Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) Supervisor Steven Joseph knows that something can work 364 days of the year, but if it fails on day 365, it can cause serious problems. Maintaining the air conditioning, heating, and refrigeration units on campus is vital to everyone's health, safety, and comfort as well as to important research. For that reason, the HVAC team jokes that they’re the Domino’s Pizza team. They’ve made it their goal to arrive on the scene of an urgent repair in 30 minutes or less.
HVAC was brought into the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic when research suggested enhanced air filtration could mitigate virus spread. In response, Joseph and his team upgraded campus air conditioning and heating systems to have top-of-the-line air filtration. This reinforced their responsibility to campus and engendered an even more inclusive and close-knit community in the HVAC shop.
What brought you to UNLV?
I grew up in Carson, California, in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. I spent 10 years in the military. In peacetime, I worked in a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning civil engineering squadron, and in wartime, I built temporary bases and repaired runways. I served in the first Gulf War.
At the end of my enlistment, I was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base for 18 months. When my wife and I were deciding where to live once we separated from the military, we chose to stay in the Las Vegas Valley for two reasons: the climate is perfect for those in the HVAC profession and it’s both close enough to my family in California and far enough away. I started at UNLV as an HVAC technician on Aug. 1, 1995.
Tell us about your role here.
After seven years as an HVAC technician, I became a supervisor. I’ve held that position for over 18 years. My team maintains, repairs, installs, and troubleshoots air conditioning and heating systems, refrigeration units, and even the competition pool at the MPE. My job requires me to keep systems running across 336 acres of land with equipment in every building on campus.
Our main focus is comfort heating and cooling, a system designed to make temperatures comfortable for building occupants. We also handle process heating and cooling systems in the science and engineering buildings on campus to create the right conditions for scientists running experiments.
What have you done to make campus safer since COVID-19?
Keeping the campus community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic is HVAC’s No. 1 priority. We upgraded the entire campus to MERV-13 air filters and replaced some of the filters in the big air handlers to MERV-14. While these filters do not eliminate the risk of COVID-19, they reduce it by catching smaller particles and decreasing leak rates — or the percentage of air that circulates through a system without going through the filter.
This project was monumental. We had to re-inventory every filter on campus. The nomenclature for sizing is completely different for MERV-13 filters so we had to communicate the new sizing to the vendors. My team essentially had to translate all of the filter sizing into a new language simply to order the filters.
We were fortunate to get our filter order in early before the demand for these filters exploded. Our order arrived in eight truckloads! It took six weeks for the team to replace all the filters on campus and was a huge effort for the facilities management (FM) department at-large. I’d like to especially thank Gilda Holliday in the FM warehouse for her help.
How much of your job has changed since COVID-19?
We never left campus, so we’ve been focused on implementing safety protocols to create a socially distanced shop. We’ve staggered working shifts and lunch shifts so there is never more than one working group in the shop at a time. We rearranged desks to create more space and each team member disinfects their workstations when they arrive at work, when they leave for a job, and before they leave for the day. Everybody wears masks at all times.
What is the biggest misconception about HVAC?
People think you can make a room comfortable for everybody. If three people are in a 74-degree room, one person will say they’re too hot, another will say they’re too cold, another will say the temperature is just right.
Personal comfort isn’t an exact science because every person has different needs. We can’t make it a perfect temperature for everybody, but we can try our hardest to make it as comfortable as possible for everyone in a given space.
How do you foster a positive work environment in HVAC?
When I hire someone, I tell them there is no better place to work than UNLV. One activity I promote for my team is combining Earth Day with Bring your Child to Work Day. We give team members’ children a tour of the shop and show them how things work. Afterward, we hold activities and games for the children to play.
After 20 years of sponsoring this event, some of the children who initially came are now adults and are still friends with each other. These kinds of activities bring people and families together and help foster close-knit relationships between the HVAC team members.
Food is another common denominator on the team. Everybody cooks in the shop so periodically someone brings in lunch for everybody. I welcome that kind of environment and encourage a “work hard, play hard” mindset for my team. While COVID-19 has put a hold on these kinds of events, most of the people in the shop are friends on-duty and off, and that helps bring up morale.
As a supervisor, what leadership tips do you have?
For a team to be effective, they must communicate. I encourage open lines of communication in my shop and with campus stakeholders. When people know each other, they work together better. You can’t build walls between people or departments and still be effective.
I approach my job with a service-based philosophy. I consider everybody to be my customer: whether they’re someone submitting a work order or a young technician in the controls shop. I make sure everybody I work with has what they need to succeed.
What do you like doing in your free time?
I’m more of a homebody now than I used to be. I leave all the running around to my two adult sons these days. I spend a lot of time with my family and friends playing board games and going to the beach. I love listening to music. Gospel and jazz are my favorites
With the pandemic, it’s been difficult to gather and travel during the holidays but that doesn’t mean we can’t get into the holiday spirit. For Thanksgiving, my family cooked meals and made plates for friends to pick up while social distancing. We’re also trying to figure out how to do Pictionary over Zoom so we can remain safe and connect with our friends and family.
What problem in the world would you most like to fix?
I read a lot in my spare time, especially books on management and business. When I retire, I plan to start a nonprofit offering financial mentoring and fiscal responsibility workshops in the community. I want to teach young people about things like managing their money and investing in their future. A lot of people aren’t taught those things growing up and have to learn on their own. I believe that education should be provided.
I also want to help get more people into trade careers. Right now, there is a shortage of HVAC workers in the valley and it's a great opportunity for women.