#Eweek2019 Spotlight | Alex Russell

A modern-day magician

For National Engineers Week 2019, we’re sharing stories from some of CTA’s engineering talent to learn more about how they chose their profession and what makes them tick. 

What inspired you to become an engineer?

I believe I was destined to be an engineer of some sort. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of things. As a young child, I would often take things apart to see how they worked and then put them back together again. Most of the time, I had extra pieces left over, which is still a common theme today.

Alex at the summit of Cotopaxi, an active stratovolcano in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador. 

What is your specific area of expertise and why did you choose it?

I focus primarily on HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) design. I’ve developed a reputation as the VRF guy at CTA, although we have many incredible engineers who do VRF design. VRF stands for variable refrigerant flow and is an HVAC system prevalent in Europe and Asia, which has made in-roads in the US in the last decade.

The easiest way to explain it is to picture the air conditioning in your house. A condensing unit sits outside, and when it’s hot in your house, it runs and cools the air, transferring heat to the outside. With VRF, we run that process forward, cooling as we would with air conditioning, but also run it backward, removing heat from the outdoor air and using it to warm your house. We can do this even though it’s extremely cold outside.

The technology is especially appealing because we can use it to transfer heat around a building, making HVAC systems highly efficient. When areas of a commercial building need cooling, such as an east facing office in the morning with the sun hitting it, we can transfer this heat to other areas of the building that need warming up.

Tell us something about the field of engineering that is surprising or not common knowledge.

Engineers are modern-day wizards. How else can one explain using freezing cold air to heat a room? In all seriousness, most people don’t think about the field of engineering. We get in our cars and drive, never thinking about the thousands of things happening to make it work. Or we sit down in a favorite room to read and take for granted having lights and heat. Engineers work behind the scenes to make our world function and more enjoyable.

What is one of your favorite projects and why?

One of my favorite projects by far is the Ten Mile Water Treatment Plant HVAC upgrades in Helena, Montana. It was one of the first projects I worked on after joining CTA. The plant is located west of Helena, and gathers water from Ten Mile Watershed, treats it, and provides potable water for the majority of the area.

The building used electric heat and had no air conditioning for their control room. The new design used water-to-water heat pumps to inject or extract heat from the drinking water being treated in the building and then converted it to usable energy in the form of heating and cooling. It drastically reduced the utility costs the city was paying to heat the building and provided much needed cooling for other critical portions of the building.

This project opened my eyes to the possibilities of engineering and the types of projects I could work on. Even today, I’m constantly fascinated by the technology we have to implement. Being able to draw heat from 40 degree F water or air and use it to heat a building is a concept that’s hard to wrap your mind around, but it’s what engineers do.

What piece of advice would you give a young person interested in becoming an engineer?

I would tell young engineers to always seek out opportunities to learn and stay humble during the process. I’m constantly learning from non-engineering team mates, contractors, research, and my own failures. Being afraid of trying new things or asking questions will only hold you back. Thinking that you already know everything will limit your creativity and flexibility.

Part of a collection of black and white crosshatched mountain peak sketches by Alex. 

Alex at a glance

  • Mechanical Engineer
  • Living in Bozeman, Montana
  • Defining characteristics: approachable, good communicator (even with non-technical folks), works toward integrated solutions through collaboration, empathetic
  • Interests: parenting an amazing little girl, enjoying all things outdoors (camping, hunting, and mountaineering), cooking, reading, and sketching