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Do I need an engineer? A Guide to HVAC and Indoor Climate Design Service Providers
 Copyright 2013, Robert Bean, R.E.T., P.L.(Eng.). All rights reserved.
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You don't always need an engineer for residential buildings but like most consumers, you may not know what specifically an engineer would bring to the table nor know when an engineering professional is required. To help answer the questions, I've prepared the following to clarify for consumers what options exist for design services for HVAC systems or Indoor Climate Systems. You can see from below there are essentially 11 (eleven) choices from either the non-professional or professional service provider. To be clear, there are many definitions of "professional" but when it comes to engineering the spilt between non-professionals (Table 1) and professionals (Table 2) is established by Government Legislation and the Engineering Associations regulating the academic and practical experience requirements for engineers and technologists. 
 

Table 1. Academic, practical and continuing education requirements for those offering design services from within the trades, wholesalers, agents/distributors and members of the Trade Associations.

 

Governance

Industry (1)

Item

Trades

Wholesalers

Agents / distributors

Manufacturers
(2)

Trade Association Certifications

Design Designation

none

none

none

none

RASDT/RHDT, CHT, CHC , CGCT, RSI

Self regulated engineering practice by legislation

no

no

no

no

no

Under legislation, can provide engineering services  independently w/o supervision

no

no

no

no

no

Capacity to stamp drawings with Trade Association Certification Stamp

no

no

no

no

yes

Capacity to stamp drawings with Professional Association seal

no

no

no

no

no

Years of mandatory academic requirements from a University engineering science program or Engineering Technical College

none

none

none

none

none

Mandatory graduation requirement: diploma or degree in engineering or engineering technology

no

no

no

no

no

Mandatory practical experience required after graduation before licensed to practice engineering

none

none

none

none

none

Mandatory requirement to adhere to a Engineering Code of Ethics

none

none

none

none

none(3)

Mandatory pass of a Professional Practice exam before being licensed

no

no

no

no

no

Mandatory annual continuing education requirement

no

no

no

no

no

Design and professional conduct can be challenged and license to practice can be revoked

no

no

no

no

no(4)

Required to remain impartial

no

no

no

no

no(5)

In the event of dispute whose interests are represented.

self

self

self

self

client / self (6)

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Table 2 Academic, practical and continuing education requirements for those offering design services from within the profession of engineering and engineering technology.

 

Governance

Professional Engineering Technology
Associations (see sample list)

Professional Engineering Associations

Item

Certified Technician

Certified Engineering Technologist

Registered Engineering Technologist
(7)(8)

Professional Engineering Technologist
(8)

Professional Licensee (Engineering)
(8)

Professional Engineer
(8)

  A Comparison of License to Practice Engineering

Professional Design Designation

C.Tech..

C.E.T., A.Sc.T.

R.E.T.

P.Tech. (Eng.)

P.L.(Eng.)

P.Eng. (Cdn)  P.E. (USA)

Self regulated by legislation

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Under legislation, can provide engineering services  independently w/o supervision

no

no

yes/no

Yes

Yes

Yes

Capacity to stamp drawings with professional seal

no

no

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Years of mandatory academic requirements from a University engineering science program or Engineering Technical College

2 or 3

2 or 3

2 or 3

2 or 3

2 or 3

4

Mandatory graduation requirement: diploma or degree in engineering or engineering technology

Diploma

Diploma

Diploma

Diploma

Diploma

Degree

Mandatory practical experience required after graduation before licensed to practice.

2

2

4

6

6

4

Mandatory requirement to adhere to a Engineers Code of Ethics

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Mandatory pass Professional Practice exam before being licensed

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Mandatory annual continuing education requirement

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Design and professional conduct can be challenged and license to practice can be revoked

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Required to remain impartial

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

In the event of dispute whose interests are represented.

Client

Client

Client

Client

Client

Client

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Technology Professionals Canada

  1. Applied Science Technologists and Technicians of BC (ASTTBC)

  2. Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta (ASET)

  3. Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (OACETT)

  4. Saskatchewan Applied Science Technologists and Technicians (SASTT)

Engineering Professionals: North America

  1. Browser search for your Provincial and State Professional Engineering Associations

  2. For example, a browser search of, "Association for Professional Engineers of Alberta" will return you to http://www.apegga.org/  

In comparison to those professionals listed in Table 2 (above) and with exception to those with certifications from the Trade Associations, industry designers from Table 1 are essentially free to offer unregulated design services unless the authority having jurisdiction mandates otherwise; as is the case in British Colombia, Alberta and Ontario.  Sample of a provincial government requirements for residential design professionals and a notification from a municipality enforcing the regulations.

I know of and have worked with many competent people working within Table 1 who conduct themselves professionally and through experience, licensing and with trade associations certification have developed practical design skills - full stop. I also know and have worked with many competent professional members from Table 2 working within the businesses of those listed in Table 1 which is recommended if design services are part of the business offering.

The challenge for consumers is - it is common in residential construction to find designs by individuals who have no academic training in engineering or engineering technology; there is no formal way (exception to members of Table 2) of verifying the qualified from the unqualified...and let me emphasize, having "certificates" or being "certified" is not the same as being "qualified". Just as there are qualified individuals who may not be certified. Beyond these differences there is also the important distinctions between installation/fabrication or assembly work from "designing" and these terms are not a proxy for the practice of engineering.

It does happen where unqualified individuals obtain certifications and meet the regulations but in practice are not qualified to do designs. The regulations allowing certified individuals to offer design services is not strictly a quality control mechanism in the absence of the 4 years of practice under a professional - as is mandatory requirement for members from Table 2. In fact academic training and four years of practical training is one of the differentiating factors between those who design HVAC systems or those who design Indoor Climate Systems.

So next to deciding what type of system you desire, the next biggest decision you have to make revolves around your choice in engineering or design services and specifically how are disputes and conflict handled. If you hire a non-professional designer or rely on non-professional and unqualified designs typically included with the builders offering, you will have to represent yourself or hire a representative in the event of a dispute.

When you use independent professionals from Table 2, they are ethically obligated to represent your interest over the interests of those in Table 1 (again exception to independent designers having Trade Association Certifications). It is for this reason (for example) why many states now prohibit mould inspectors from also offering mould remediation services or building inspectors from offering building services after it became apparent that there were wide spread conflict of interests.

So why would you rely on those in Table 1?

The #1 rationalization is convenience and cost. Because there is a relatively low or no entrance fee to the design, i.e. there is no mandatory academic requirements, nor mandatory experience, nor a Professional Practice exam to pass, the service is usually seen as a higher risk service for those on a "tight budget". Again with the possible exception of those with Trade Association certifications, design fees will often be included in the sale of products or systems as a service to the project. This means in part, the design is motivated by incentives to sell equipment most favourable to the installer, wholesaler or distributor. This is one way for consumers to gain access to designers without having to pay for professional services but clearly this is not without its own conflict of interests.

When you boil it down - it is a risk assessment. You need to evaluate your expectations, consider what you'll spend to meet those expectations and then decide what you are willing to invest to protect your interest.

If you are somewhat confident in your construction knowledge and HVAC skills then at the very least insist on designer having Trade Association design certifications(3). If you have no ability to technically and financially assess what is being provided to you, nor have the desire to engage in a dispute should it happen, then hiring an independent professional from Table 2 is most likely the best choice for you. The individuals in Table 2 represent varying levels of professional design competency which can be verified by academic requirements, experience, and passing of a Professional Practice exam.

Some states and provinces for some projects will accept the design certifications from Trade Associations and for basic projects these certifications in the hands of qualified individuals are more than adequate. But what is often missed is the certifications only apply to the contents of the course curriculum. For example if a home has an indoor swimming pool, there is not a Trade Association certification for the HVAC systems required for this application. The same would apply to radiant cooling or snow melt systems or hybrid system in large homes.

The process: if drawings have already been prepared, it will usually be the authority having jurisdiction which will rule on whether the project needs a professional; or it will be the non-professional recognizing the limits of their skills that will advise the client to hire a professional. If you do not address this in the beginning, in both cases you will, by your actions (or inactions), have removed yourself from the decision process. See what it cost for an HVAC system and ask yourself, "am I ok with this?".

My advice:

1. For all but the basic home, hire a professional before the drawings are prepared by an architect. Why? Because a competent indoor climate engineer can help you assess your needs beyond the minimum requirements of the code. This includes developing an energy budget as well as an indoor environmental quality specification. Once these areas have been defined then you are well prepared to engage the services of an architect. If the project goes into a dispute you have an independent third party to represent your interests.

See this page for budgeting HVAC design fees.

2. For the basic homes with "Built to Code" systems use those who have HVAC certifications through the Trade Associations. You'll get good value and in most cases a reasonable system but the caveat is - it will likely be based on meeting the minimum requirements and it likely won't include a comprehensive assessment of the indoor environment such as modelling VOC emission, thermal comfort modelling, energy modelling etc. Also if the project goes into a dispute, and the designer is an independent third party they can represent your interests. If the designer is the contractor, wholesaler, agent or manufacturer they will be obligated to represent their own interest ahead of yours in a dispute.

3. For all others, unless you know for certain what their qualifications are, I would advise avoiding their services. They may be completely competent but you have no way of knowing unless you are skilled in evaluating the engineering skills of another...and if you can do that - you likely don't need their services.

Table Notes:

  1. Design professionals from Table 2, can often be found working in industry at the manufacturing, distribution, agent, wholesale and trade categories.

  2. Most manufacturers offer product and application training earning the student, "Certificates of Attendance". Some are registered providers of Continuing Education programs offering credit towards professional development. Trades, wholesalers and agents/distributors who attend these offerings are valuable members in the pre and post construction process.

  3. Some Trade Associations have practice guidelines for those they have certified through education curriculums: ACCA, CIPH, COHA, HRAI, IAPMO (RPA), MCAA, MCAC, TECA

  4. Some Trade Associations offering certifications also have a de-certification process if a designer’s competency is questioned.

  5. Those from the non-professional world having earned design certifications from Trade Associations and offering independent design services are expected to remain impartial even though they may not subscribe to a Code of Ethics.

  6. With the possible exception of those doing independent design work and holding certifications through the Trade Association, those from Table 1 will represent there own interest in a dispute or conflict situation.

  7. The Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta (ASET) has phased out the R.E.T. designation and replaced it with the R.P.T. designation. Members holding an R.E.T. designation continue to be recognized in Alberta as senior-level practitioners of engineering technology or applied science technology.

  8. The professional associations also have TT (Technologist in Training) and EIT (Engineer in Training) designations which are for those in training. Those having these designations are not allowed to professional practice until they have completed the mandatory experience and passed the professional practice examinations.

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Sample set of blueprints for residential indoor climate systems: A competent professional should be able to prepare documents such as these - but only after a thorough review of the clients needs and wants. See our Self Assessment Form, Ranking Your Indoor Climate System and How to Ball Park the Cost of Indoor Climate Systems. Note: a built to code system would likely not have a client assessment nor a full set of indoor environmental load calculations and schematics for the systems.



Related reading:

Do I need an engineer? A Guide to HVAC/Indoor Climate Design Service Providers
HVAC does not equal IEQ
Where will your indoor climate system score?
How to "ball park" your budget for indoor climate control.
Indoor environments: Self assessment
Built to code: What does it mean for consumer thermal comfort?
The Total Comfort System - The "Un-minimum" System
Thermal Comfort: A 40 grit perspective for consumers
Thermal Comfort: A Condition of Mind

Do-It-Yourself HVAC - Should you do it?
The Cost of HVAC Systems - Are You Paying Too Much for Downgrades?
Radiant Installations - The Good, Bad and Ugly
Thermal Comfort Surveys - Post Occupancy, Part I
Thermal Comfort Surveys - Post Occupancy, Part II

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