Baran, 59, from Florida, is a photovoltaic instructor at The Refrigeration School (RSI). Baran joined RSI in March 2018 after a 30-year career in the field.
Thanks for your time, Baran. Tell us a little about your early career.
I enlisted in the U.S. Army as a drummer at 17. When I was in high school, I auditioned for the First Army Band. They arranged for me to graduate early. I worked ahead at high school so I could get involved in what was called Stripes for Skills, a Vietnam-era program that enabled me to go in as a PFC E3, and upon arrival at my duty station achieve the rank of E5. That promotion was based on five years of civilian earned experience, which was 7th to 12th grade band. My childhood band experience gave me five years toward a military promotion. Isn’t that ridiculous?
How long were you in the Army?
I played drums and percussion for the Army for four years at Fort Meade, Maryland. I was not cut out for the military. There’s no way I could have survived 20 year. I’m too much of an independent personality.
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When did you leave the service?
- I hung drywall for a while, then worked for a swimming pool company for about five years. That’s where I got my first electrical experience. That enabled me to receive my contractor’s license when I moved to Redding, CA.
Is that when you started in the electrical field?
Yes, I started my own business as a residential electrician in 1990. I learned the ropes by wiring houses and eventually got into troubleshooting systems.
How did you transition into solar and photovoltaic systems?
In 1998, a company called Real Goods in California introduced photovoltaic systems for consumers. I saw an ad for a training seminar they were holding. By going to a three-day seminar, they would provide references for licensed electricians. I thought that was a win-win, so I attended the training. I put in my first system shortly after and made several thousand dollars in a week and a half. I never turned back.
You were self-employed?
Yes, I was self employed for all but maybe four years of my career. In fact, after many years of being self-employed, I got tired of doing it all myself: the work, managing the business, the advertising, everything. In 2014 I decided I wanted to be part of a team. I got a job with First Solar as a photovoltaic technician. I worked on a large-scale 550 megawatt plant in San Luis Obispo, CA. That gave me great hands-on experience with large systems and being part of a team.
Why did you decide to become an instructor?
In 2016, a promotion brought me to Phoenix with First Solar. Logistician turned out to be a big word for “parts wrangler.” It was very unsatisfying to sit behind a desk and three screens creating parts and inventory numbers when I’d previously been knee-deep troubleshooting. I wasn’t a good fit, a square peg in a round hole, so I left. I spent a year and a half doing solar and electric handyman work when I saw that RSI was looking for a photovoltaic instructor. It was perfect, a match made in heaven.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Every day I come home with a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction because I watch people progressing from “deer in the headlights” to the light bulbs turning on! I get to watch students master something they never thought possible. Being able to teach something I know and love and being able to bring other people into the field is kind of a double bonus.
Is this your first teaching role?
Back in 2006 I had a taste of teaching. I taught one semester at a college in California, a class very similar to what I teach here.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
Astronauts were a big deal for me growing up in southern Florida. But the truth is I’ve always loved drums and percussion, and I still play. I’ve got drums all around the house.
If you weren’t a teacher what would you do?
I’ve begun writing patents. I have my first patent, and I’m in the middle of my second. I have a variety of ideas that I’ve not seen manifest out there, just simple things. Many of us at one time or another have said, “Somebody ought to…” If I can sell one or two of these things, that’s a source of residual income to allow me to keep doing what I’m doing. I don’t see myself retiring. What would I retire to?
If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
Albert Einstein to get his take on metaphysics. I’d like to ask him his thoughts on multi-dimensional possibilities or time/space continuums. I’d just offer him some cognac and turn him loose!
Tell us a little about your family.
I was married, but I’m totally solo now. It’s just me and my kittykat Junipurr. She’s a rescue that thinks she’s a dog. I have a stepdaughter in Colorado and a 12-year-old granddaughter.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to new students considering RSI?
If you make the investment in yourself and take the leap, throw yourself into it 100%. Everyone has a life. We all have issues with family, finance, or work. But just show up no matter what. You can miss so much in just a couple of days. Be open to learning and you will succeed. We have all the resources you need at RSI, a total support system for you if you’re 100% all-in.
What was your favorite tool in the field?
A high voltage insulation testing device, a Megger. It’s a monster that will shock you and kick you like a mule if you’re not wearing your rubber gloves or if you handle it wrong. It gives you the ability to run high voltage several hundred feet through a wire and pinpoint where there’s a break in the insulation. It can save you having to dig up 300 feet of cable.
What was your favorite part of your time in the field?
Troubleshooting, basically fixing something someone else couldn’t. Things are always breaking down. Just because someone can install a photovoltaic system doesn’t mean they can fix it or understand what’s going wrong. I got a lot of referral work from electricians who installed systems but couldn’t fix them.
If you got an unexpected day to yourself, what would you do with that time?
If it’s not the middle of summer, I would head off to the Desert Botanical Gardens. I’ve got a membership there; I can walk through and lose myself. It’s a great place to decompress.
If you were to tell someone “thank you” for making you the man you are today, who would it be?
There are three: my music instructors from junior high and high school, and my military band director: Mr. Williams, Mr. McGee and Mr. Choat. They provided a lot of support and encouraged me to be myself. I think that’s the message I took away from the music more than anything else. Although I never pursued music as a career, I’ve never set down my drumsticks either.
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