Heating the land of the midnight sun

HEADQUARTERED IN Anchorage is a mechanical systems company that is a landmark of Alaskan progress. Klebs Mechanical is a contracting firm that employs about 85 people and serves the construction and service/replacement markets in the commercial and residential sectors. Late in 2006, the company was well on its way to achieving $12 million in sales, tripling its size in just three years. President

HEADQUARTERED IN Anchorage is a mechanical systems company that is a landmark of Alaskan progress. Klebs Mechanical is a contracting firm that employs about 85 people and serves the construction and service/replacement markets in the commercial and residential sectors. Late in 2006, the company was well on its way to achieving $12 million in sales, tripling its size in just three years.

President Gary Klebs founded the company in 1986 as a two-person operation based in a house. The company focused on commercial sheet metal ventilation and exhaust ducting. Today, Klebs specializes in the installation and servicing of commercial and residential HVAC using hydronic systems and forced-air technology.

Within the past half-dozen years, the use of hydronic systems in commercial applications has shown significant growth across Alaska. Klebs' move into hydronics, however, began earlier. In the early ‘90s, it began with service work and some new construction, and then segued into radiant heat and — because gas was cheap — the company found plenty of snow-melt work too.

The growth that began with the firm's concerted push into hydronics was one of the key factors that led him to diversify, Gary Klebs says. He attributes his company's continued growth to a number of causes:

  • Alaska is well known for its environmental policies and the rugged individualism of its people. New technologies are quickly grasped by commercial consumers, to help them manage their energy use as well as the productivity of their employees.
  • The state has tremendous financial resources generated from native oil and gas reserves.
  • The military is a giant customer in Alaska.

"We always wanted to be the total mechanical contractor in control of all facets of mechanical systems installed within the building envelope," Klebs says. "And we learned in our early days that contractors who did everything were in control of their projects ... and their destinies."

As a commercial non-union contractor working in a highly unionized environment, Klebs says he has all the incentive he needs to "stay on his toes."

"They (the unions) do us a favor by keeping us alert," he notes. "They are excellent competitors — forcing us to review everything we do and how we run the business. But the true key to our success is our employees."

General Manager Eden Larson concurs. Larson, whose varied background includes working for the Associated Builders and Contractors, says it's difficult to find and hire technically competent people with experience in the HVACR and hydronics fields, as well as people who also have good attitudes and a strong work ethic.

"So we hire people for their attitudes and train them in the skills," she says. "We're highly invested with employee development and training. NATE certification is very important to us on the residential side, and we will certify all our commercial technicians as soon as the NATE commercial tests are available."

Klebs explains that the firm invests in permanent employment. "We don't buy into traditional construction management models where you hire seasonally," he says. "We want our people working for us all year long."

In addition to technical development, the company maintains a professional development program for managers and supervisors. This training helps the company to be flexible — adopting new technologies and skill sets as needed.

One example is the move into commercial hydronics, which was a natural outgrowth of Klebs' commercial plumbing division. Gary's son Mike Klebs is the plumbing department manager and holds the firm's plumbing licenses.

"In Alaska, commercial hydronics applications just make a lot of sense," Gary Klebs says. "It's cold in Anchorage for a long time. The first snow falls around Halloween and stays on the ground until Easter. We have long, dark winters. And to have ambient warmth coming from the floor is not only comfortable and highly efficient, but comforting as well."

The sale may be easier with customers predisposed to the benefits of radiant, but the application often isn't, especially if it requires running pipe underground.

"Permafrost is a big issue here," Mike Klebs says. "For companies who've never had to deal with it, permafrost can be a huge barrier to being successful. You must account for it in your load calculations and you must use the right techniques and materials to do the job right. People who take shortcuts, well, they just fail."

And that's because Alaska isn't the typical place to work.

"Relationships and reputation are everything here," Larson says. "The state is geographically very large, but from a population viewpoint, it's very small. Alaska is, in essence, a small town. If you take shortcuts and don't do what's in the customer's best interest, you absolutely won't be successful here."

That's why Klebs Mechanical strives to do things right the first time. This approach helps it land projects not only all over the state, but around the world. From projects in Nome and the North Slope of Alaska to tropical Midway Island, the company has spread itself geographically. The bulk of its work, however, remains in the Anchorage area.

Of the work done in 2006, some of the most interesting projects were close to home. The Anchorage Zoo, for example, was building a new educational facility. Klebs engineered a hydro-air system with some radiant heating to meet the clients' needs. This includes an insulated run of radiant heat to separate the admissions building from the rest of the facility.

This system uses a number of Grundfos VersaFlo variable-speed pumps, combined with several three-speed Grundfos SuperBrute circulators and two sealed-combustion direct-vent 65,000 Btuh Bradford White water heaters with seismic strapping.

Alaska is one of the world's most seismically active regions. The "Good Friday Earthquake" of 1964 struck south central Alaska with a magnitude of 9.2, killing 131 people. Most of them were drowned by the tsunamis that tore apart the towns of Valdez and Chenega. Building codes were adopted soon thereafter, requiring seismic strapping on mechanical systems.

To demonstrate its prowess with hydronic technology, when Klebs built a new headquarters building in 2006, it was 100% hydronically heated. The first floor is fully heated using a radiant system, and the second floor employs a state-of-the-art hydro-air system that uses gas-pack units with hot water coils in the duct for early morning warm-up.

The facility is interfaced with a Webbased building automation system. Packaged units on the roof provide constant tempered heat at 65°F in the winter and 55°F in the summer. Plus a snow-melt system that is part of the first-floor radiant system keeps the front of the building free of ice and snow.

Klebs' building is a showcase for commercial hydronics system technology, as well as its prowess in sheetmetal fabrication, Web-based controls, piping and plumbing.

From the moment you step into the lobby, the pride of the employees, the cleanliness and the overall feel of the place tells you that providing comfort in the land of the midnight sun is job No. 1 at Klebs Mechanical.

Mike Weil is chief editor of Contracting Business, a sister publication of CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at [email protected].