Faculty Appreciation Month – Meet Don Charbonneau

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Don, 55, from Southbridge, Massachusetts, is a solar instructor at The Refrigeration School. He currently teaches the Fundamentals of Solar class to students on the EA and EMT programs. Don is a retired Command Master Chief having served in the United States Navy for 34 years from October 1988 to November 2022.

Thanks for your time, Don, and thank you for your service; tell us a little about your Navy career.

I joined the Navy pretty much straight out of high school in 1988. I didn’t come from a military family, but I was in a Navy ROTC high school program; that’s where I got the desire to join. In March 1989, I reported to Assault Craft Unit Five, where I experienced my first deployment onboard USS Comstock Detachment Delta during Operation Desert Shield. Over the years I had many deployments, both on board and on shore. I was lucky enough to see the world during my time. It was also a pretty active period to be in the Navy, especially the first 20 years with the Gulf War in the 90s and then again post 9/11.

Yes, lots of action, I’m sure. How did you land in Phoenix, Arizona?

I first came to Phoenix in 1998 when I reported to Navy Recruiting District Phoenix as a Second-Class Petty Officer. I was a Canvasser Recruiter, and actually earned Recruiter of the Year 1999. My family liked it here so much that they wanted to stay and make it our home. I ended up going away to San Diego a few years later in 2001, so they stayed here. I would go back and forth on the weekends or whenever I could.

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How did you go from 34 years in the Navy to a solar instructor?

My background in the Navy is electrical. I was an onboard electrician, an electrical engineer, I worked primarily on weapon systems; Mechanical Electrical Engineer on Major Weapons Systems is the actual title. But in 2015 when I was back here in Phoenix on another recruiting duty tour, I got into solar on the side. I started designing solar systems, and that’s when I really got interested in it. 

How long have you been at RSI?

About 10 months. I started teaching here July 1st, 2023, but I was also a student here.

So, you went to RSI – when?

Yes, I retired November 1st, 2022, and the military gives you a GI bill. At that time, I thought to myself that I have an electrical background, but I don’t know anything about HVAC and the air conditioning systems you have for your home… and I needed two of them. I’d called a local company to give me a quote; they wanted $25,000 to replace my two AC units. I thought, “Why don’t I use my GI bill, go to HVAC school, get my certification and EPA certs and then replace it myself?” Instead of $25,000, it cost me $7,000 wholesale. I went through the RSI EMT [Electro-Mechanical Technologies] program and graduated in May 2023. 

How did you go from student to instructor so quickly? 

During my final phase, the instructor said I should really come to work at RSI because of my long electrical background – I have more than 30 years’ electrical experience. That got me thinking because I’d been a tactics and weapons instructor for a couple of tours on different commands. I really hadn’t given any thought to teaching being my retirement job. After the Navy, I’d taken a year off; I really wasn’t thinking about what I was going to do next. Then I was introduced to the RSI Director of Training, David Heiman. I talked with Dave, and he also said I should come work here as they were looking for an electrical solar guy. I like solar, I’ve been interested in it for almost 10 years, so I ended up applying and they hired me!

So, why did you decide to take the job if it wasn’t planned?

I’ve got a nice little retirement from the military, and I already have my degree in business. I wasn’t up for going to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week, like I did when I worked at the Pentagon. I was looking for something laid back; it was a perfect fit. Changing these young students’ lives, helping them to make something of themselves, is pretty cool too. It’s just like being in the military still in that way.

That’s awesome. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a youngster, I wanted to be a cop. But when I got to 18, I realized I was too young be a cop, so I went to the Navy. I really enjoyed the military, and I just stuck it out!

Talk to us about your interest in solar – you mentioned you first got interested in 2015?

In 2015 the solar business was booming. I had all this electrical experience, and I have an engineering mind, so I started designing solar systems. I put a system on my own house, and I helped other people do it too. That’s how I first got into it – it was just like one of my hobbies, especially living in Arizona. Solar is mostly electrical, so I had the electrical background to install it. The only thing you have to figure out and understand is what size system you need to put on a roof. That’s the only other calculation you have to figure out. Solar is mostly electrical knowledge.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Seeing their eyes light up like, “Wow, I didn’t know this about solar!” and then they become interested in getting into the field. That’s the excitement in it. I’ve had a couple graduates who are already working in the solar industry, putting in a solar farm out in the Gilbert/Chandler area. They’re sending me pictures of what they’re doing. That’s the cool part of this job. I always share pictures and stories with my students of graduates who are out doing this stuff.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you?

I’m really, really good at pickleball, if you know what that is? I’m a do it myself guy too. I don’t pay anybody to do anything I can do myself. That’s why I replaced my own HVAC system.

If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?

I think I really would like to have a cold beer with Barack Obama, he’s an interesting person. 

Tell us a little about your family, Don.

My wife Sandra and I just celebrated our 31st anniversary on a cruise to the Bahamas. We have two boys. My eldest son is 31, he did seven years in the Navy and is now a cybersecurity guy. We have a granddaughter named Charlotte with him. Our 25-year-old son is in radiology school. He did five years in the Navy as a medic. They both kind of followed in my footsteps, but they didn’t do 34 years like me – they’re weak!   

You didn’t come from a military family, but you created one! What advice would you give students?

You’re only going to get out of this class, your entire program, what you’re prepared to put into it. If you put in extra effort and pick my brain, you’re going to get more out of it than just shimmying through just doing the minimum to pass a test. Get into it, learn it, and you’ll get more out of it and want to be here. 

If you got an unexpected afternoon to yourself, what would you do with that time?

I just bought a new house. When you buy a new build, there’s a lot of stuff to do. I’m working in my backyard at the moment. So, I’d be out in my backyard working on building my outdoor kitchen, which is actually going to have a standalone solar system on top of the roof, independent of the electric company. 

Your entire electrical career was in the Navy, but what did you enjoy most in the field?

Being in the military, you can’t just schedule something next week to get fixed. Your stuff has to be up and running. So, my favorite part was troubleshooting, figuring out why this thing’s not working and then fixing it. Getting it up and running, making sure that we were ready to launch missiles or shoot guns or whatever we needed to do. I didn’t want to keep the ship down if you know what I mean? The background reward was that I was able to get things fixed with a sense of urgency. 

If you were to tell someone “Thank you” for making you the person you are today, who would it be?

My wife Sandra. When you’re in the military, you’re gone all the time. She held down the fort, kept the kids going in a straight line because I was gone, deployed overseas doing different things, a lot of time. So, I just thank her because she not only kept the kids straight, but she also kept me straight. She always encouraged me to keep moving forward, to keep advancing, and to keep getting pay raises!

Thank you, Don, for all you do to impact the RSI community.