How does one become a top notch compressed air auditor? There is very little in the way of formal schooling available to help interested persons become competent in the art of assessing compressed air systems or recommending improvement measures. As we will read in the following interview, having an excellent attitude a good aptitude, applying continuous learning techniques, using the Compressed Air Challenge’s excellent training seminars and materials, and seeking out mentorship opportunities have allowed one compressed air auditor to progress from a ”dumb kid” parts clerk to the Vice-President of Business Development for Industrial Air Centers. The following is an interview of Steve Briscoe:
Marshall: What makes Compressed Air so interesting?
Steve Briscoe, VP Business Development, Industrial Air Centers
Briscoe: I find that this question is one of the hardest questions I have to answer. It is the dreaded question asked at any gathering, where you are meeting someone new and you get into conversation with the insurance guy, “So what do you do for a living?”. I find myself trying to find new and inventive ways to make compressed air interesting to someone that has most likely never stepped inside of a manufacturing plant, or that someone who’s knowledge of compressed air is limited to inserting a quarter into the box marked “AIR” at the local gas station.
The line by Billy Crystal in the movie City Slickers comes to mind where he said “I sell air” on parent career day. Now of course he was referring to selling advertising on the radio, but it was made out to be just as exciting as compressed air is to the average person. Speaking of kids, I’m positive my own really don’t know what it is that I do, and when asked, they lose interest in less time than a rotary screw will run backwards. I also have to give credit to my wife for the effort she puts into doing her best pretending she is really interested in the exciting things I came across during my last plant walkthrough.
So, what makes compressed air so interesting is better asked what makes it so interesting to me? I would much rather give you a little background before trying to attempt to answer that one.
Marshall: In that case, tell me, how did you get started?
Briscoe: I graduated Mechanical Engineering Technology in Edmonton Alberta Canada and always saw myself going into a technical field in some way, but really didn’t know what I wanted to do. My first job out of school was in the metal building industry, where I used my skills to estimate and draft drawings of buildings and installation details for installation crews. After a few years of the same old thing, I realized that it was not what I wanted to do.
A friend introduced me to a guy in the compressed air business, and he told me about the exciting line of work that he was in. He was much better at making compressed air interesting than I seem to be able to, because I was drawn to the industry from day one, of course, I was just a dumb kid then and didn’t know what I was getting into. Anything at this point was better than staring at a drafting board. I applied, and while interviewing, I bumped into a friend that I had graduated with that worked there. This made my desire to work here even stronger, especially after hearing about how he got into the industry and some of the businesses he was able to visit. He was promoted to sales, and there was a position in parts that opened up. After two interviews, I was in and on my way.
As the rookie, I was given a thirty minute flash training, a ringing phone and a set of parts manuals two rows high and about five feet long. Who knew this could be so complicated? I thought we were talking about air compressors here? What on earth do you need a dryer for? What is dewpoint? Wow, there are a lot of different kinds of filters! I quickly learned to be resourceful in finding the answers I needed and not to constantly ask the Senior Technician, simple annoying questions without first looking for myself; a lesson that I carry and put into practice to this day. Within a month, I must have read every training or operation manual the place had to offer. Within a few months, I wasn’t getting razzed anymore and had earned my place among my fellow compressor guys.
Marshall: You are a fellow Canadian, what made you move to the United States?
Briscoe: Love, as usual; and an interesting job opportunity. I met my wife from Florida in 1998, and she came to visit me in Edmonton. After she spent three months in Canada wearing literally a snowsuit and toque during mid-summer, it was very evident that I had to move south or this girl would freeze to death in the harsh Canadian winters. Wanting to stay in the industry, I applied at a compressor manufacturer and my resume ended up on a Regional Manager’s desk. After a phone interview, painstaking hours of immigration forms, attorney bills and saying bye to my previous life, I was on my way to work at a distributor in Indianapolis.
Marshall: Who was your main influence?
Briscoe: The Regional Manager was instrumental in developing my knowledge, having good mentors is key to learning the compressed air business. By nature, I like to voice my opinions, anyone will tell you that. He would train me on how systems work, and I would not let a subject drop until I fully understood it, sometimes taking hours and an entire white board of calculations and drawings before I finally agreed with what he was saying, or much less often, proving that my thinking was right. 14 years later, to this day, we still have “constructive discussions”; this valuable exercise is what keeps us on our game and up to date.
Marshall: How did you find out about auditing and when did you start performing audits?
Briscoe: The Regional Manager was the one that encouraged me to get into auditing, he saw it as the next logical step. In 2000, I attended the Fundamentals of Compressed Air Systems as well as the Advanced Management of Compressed Air Systems programs in Chicago put on by the Compressed Air Challenge® (CAC). This is where I met Frank Moskowitz, one of the top CAC instructors, and realized I really did not know much about compressed air systems and the possibilities that auditing could bring. I was now a man on a mission to be an auditor. I was introduced to Dave Booth, another CAC instructor, who had agreed to help get me and my company get into compressed air auditing. I happily volunteered to be the one to take on this new challenge. We acquired the equipment, received some great training, and soon I was doing my first simple audits. I started testing my skills on equipment being serviced in our shop or asking our good customers if I could practice on their equipment. It was tough back then because air auditing was still a relatively new concept. I met up with Frank again in 2004 when I traveled to Sacramento California to earn my AIRMaster+ Qualified Specialist designation.
Marshall: Tell us about your first successful audit.
Briscoe: There were many small to medium sized audits that I would consider successful, each a stepping stone to the next, learning new and better ways to calculate and present the information in an understandable format. However, I would consider my first successful audits to be where I was contracted to audit two facilities at a jet engine manufacturer where their facilities stretched across a square mile each. I had to crate up and ship all of the equipment to site and each facility took a full four days to set up the equipment and do my walkthrough. Quite an involved process compared to what I was accustomed to. Each system consisted of large centrifugal compressors with either flooded rotary screw or multi-step reciprocating compressors, all manually controlled from a central powerhouse, and then distributed to the various plants through a network of above and underground piping.
This is also where I learned the difference in overall plant mentality between the smaller plants I was used to dealing with versus the large facilities. The overall perception on the production floor was that the facility was so large, that small changes didn’t make that much of a difference, therefore it was not worth exploring ways to improve because there were much bigger fish to fry. The focus was on the powerhouse and how to generate compressed air more efficiently, even though there was so much obvious opportunity in other areas. This does tend to be one of the hardest things to convey to a management team, even to this day. The majority of the savings are typically found on the demand side, and once that has been addressed, then the focus should turn to the supply side of the compressed air system.
Marshall: What kinds of things did you learn the hard way?
Briscoe: 1. You can get just as dirty installing compressed air auditing equipment as you do servicing a compressor, if you are working in a foundry. Don’t wear your good jeans otherwise your significant other will cuss your very existence because “your” load just ruined the next load of “delicates” in the washing machine.
2. The only viable place to measure flow in a compressed air line is typically in the most inconvenient place 40 feet up in the air where you have to be an acrobat for the local circus to reach them.
3. Don’t take anyone’s word for what a pipe is without first tracing it down yourself. At one facility, a maintenance guy and I found a drop at the far end of the plant with a quick connect that was a different style than what would work with my equipment. After closing the isolation valve and removing the fitting I noticed that there was a bunch of condensate built-up in the line. I drained that into a 5 gallon pail, cracked open the isolation valve and managed to fill up an additional three 5 gallon pails – it was never ending. Thinking I was the hero of the day for getting rid of all of this moisture, I found the Maintenance Manager from the plant and told him what I had found only to hear him say that there was no compressed air in that area of the plant. I had just managed to drain 20 gallons out of their cutting tool lubricant system. Needless to say, they were not too happy about it, especially with the maintenance guy that was with me. From that day forward, every line is traced, right back to a known compressed air line, no matter what.
Marshall: Have you ever been stumped?
Briscoe: Of course, I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not the smartest guy in the world. I audited this one facility because they did not feel they had adequate capacity for their demands and they were looking to size a new compressor or find ways to reduce their demands. I logged kW on the compressor, pressure directly after the water separator, pressure before the pre-filter, pressure after all of the contaminant removal, and various pressures across the plant. During my walkthrough, all of the piping appeared to be adequately sized, and all of the dryers and filters were oversized. My audit showed almost zero pressure drop from the discharge of the compressor to the far end of the plant, exactly what I was expecting to see. But pressure was dropping far below their desired level, and the compressor never reached full load condition. I requested a second site visit and found something I had missed on the first visit because it was outside. When the client had previously installed the compressor’s remote cooler, they had taken the 2 inch compressor discharge air line down to ¾ inch to connect to the cooler on the other side of the wall, increasing it back to 2 inch before coming back into the building. The compressor could not push the air through the reduced pipe size without a massive pressure drop! Once that was addressed, the compressor could handle the loads of the facility at only 75% loaded. As further icing on the cake we did find some additional opportunities to reduce their demand through lowering their pressure and fixing some leaks.
Marshall: What keeps you in the business, why are you still here?
Briscoe: I’m in the compressed air business because it’s what I know and love. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you my passion for this industry is almost ridiculous. I have picked up and moved my family four times to advance up the ladder and I really can’t see myself doing anything different. Earlier you asked me what makes compressed air so interesting; the answer is that it is interesting and exciting because it is something that is unique. There are not too many people out there doing what I do for a living, it is nice to know that for the most part, I will not run into someone that does what I do. Therefore, I will always be able to strike up an interesting conversation that has the potential for the other party to learn something new. I am going to continue doing this until someone tells me that I have to stop. I have a desire to know more every day, and never stop learning. To this date, I have performed close to 500 audits and I still run across things I have not seen before, which makes every day a learning experience
Marshall: Your company has put on quite a few CAC compressed air training sessions, what is the biggest benefit you see?
Briscoe: It is surprising to me that even though the level of attendance is usually from plant management, maintenance management or sometimes even higher up the management chain, the level of knowledge of how much compressed air costs is still unknown. These classes have led to an urgency of making their compressed air systems more efficient, both on the supply side, but more so on the demand side. We have also seen a dramatic increase in the level at which companies take care of their equipment, knowing now that a simple regulator adjustment can be the difference of 15 percent energy savings, or adding storage under the right scenario reducing energy costs by up to 30 percent. It is nice to have the product neutral CAC instructors providing that 3rd party information for us. Every single Area Manager we have at my company is required to attend both the Fundamentals and Advanced CAC Classes. There is not, in my opinion, a better compressed air training class provided for anyone to attend.
Marshall: Why are most compressed air systems so inefficient in your opinion?
Briscoe: It is rare to find someone that really wants to talk about their compressed air system. Few understand what a dramatic effect it has on the bottom line, especially for those small and medium companies. If there is air, they are able to produce product, which is what tends to matter. Most only pay attention to their air system when something goes wrong with it. It is up to us in the compressed air field to try to show them what they don’t want to see.
Marshall: Do you have any words of wisdom for future compressed air auditors?
Briscoe: There isn’t a lot of glory with this job unless you strive for personal satisfaction of helping a company solve a problem and become more efficient. You will either love it or hate it from the beginning. Once you have been in the industry, it gets under your skin and you can’t get it out. I have seen many try to leave the industry, but then after a couple of years, they get sucked right back in in one way or another.
There will always be a need for compressed air auditors, and a greater need for those who really know what they are doing. If you like it, own it and take on as many challenges that you can, even if you think they are a little beyond your comfort zone. Anything can be solved if you just put a little thought into it, and there are always people in the industry that can help, especially in this electronic age.
Steve Briscoe is the Vice-President of Business Development for Industrial Air Centers. Currently serves as President on the Compressed Air Challenge® Executive Board of Directors and is a qualified US Department of Energy AIRMaster+ Specialist; tel: 317-713-5942; www.iacserv.com.
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