in their level of intensity. If you think of an Installer, skills are heavily weighted towards electrical labor. But if you think of a Programmer, skills are not heavily weighted towards electrical skill, rather they're heavily weighted more towards HVAC knowledge, and the ability to take sequences and turn them into logic. If we look at a Project Manager, who's financially focused, they're going to be primarily weighted towards business skills.
As I look at the skills that are key to building automation, I think of baseline electrical knowledge. We've covered this in multiple posts in the past, but basically understanding Ohms Law, understanding AC/DC, transformers, circuits, safety circuits, relays, etc. All basic common knowledge.
Then we have HVAC and for HVAC, you need to understand what systems are.
- So, what is an air handler?
- What is a VAV?
- What is a chiller?
- What is a boiler?
- How do they work?
- Then, also how do they sequence?
So, understanding that a chiller removes BTU’s from the primary chilled water side and transfers them to the condenser side so that they can go out to the cooling tower and transfer those BTU’s to that atmosphere in a water cooled chiller scenario. Understanding that theory is great, but you need to understand how to sequence that theory.
- Do you open the isolation valves first?
- Do you turn on the pumps?
- How do you stage on the chillers?
- How do you stage down the chillers?
- Do you do load?
- Do you use a decoupler and look at GPM?
- Do you do BTU calculations and stage up and down there?
- How do you do these things?
So, we’ve talked about electrical and we've talked about basic HVAC.
Now, do you have basic system and hands-on aptitude?
This is something you either have or you don't have. You can't really train for it.
- Are you someone who can work with your hands?
- Can you look at objects and spaces and just be able to work within the spatial realm of the dimensions of objects and understanding?
- Can you look at a schematic and relate that schematic to a wiring diagram?
- Can you take a concept and visualize that in your mind and transfer it?
That's a key skill, and that's important across almost all of the roles, with the exception of Project Managers. Sales does it, oftentimes, because they’re doing estimating work.
So, we've talked about electrical, HVAC, and we've talked about intrinsic mechanical aptitude. Finally, do you have technology competence?
Can you turn on a computer and understand basic network concepts?
Being comfortable with applications within a computing environment is critical, especially with our newer systems.
How to get your first job in building automation?
So, how do you get into Building Automation?
Well, I've come up with an eight-step process that has worked for me in pretty much every role I've ever applied for, even when I was unqualified. This is how I got into building automation in the first place, and a lot of our students have used this exact process as well.
- Analyze the role you want. The first thing I'm going to do here is search the internet. For instance, I’ll search a role I'm familiar with, “Johnson Controls, System Technician.” I'm going to see what comes up as far as job descriptions and analyze the role I want.
- Identify key skills. It says this role is going to perform assigned system commissioning using Johnson Controls configuration and commissioning tools, which should tell you it is a System Technician role. You will be troubleshooting and resolving basic HVAC, electrical and controls problems, and basic warranty calls. Load up system-level controller software, perform basic commissioning and system diagnostics, and calibrate systems.
- Train and develop those skills. Now that you have this information, you need to train and develop those skills, so there a few ways to do this. You have Trade School programs that are 18-36 months long, but we get a lot of students from these schools who graduate with no knowledge of building automation. Obviously, you have Smart Buildings Academy where we provide training for people on these specific skills so that they can get hired and hit the ground running. Then you have the old-fashioned way of just buying a box of parts and learning it on your own.
Doing it solo may require one to buy a lab kit, a controller, an actuator, some inputs, and then getting the software for that controller, connecting those inputs and the actuator, programming the controller to do basic sequences, etc.
- Connect with companies with that role. Seek out companies with that role, or at least, those skills, then find the Managers within that company.
- Directly message Managers. Find those Managers and directly reach out to them. You can usually find them on LinkedIn or on the company page.
- Explain that you understand key tasks. Explain to the Manager(s) that you saw the role, identified the key tasks, and what you’ve done, or are doing, to train yourself to do those tasks. Explain that you don’t have field experience, but that you have initiative to understand the skills you need and the tasks required of you to do.
- Describe how you can execute key tasks. Explain how you will go about learning the required knowledge (Trade School, SBA, on your own). Managers are interested in self-development and that you are making the effort, outside work hours and without even having a role, to develop your skills. The biggest issue Managers face is hiring someone who says they can do something and then they get in the door and that person isn’t motivated or has no aptitude. Taking the proactive stance, works.
- Get hired. Challenge that Manager to bring you in to a job interview. Challenge them to have you wire up an actuator, commission a controller, and prove to them, with physical action, hat you can do the task. I can tell you that based on a lot of Managers I’ve worked with, you will very likely get hired by doing that for a multitude of roles.
So, what do you do?
You follow the eight steps, right?
You analyze the role you want, identify the key skills, train and develop those skills, connect with companies with that role, directly message the Managers, explain that you have what it takes, you understand what they're trying to do, and you've trained yourself to do it. You challenge them to bring you in to prove that you know what you're talking about, and then you get hired.
I hope this article has really helped you out. I've seen this question so many times from so many people. There’s a reason here at Smart Buildings Academy why we put out so much content. II really love this role and I love this field. I feel like it has given me a quality of life that I couldn't have had any other way.
I've seen so many people earning six figure incomes within a couple years in this role. It's an amazing place to be with a lot of upward mobility; a lot of challenge, and it really keeps you thinking. So, if that's something that's interesting to you, then I encourage you to consider a role in building automation.
But right now you may be thinking that the idea of having a career in building automation sounds great but also overwhelming.
You may find yourself asking where and how do you start?
I encourage you to check out our Technician Path. That path has singularly been responsible for putting dozens of people, who have had no experience, into building automation roles. It's the exact same training that companies like Albireo Energy, Trane, Climatec, Sunbelt, EMCOR, and many more are using to train their people right now. It is quality online training that you can definitely take advantage of.
As always, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out. I would love to answer those questions for you. We'd love to guide you along your building automation career path. If you're wondering, “How do I do this? What should I do? Is this the right path?”
Feel free to reach out.