#Eweek2019 Spotlight | Jennifer Parkhurst

Thinks heat-loss calculations are cool

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?

Bill Nye the Science Guy, because that guy is awesome. My parents always encouraged me to explore my interest in the sciences as well. At a young age, I was interested in the design of Earthships — passive energy homes built out of recycled materials — and thought that would be a fun design project.

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

Mechanical engineering with an emphasis in heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and plumbing design. When I first started out in college, I wanted to design toys, but soon realized I had more fun doing heat-loss calculations and building design than three-dimensional dynamics.

Jennifer enjoying the Ice Castle in Fairbanks, Alaska. Balmy indoor temperatures are 25 degrees F.

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

Engineers are either trying to copy nature as much as possible or trying to figure out how nature accomplishes such complex engineering feats so easily. For example, animals and insects in the most extreme environments can construct homes that naturally regulate themselves to a livable temperature. Increasingly, engineers and architects are emulating these natural designs to reduce energy consumption through smart building design.

What is one of your favorite projects and why?

I was part of a design team that replaced a school’s existing steam-powered heating system with a biomass-boiler system. The system served a rural school campus in interior Alaska where average winter temperatures can reach between -40 degrees F to -60 degrees F and where the only access to the school is via plane or boat (during the summer).

We replaced the existing fuel-oil-fired boilers with a wood-chip-fired biomass boiler; back-up hot water boilers were also installed to assist the biomass boiler if the heating load was too great. We also redesigned the distribution system to the campus in order to remove the inefficient above-ground metal steam piping and utilidors with insulated, fuse-welded polypropylene plastic piping. This provided a more efficient distribution system to the different buildings around the campus and allowed us to bury the pipes in certain areas.

It’s one of my favorite projects because of the unique design challenges involved such as the remote location, the design of the main distribution loops, and the selection of the equipment. It was rewarding to design a project that utilized renewable resources near the school. In that part of the country, there are high refueling charges to barge in fuel oil during the summer. The use of wood not only reduces the dependence on fossil fuels but also employs local residents to help harvest the wood. It’s also a learning opportunity for the students at the school.

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

I tell younger kids that you don’t have to be absolutely brilliant at math or other sciences to become an engineer. You do, however, need to have the stamina and grit to push through the harder classes and other challenges to earn your degree. It doesn’t hurt to be a smidge hard headed either (within reason).

Jennifer at a glance

  • Mechanical Engineer
  • Living in Billings, Montana
  • Defining characteristics: honesty, integrity, reliability, strong work ethic, attention to detail
  • Interests: long camping trips with friends; hiking, hunting, and fishing; volunteering for STEM events — seeing kids’ creativity and ingenuity