Nelson Mechanical Design: infectious enthusiasm

We knew that we wanted Nelson Mechanical Design to be our 2010 Contractor of the Year because we’ve admired their work for a quite a while. The contractor won a 1st Place Green Mechanical Award last year in the Most Innovative category for a geothermal project on Martha's Vineyard.

We knew that we wanted Nelson Mechanical Design to be our 2010 Contractor of the Year because we've admired their work for a quite a while. The contractor won a 1st Place Green Mechanical Award last year in the Most Innovative category for a geothermal project on Martha's Vineyard.

The house was on a hill so they couldn’t use a horizontal loop, so they lowered the drilling rig into the basement and drilled six diagonal 100-ft. loops for a DX system. Because of the geology of Martha's Vineyard (it's a pile of rocks left over from the last ice age) it was a tough project. They also installed a 10kW wind turbine to help run it. A big reason is that Martha's Vineyard is becoming an all-electric island since propane and fuel oil have to be delivered by boat.

We knew they were sharp guys going in, but they’re even sharper than you thought once you meet them in person. I'm sure there are many of you like this out there, but Brian Nelson and Dave Sprague are all geeked up about mechanical contracting. Mechanical systems, to them, are just the greatest things going. As we say in our feature story, Nelson and Sprague are both Master Plumbers, plus Nelson has a Masters Degree in engineering and the creativity of a jazz saxophonist.

That creativity is one reason why Brian's job at the Mansion House hotel in Vineyard Haven is on the cover of this month's Green Mechanical Contractor magazine. When the hotel dug a subbasement, they hit the aquifer and needed to pump it continually. A lot of guys would see foundation drain water. Brian saw a geothermal source, additional cooling water, and a way to chop a big chunk off the owner's fuel oil bill.

While Nelson Mechanical Design identifies itself as a green mechanical contractor, a lot of its work is fixing what's broken — like at the Mansion House — and the result often saves the owners energy and money.

One example of that is the West Tisbury elementary school where two of Brian's kids go. The original structure was built in 1929 with an addition in 1993. Different contractors had obviously serviced the building over the years, with completely different ideas and types of equipment. Most classrooms have steam radiators that were running without any control. Unit ventilators had been installed in the 1970s in a manner that was about as low-bid as low-bid can get. The fan motors had stopped working and the shafts had seized. Thermostats? Who needs thermostats? The maintenance guys would come in at about four in the morning, fire everything up manually and hope the building was warm when classes started. At 2:00 in the afternoon they would shut everything down. Remember the old joke about double hung gate valves for steam systems? That was West Tisbury School.

A big part of Nelson Mechanical Design's success is their eagerness to adopt new technology, like the Smart Grid project that they're tinkering with in the Slavin Residence that's mentioned in the feature story. Since Martha's Vineyard is becoming all-electric with the power managed by an electric cooperative and eventually generated by offshore wind turbines, the electric co-op needs to be able to continuously monitor power usage. The Smart Grid project will help them do that.

DDC systems in their projects are online and Brian can monitor their operating conditions from a computer in his basement. You should see his basement. It looks like Mission Control. He doesn't do anything without trying it out on his own house first.

When we pick a contractor of the year, we always look for somebody that is worth emulating. They're a tough bunch. I don't know if I've ever met another natural leader like Bill Jones of Raven Mechanical, Houston, or environmental visionaries like Dave Kruse, L.J. Kruse Co., Berkeley, Calif., and Bill Erickson, C.J. Erickson Plumbing Co., Alsip, Ill. Both have become national leaders in the field of energy and water conservation. Few business owners in any field have the management acumen of John Ward, Applewood Plumbing, Heating & Electric, Denver. John Ward could make a million dollars with a lemonade stand. Contractors of the Year cannot, by definition, be ordinary people.

There is one thing, however, that anyone can copy from Brian Nelson and Dave Sprague — their enthusiasm for what they are doing. Every morning they get up and get to go do the coolest stuff in the world.