HVAC Contractors Take on Light Commercial Work


Energy Kinetics helps contractors handle big jobs

By John MacKenna

Large commercial spaces in cold climates can consume a lot of energy for heating, which makes them excellent opportunities for contractors that install high-efficiency equipment.

Oil & Energy recently made a road trip to Downeast Maine with Energy Kinetics executives Jay McCay and Jim Pike to visit with contractors who are installing Energy Kinetics boilers in commercial and institutional buildings.

We interviewed three contractors, who discussed the rewards and obstacles they have found in pursuing commercial work. They also offered advice for contractors interested in moving up to light commercial work.

Our first stop was at JL Huntley Inc., in Machias, Maine, where owner Jeff Huntley gave a tour of his office and some of the buildings where the company has installed new boilers. Machias is on the far end of the Maine coast, just a few miles from the Canadian border. JL Huntley employs 10 people doing plumbing, heating and some oil delivery.

Jeff Huntley’s back office contains a prefabrication station, where he prebuilds piping assemblies for installation at commercial sites. “If I can build it at the shop, I do,” he said. He combines manifolds, zone circulators and piping in a single unit and then transports the assembly to the job site.

Large Heat Loads

Commercial contractors in Maine often have great opportunities to save customers money, because the extreme cold weather creates very large heat loads that make inefficient equipment expensive to operate. “With any larger space with older equipment, the opportunity to save energy exists,” Hundley said.

To break into commercial work, it is essential for contractors to have good support from manufacturers when performing commercial installations, and Energy Kinetics does a great job of supporting his team, according to Huntley.

He has installed Energy Kinetics boilers in numerous commercial and institutional buildings, and he took Oil & Energy to the Machias campus of the University of Maine, where he has upgraded the boilers in the kitchen/dining hall, a sports facility with a swimming pool, and a dormitory.

In the college’s dining hall and kitchen building, Huntley installed three EK2 boilers feeding baseboards and fan-coil units to replace a steam system fed by one large boiler. In the building with the pool, Huntley installed four Energy Kinetics boilers to heat the space and the pool water.

Robert C. Farris, the University’s Director of Facilities Management, said the energy savings with the new equipment have been tremendous, and he appreciates the security the college gets by having multiple boilers in its buildings, instead of just one large unit. “If we lost two, we could still keep the place from freezing,” he said. “Redundancy is good.”

Farris also appreciates the fact that Energy Kinetics manufactures its boilers in the United States. “If I can’t get something from Washington County (where the campus is located), then I look for something from Maine. If I can’t find it from Maine, then I look for something from the U.S. If I can’t find that, then I don’t need it,” he said.

Critical Savings

Another contracting company using Energy Kinetics in commercial projects is Jackson Plumbing & Heating, of Old Town, Maine, near Bangor. Owner Wayne Jackson said his company’s work is about 30 percent commercial, and they have replaced the heating equipment in many of Old Town’s larger buildings, including churches, apartment buildings and non-profits.

“It’s rewarding to have those companies save $25,000 to $30,000 a year on fuel and tell you that it allows them to do things they couldn’t have done,” Jackson said. “For some of them it is their only way of staying in business. They can’t afford to waste any money.”

As Jackson P&H has helped customers achieve significant savings, word has traveled, and the company has been hired by the Knights of Columbus, the Housing Authority, and a local museum.

Oil & Energy got an up-close look at Jackson’s work in the Old Town Housing Authority’s Bickmore Manor apartments. The 13-unit elderly housing building is now heated by twin EK2 boilers. Jackson has upgraded the boilers in several Housing Authority buildings, driving annual fuel consumption down by many thousands of gallons, according to Martin Somers, the Authority’s Facilities Director. “We’re seeing huge energy savings,” Somers said. One installation cost the authority about $55,000 and provided enough energy savings to cover the cost in just over two years. “It is essential to watch your efficiency. You have to know where your costs are,” Somers added. Reducing energy costs has been very helpful to the Housing Authority’s budget, as more money has been freed up for other uses, he said.

Somers also appreciates the installation costs that Jackson provides with Energy Kinetics boilers. The Authority’s engineer had estimated the cost of one boiler upgrade project at $340,000, and Jackson was able to do the job for $55,000, he said. As Facilities Director, he also appreciates the redundancy of a multiple-boiler installation. “If it’s 2 a.m. and a low water cutoff dies, we can at least limp along,” he said.

Somers said the boiler rooms that house the Energy Kinetics systems are much cooler than they used to be because the new systems do not leak much heat into the surrounding space. “The boiler room used to be 100 degrees,” he said. Somers is also impressed with how quietly the units run.

The Housing Authority is currently heating the Bickmore Manor building with natural gas, but they purchased a backup oil burner that can be installed on short notice in the event that oil prices fall below natural gas.

Jackson has used as many as four Energy Kinetics boilers in his commercial projects. He installs boilers from other manufacturers only when the installation price of the Energy Kinetics equipment is too high for the customer. “Some want cheap installation instead of a cheap fuel bill,” he said.

Jackson Plumbing & Heating competes for bid work, including projects sponsored by Efficiency Maine, which operates energy efficiency programs on behalf of the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The company works with a lot of engineers, and Jackson finds that most are open-minded, while others are “old school” and can’t fathom using smaller equipment such as Energy Kinetics boilers. “Some of them wouldn’t specify a System 2000 if it was the last thing on earth, and others want to learn and be part of [what we’re doing],” he said.

Succeeding in light commercial requires great mechanical skills and a good knowledge of wiring, according to Jackson. His installers attend classes to ensure they understand the latest controls and control strategies.

Contractors who want to gain more commercial work need good word of mouth and a strong presence on the Internet that includes photos and data on jobs they have completed, he said.

Learning to Bid

David Harbison, owner of Harbison Plumbing and Heating, in Houlton, Maine, has been working in the family business since 1979. His father, David, founded the business in 1972, and they did mostly residential work in the early years and gradually worked their way up to bidding for public jobs.

Bidding for commercial contracts proved difficult at first, and Harbison missed several jobs because his bids were too high. “I gradually figured out how to structure the pricing to be competitive,” he said.

The first job he won turned into a financial loss, because he didn’t realize that he had agreed to replace some iron ductile piping, which he had mistaken for cast iron. He spent hours on his belly or his back cutting into it and making connections. The job was in a hospital over an operating room, and the hospital staff warned him that they might have to lock him into the workspace if any surgery was performed while he was working. Every day he was on the job he had to wear hospitals booties and a robe.

Despite losing money on the hospital installation, he kept at it, learned on the job, and soon became proficient at bidding. “If you are committed, you figure it out and make it work,” he said. Over the years, the company has continued raising its sights and taking on larger projects.

Houlton is a town of 6,000 located on the Canadian border at the terminus of Interstate 95. It is the capital of Aroostook County and is home to a Smith & Wesson plant, where Harbison Plumbing & Heating is the heating contractor. A few years ago, Harbison upgraded Smith & Wesson’s heating with four Energy Kinetics EK3 boilers that are cascaded to alternate as lead boiler, to ensure that the heating load is equally distributed. The four boilers replaced a single H.B. Smith boiler. “We promoted that to help them save money,” Harbison said. “They have a tremendous heat load, and they were tired of the oil truck coming every day.” The 60,000-square-foot plant is divided into eight or nine zones and uses a combination of baseboards, air handlers and unit heaters.

Breaking into commercial work was challenging at first, but once Harbison Plumbing & Heating learned the bidding process and gained a reputation for saving energy in large buildings, it became easier to win large projects, according to the owner.

Aside from good word of mouth, he said a key to success in commercial contracting is having installers who understand the mechanics of heating and have some experience with large jobs.

Harbison Plumbing & Heating uses Energy Kinetics boilers on its commercial jobs unless another brand is specified. For one project in a local courthouse, the specification called for another brand, but Harbison talked them into Energy Kinetics, and the installation wound up delivering excellent energy savings. “The results were quite surprising for them, so it was a happy ending,” Harbison said.

Working on commercial projects often means working with engineers who design the projects and develop the specifications. Harbison said that most engineers he has encountered work well with contractors and are willing to learn from the contractor and adjust their plans. Some engineers specify older equipment that does not deliver the efficiency of an Energy Kinetics boiler, and Harbison will try to educate them and change their minds.

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