YOU’RE A SMALL contractor, say, 15 people, and you have a big job land in your lap: a major commercial building expansion, 102-tons of cooling, a $450,000 contract. Would that scare the heck out of you? Would you walk away from it?
It wasn’t too scary for Blaine Aldrich, the president and owner of Comfort Service Inc., DeLand, Fla. He and his crew installed all 102-tons in their local YMCA and did it a way that’s accessible to many contractors. You don’t need to bill $10 million and have dozens of employees to tackle a job this big.
Let’s begin with a little bit about how Aldrich got here.
The best education
Contracting runs in Aldrich’s family; he followed his father into the contracting business. Once he got into the field, he worked for a variety of companies that gave him a broad range of experience.
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“I came to Florida when I graduated from high school and I went to work for Thermal Acoustic, which was a huge sheet metal and ductwork company, and I went through their four-year apprenticeship program and started running big jobs,” Aldrich recalls. “I had 30-40 people working for me and I bet all of them were twice my age. And then I had the opportunity to get into refrigeration with Refrig-A-Matic. We did the Wendy’s, all the Planet Hollywoods.”
If there’s a credential, Aldrich has it. Besides the four-year Associated Builders & Contractors Apprentice Program, he attended Mid Florida Technical, Seminole Community College, and Daytona Beach Community College. He has his Universal EPA card; State of Florida LP Gas License and holds a State of Florida Class "A" Air Conditioning Contractors license.
His dad, William Aldrich, had run a plumbing, heating, electrical contracting business in Wellsville, N.Y. He left in the early ‘80s to retire to Florida and worked as a maintenance man at an apartment complex in DeLand when he had stroke. Aldrich was 24 or 25 at the time and moved his young family to DeLand to take care of his father. His dad passed about six months later, but Aldrich was in DeLand to stay. The town has been named one of the Top 50 Main Streets in America and it’s a great place to raise a family. In between Orlando and Daytona, it’s a small college town (Stetson College) filled with single-family homes and locally owned businesses. DeLand, population of about 25,000, is the county seat of Volusia County.
“We just had the Christmas parade with 3,000 people downtown,” Aldrich told CONTRACTOR in early December. “My office is right downtown across from city hall; it’s nice to be in the downtown part of the community. We own the whole corner, about 1.8 acres. It’s a great location of about 2,400-sq.ft. with about 1,000-sq.ft. of office and rest is warehouse.”
Aldrich went to work for Comfort Service Inc. in Deland in 1985; he actually took a cut in pay. He was running the firm by 1995 and bought it in 2000 from its founder, Frank Wood. Wood, a Johnson Controls veteran, was looking to retire back then but, like many entrepreneurs, decided that retirement didn’t suit him. Today, Frank is a troubleshooter for several air conditioning supply houses statewide. Part time assignments turned into a full-time job, which includes troubleshooting for Daikin.
Running out of that downtown location, Comfort Service is about 75% residential and 25% commercial, and the vast majority of the work is retrofit. A few large contracting firms that buy their equipment direct dominate Florida, Aldrich notes, and his company makes a living fixing their mistakes. He runs two installation trucks, six service vehicles, plus his truck and a supervisor’s truck.
His commercial work is performed for a lot of his downtown neighbors, fueled by his involvement in the Chambers and Rotaries.
CONTRACTOR’s former management columnist, the late, great Joe Schmitt, always said that contractors must get involved in civic clubs whose members are business people and prospective customers. That’s what Aldrich has done, and it has meant business.
Aldrich got involved in a Christian CEO group called C12, which is like a mix group that includes people such as lawyers, real estate professionals and restaurateurs. The C12 group read about the Blue Ocean Strategy. It’s about carving out niche markets in the same way as Apple Computer. The Blue Ocean Strategy is one of those business books that’s been translated into multiple languages, sold a ton of copies, and has turned into a whole consulting business on its own. The premise of the Blue Ocean Strategy is making the competition irrelevant by getting into unique niches. And that’s how Aldrich got to Daikin.
A lady who was one of his downtown DeLand professional contacts wanted to build a LEED project downtown and use super-efficient technology. Aldrich (with the help of Daikin reps) installed one of the first Variable Refrigerant Volume projects. He put eight indoor air handlers on one condenser. Each occupant had individual room control. The electric bill — in central Florida — was $85 a month.
“I can’t tell you how great that job turned out and how great it worked,” Aldrich says.
Then he installed Daikin air conditioning for one of his residential customers, who was so pleased that he contacted Aldrich when the air conditioning went out at his church, First Presbyterian of DeLand. A 52-ton chiller had served the building. In fact, when the church job came on the market, the church board received a letter from a chiller manufacturer that said ductless splits were only good for small retail, and that large buildings such as churches require a chiller.
Aldrich ran the cooling load for the church several times and couldn’t come up with more than 30-tons. He proposed 28 tons of ductless splits, including 4-tons of VRV units. He had 14-tons installed by Easter on one side of the church and the minister said it was working so well that he questioned why they needed the other 14-tons.
“The equipment has been in there now for three years now,” he says. “One of the stories I can tell you is that there was a popular young man who died here in DeLand. The funeral was in the church. It was in the middle of August and they had all five doors open. There were about 50% more people than normal in there, 800-850 people. The system went up to 78°F, they closed the doors and in 15 minutes it went down to 71°F and the equipment shut off.”
The music director loves the system because it’s so quiet that they don’t have to adjust the volume for when it goes on and off. It’s zoned separately so the choir can stay cool in their robes.
“The bean counter at the church says they’re saving $600 a month on the sanctuary,” Aldrich says.
The huge success of the First Presbyterian project led to the YMCA job.
Success begets success
Several people on the board of the YMCA are customers and also go to First Presbyterian. The local architect was impressed, as was the engineer drawing the plans for the Y, who wanted to move forward because of the energy savings and low maintenance requirements.
The original building, built in 1967, comprised a 24,000-sq.ft. ventilated gymnasium and a 16,000-sq.ft. facility that included weight training, a workout area and a locker room. The expansion and renovation project included the addition of 16,000-sq.ft. of new facility including the new 11,700-sq.ft. wellness center. The majority of the existing building was renovated into childcare areas, multi-purpose rooms, spinning room and administrative offices.
The facility is single story but the new wellness center has a ceiling height of over 20-ft. and is all glass on three walls.
The expansion was directly attached to the existing building with a new main entrance and registration desk area. The wellness center was expanded to the east of the property with the new administrative offices to the south, which is off the front of the facility.
The Y rearranged the functions in the building once the addition was completed. The 11,700-sq.ft. wellness center incorporates all the treadmills, workout machines and free weights. All the main offices were combined into the administrative suite. The childcare area and the spinning room were expanded in the renovations.
Five hundred members per day use the building, not including guests and other activities. Typically the building is open from 6:00 A.M. to late at night, depending on which evening functions are going on that day.
The project was designed by working with a local HVAC engineer who performed all the needed heat loads, air changes and calculations. DeLand has 2,919 cooling degree-days and 909 heating degree-days.
The building is divided into eight zones. Zones 1-4 are for the wellness area. Zone 5 serves the front main lobby. Zone 6 handles the childcare area. Zone 7 is for the bathrooms and hallway area. Zone 8 serves the administrative area. Total tonnage is 102 tons. The building was sized for diversity since the inverter units can modulate from 17% to 100%.
“This job last a little more than a year from the time we started running all our copper,” Aldrich says. “We had a crew of five men on this project. Robert Arrington (CSI vice president) was in charge of this project for Comfort Service Inc. Once we started the project it moved along at a steady pace right up to starting up each area.”
Because of the nature of the system, there was no need for “laborers.” Comfort Service had its best guys manning the YMCA project, running the engineered copper circuits for more than 75 different air handling devices.
Comfort Service mounted 14 condensers ranging from 8-tons to 16-ton dual zones. Inside the building there are 46 fan coil air handlers from 1½-tons to 3-tons and many of these were the ceiling cassette style.
The engineer zoned the system based on each area’s purpose. Even though each cassette style air-handling unit in the wellness center has its own thermostat built in controlling its area, that cassette may be tied into a bank of 12 on a 16-ton condenser (two 8-ton units headed together). This gives increase reliability in case Florida’s lightning takes out part of a system. The majority of the system would still be functional.
“We did mount about half of the outdoor units on the roof at the DeLand YMCA,” Aldrich notes. “Here in Florida — and being just 30 minutes from Daytona Beach — per code we mounted the outdoor units on hurricane stands. The other outdoor units are mounted on the ground. The Daikin condensers can be installed within ¾-in. from each other per code and per manufacturer’s specifications. We had a retired HVAC inspector from Dade County (in south Florida) who said we had installed them against code. We happily supplied him with the specs and showed him why the technology will allow them to be so efficient when other units must be 3-ft. apart typically.”
The Wellness center expansion at the Y is all 3-ft. x 3-ft. cassette style air handling units. These cassette style units look similar to a large four-way supply grille but have a return in the middle core. They go up only 14-in. high into the ceiling cavity. Comfort Service incorporated the fresh air required by using ERVs. The cassettes come standard with fresh air capability and they also have a connection for a supply air take-off to heat or cool a small area. The cassettes also have an OEM built-in condensate pump that works great even in Florida’s hot, humid climate.
The biggest issue with inverter drive units is dealing with an incredulous electrical contractor.
“The typical problem we run into is the electrical,” Aldrich explains. “It is so simple and straightforward. The electrical contractor has a hard time believing he has to run such a small amount of power to each unit. These units are so efficient that they do not need any type of auxiliary electric heat, which is typical for all the HVAC jobs they do. Where an electrician typically runs a 60A/240V power to every indoor unit, he may only have to run one 15A circuit daisy-chained to several indoor air handlers. It is hard for the electrician to get use to. But these things also save the owner a lot of money on the electrical bid. Less power needed means smaller wires, a smaller breaker, less labor and cost.”
In addition to smaller electrical requirements, the minimal amount of ductwork means a smaller ceiling cavity is needed.
Aldrich notes that most commercial ductwork sizes are large, and when you have to cross duct, you need a large attic space for all that ductwork. The cassette style allowed the designers of the building to save cost because there is no need for large, unused, hot attic spaces, lowering the cost for building overall.
“We have never had a complaint about it being too hot or too cool in any area,” Aldrich says. “With the ceiling cassettes, wall-hung, ducted and ceiling-mounted units, we have been able to deliver the HVAC as needed in each individual area. The inverter technology allows for heating and cooling as needed compared to the currently used technology of banging 20 tons on and 20 tons off. The inverter allows a steadier action, eliminating the over-cooling effected by non-inverter style systems.”
Too many times the lowest install price is considered, Aldrich concludes, not the long-term value for the customer. With better equipment it’s like getting a rebate check every month in the lower cost to operate and maintain the system.