The Real Women of Home Performance: Mina Agarabi
Mina Agarabi is the Principal Mechanical Engineer at Agarabi Engineering PLLC, a consulting firm focused on operations and maintenance and energy efficiency. Prior to establishing her firm, she conducted light commercial and residential energy assessments and oversaw the installation of numerous energy-efficiency projects at Association for Energy Affordability and Steven Winter Associates. Agarabi has several years of experience troubleshooting, optimizing, and designing both steam and hydronic heating systems in large multifamily buildings.
Macie Melendez: How did you get started in the home performance industry?
Mina Agarabi: After grad school I took a job as an engineer in a university biomedical research lab, but soon realized I was more passionate about helping people reduce their impact on the Earth. My initial transition away from biomedical work was a step in the right direction, but writing grants was unsatisfying and the instability of funding and frequent restructuring within my new organization was not for me.
Fortunately, a mentor suggested I enroll in the BPI building analyst training course (it helped that NYSERDA was willing to pay for most of the tuition if I passed). I enjoyed the course, met a lot of interesting contractors, engineers and architects, and was encouraged to move to the next level: BPI building envelope training. My active participation in that class and passion for the subject somehow came to the attention of the staff at the Association for Energy Affordability. Shortly after completing the course I was offered a job as an entry-level energy auditor.
MM: How has your career evolved?
MA: I started as a single-family energy auditor. I also spent a lot of my own time educating colleagues about recycling and composting. As I gained technical and field experience, I was asked to audit multifamily buildings. My engineering background made it much easier for me to grasp the technical material. At first I took a cookie-cutter approach; most recommendations had already been decided by others. I was just there to be the conduit to the incentive money.
This did not sit well with me. I believed it was important to verify the savings and payback of my recommendations. It also became clear to me that it was essential to engage a building's ownership, management and facility staff during the audit—without their buy-in my reports would either sit and collect dust or, worse, be handed to a contractor without detailed specifications.
Currently, I prefer to work on projects where upgrading operations and maintenance and ongoing commissioning are the main focus and energy assessments are secondary. Advanced technology provides limited benefit if the needs of the facility staff are ignored or if the equipment does not operate as designed.
MM: When you started out, what was your biggest obstacle? How did you overcome it?
MA: It was really difficult to earn the respect of senior colleagues because I was young and a woman. I decided to go for a Professional Engineering license (P.E.) as a way of proving myself. I still encounter sexism in my work, but the P.E. has definitely helped me gain respect. It's not like you can sleep your way to a P.E.
MM: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
MA: Knowing that I am slowly improving our environment to protect future generations and helping to empower the community to make better energy consumption decisions. I find it very rewarding to see facilities staff apply knowledge I have provided them and then improve upon it to ensure optimal building performance. When I troubleshoot mechanical systems I make every effort to engage the facilities staff and guide them to discover the cause of the problems on their own.
MM: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges for women in this industry?
MA: A lack of mentors for newcomers and resistance to social change. You know, people don’t really ‘picture’ women in the industry. And people automatically assume you’re not ‘technical’ enough to answer their questions. Basically, battling peoples’ perceptions.
MM: What advice would you give to a woman starting out in the home performance industry?
MA: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Spend as much time in the field as you can. You don't need to know everything in order to take on a new project—take risks and go outside your comfort zone. Know your worth and have confidence in yourself.
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