Modine Moves Forward with HVAC Innovations, Entry into Geothermal Market

Aug. 21, 2013
This very diverse manufacturer first made its mark 97 years ago, as a manufacturer of automobile radiators. Today, Modine continues to specialize in heat transfer and thermal management products, and has also become fully active in the geothermal arena, with its purchase of Geofinity in 2012.

If you think you know Modine, think again.

This very diverse manufacturer first made its mark 97 years ago, as a manufacturer of automobile radiators. Today, Modine continues to specialize in heat transfer and thermal management products, and has also become fully active in the geothermal arena, with its purchase of Geofinity in 2012. 

Ben Gover described Modine's history and present-day activities to HVAC trade press editors during a tour of Modine's US headquarters in Racine, WI.

Modine is now nearing the end of its first year of marketing its new Geofinity geothermal heat pump line, which includes a water-to-water, water-to-air, and water-to-air/water combination unit. The units were unveiled at the January 2013 AHR Exposition.

Modine's additional HVAC products include:

  • Effinity 93 gas-fired unit heater
  • Atherion commercial, packaged ventilation line
  • Airedale ClassMate, a vertical DX cooling and heat pump system for class rooms
  • Hot Dawg and Hot Dawg H20 low profile unit heaters for residential and light commercial applications
  • PTP gas fired unit heater.

Those products, plus recent innovations in CF microchannel coil technology, are giving Modine’s HVAC division managers much to do, and much to talk about.

Ben Gover, director of Modine’s North American Heating & Cooling division, recently met with HVAC trade press editors at Modine’s Racine, WI headquarters. In reviewing the company’s history, he said much of Modine’s accomplishments in its “applied thermal innovation” specialty tend to remain well-kept secrets, though not intentionally so.

“Everything Modine does in vehicular or commercial areas provides products that increase efficiency, reduce emissions, or provide some sort of comfort to the end user, such as vehicle comfort, speed or indoor air quality,” Gover said.

“We want to be recognized as the most trusted brand in HVAC, providing integrated heating and cooling solutions that are differentiated through innovation,” Gover continued. “We don’t necessarily to be the largest. Our goal isn’t to be next Trane or Carrier, but we want to focus on innovation as the source of our differentiation.

"We also don’t want to be copycats. We’re not looking to be a commodity product. We want to provide value by being experts in our industry, having excellent products and support, and being humble and easy to do business with,” he said.

Ben Gover said Modine wants to expand the company's commercial product offerings considerably, starting with its participation in geothermal.

For manufacturing process improvement, Modine has developed the Modine Operating System and Modine Production System, which are based on the book Toyota Kata, by Mike Rother. The systems follow five improvement principles — value stream alignment, business plan alignment, mentor/mentee relationships, Plan-Do-Check-Act using Target Process Conditions, and Standardized Work in all areas, including leadership.

Additionally, "Leadership Behaviors" are nurtured, which Modine believes are keys to creating a positive and trusting mentoring environment. Those include selfless leadership, accountability and empowering others, integrity, communicating and conflict resolution, and developing people.

A kind of strategic aggressiveness is fueling Modine’s corporate character as it moves forward into HVAC systems development. Gover said Modine wants to see its commercial products group — which totaled about $139 million in 2012 — grow from its current 10-12% portion of Modine’s total revenue pie, to 20-25%. These products include commercial HVAC, precision air conditioning for computer rooms/data centers, and with the purchase of Geofinity, geothermal systems.

Dennis Mueller, engineering section manager, describes the capabilities of Modine's "Wind Tunnel #2," which can replicate virtually any climate condition for testing outdoor units. Behind him, a technician prepares a unit for testing.

“Within North America, our geothermal goal is to have a complete residential geothermal line and commercial water source lines,” Gover said.

Modine’s acquisition of UK company Airedale in 2005 brought the company back into air conditioning. Airedale was a privately held company focused on commercial and precision air conditioning for computer rooms and data centers.

“We had been doing some makeup air applications, but Airedale really changed things for us,” said Gover, who began his career at Modine in 1997, as an applications engineer.

Product Differentiators
Gover said Modine views its Orb heat pump controller and CF evaporator as two of its most recent product differentiators.

“In many cases in our industry, manufacturers are working with many of the same tools; compressors, motors, and fans are often made by the same suppliers," Gover explained and said Modine offers some important, proprietary innovations.

"Modine’s Orb heat pump controller provides value in how it operates the unit from an efficiency standpoint,” he said, and added that Modine's CF microchannel evaporator provides customers with a state-of-the-art solution for residential and commercial indoor coil needs.

Jill Szczech, engineering supervisor, explains the various test methods used on all Modine heating products, systems, and heat exchangers. Photo courtesy Modine.

A History of Innovation
At last count, Modine owns 2,400 engineering patents. Company founder Arthur A. Modine holds the record for individual patents held by one person, at 122. Modine's cornerstone product was the Spirex radiator, which solved overheating on Henry Ford’s Model T cars. Modine and Ford sealed the deal on a handshake in the Ford Motor Co. lobby.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, Modine expanded further into vehicular, residential, and commercial HVAC. It was the first company to introduce a brazed aluminum evaporator, and other applications in residential and commercial air conditioning.

In 1986, Modine’s PF condenser became the first micro-channel condenser to be made of brazed aluminum, and was standard in Honda Civics and Accords.

Following a retreat from commercial and residential air conditioning during the 1980s — except for the unit heater business — Modine executives reactivated the entire commercial products group, which Gover said has remained at the forefront for Modine’s executive management and board of directors.

Jesse Robbenolt, EIT, a Modine product manager, heating and geothermal products, describes the features of Modine's new geothermal lab.

A Busy Decade
Following the acquisition of UK company Airedale in 2005, in 2009 Modine launched the Effinity 93, described as the “most efficient gas fired unit heater.” This was followed by the 2011 launch of the Atherion commercial ventilation line.

In 2012, the purchase of Geofinity Manufacturing placed Modine in the center of the burgeoning geothermal market, which has grown by leaps and bounds, albeit largely due to about five years of tax incentives and rebates. Nevertheless, those incentives, while spurring sales, have also served to draw public attention to the indisputable efficiency and comfort benefits of geothermal heating and cooling.

Gover said one of Modine’s value-added propositions is found in its employees, who, during a trade press editor facility tour, clearly expressed the excitement and pride they feel about their work, accomplishments, and company mission.

“The resource that is our employees helps differentiate us from the competition,” he said. To aid the employees in their innovative work, in 1998 Modine built a $30 million technology center, with dedicated HVAC labs. It includes a windtunnel and climate chamber that can simulate any climate condition imaginable, for testing rooftop comfort systems and vehicles.  The unique facility is also available for lease to non-direct competitors.

Other research laboratories at the site include:

  • a refrigeration lab that can test 1 to 6 tons of evaporator and condenser capacities
  • a geothermal lab for single-packaged, vertical classroom groundsource systems and Geofinity residential geothermal heat pumps
  • an HVACR lab, which tests heating products, systems, and heat exchangers
  • a semi-anechoic sound lab, that measures sound pressure and intensity of a number of Modine’s HVAC producs.

To avoid depletion of resources, Modine has dedicated engineering groups for each of its five business segments.

“We don’t try to put a pool of people together from other groups,” Gover explained. “We want to have a cohesive effort and clear direction of where we’re going in each of those groups.”

The two days at Modine helped HVAC industry editors see that Modine
is a company with a rich past, focused on an enriching future.

Modine operates two US manufacturing facilities. Its West Kingston, RI plant manufactures geothermal, hydronic, oil, and electric products, and air conditioning cassettes. A facility based in Buena Vista, VA manufactures gas-fired commercial heating products. School DX units are made at both sites, due to high demand.

Gover believes “trust” and “experience” are key words that shape Modine’s culture and business development philosophy.

“With Modine, you get a trusted partner. We have 97 years of experience as a company, 91 of those years in HVAC. We have 30 years in heat pumps, 20 years in controls, and 15 years in geothermal, with the advent of the Geofinity division,” he said. “We’re more than just unit heaters, although Ironically, we’re consistently referred to as the unit heater company.”

Modine’s research and development includes addressing environmental issues. It makes exhaust gas recirculation coolers (EGRCs) to reduce engine emissions, and has worked for about 10 years on a carbon dioxide (CO2) air conditioning system.

The two-day editors’ tour included a stop at the Gateway Technical College, Kenosha, WI, which Modine and other HVAC entities are supporting with equipment and training materials (see "Modine Helps Open a New Gateway," below). Modine is also installing a geothermal system at a sustainable home located on the Gateway college campus.

Overall, the two days at Modine helped HVAC industry editors see that Modine is a company with a rich past, focused on an enriching future.

Modine Helps Open a New Gateway

Attendees of the latest Modine University Geothermal Training session work on Orb demo units, the award-winning controller of Modine’s residential geothermal product line.

Modine's contribution to the training of current and future HVAC specialists is evident in its recent contributions to and ongoing support of Gateway Technical College, located in Kenosha, WI, a short distance from Modine headquarters. Gateway's history as an educational institution began in 1911. It offers more than 65 education programs for health, business, manufacturing, engineering, and service careers. Students can enroll in an associate degree or technical diploma programs as well as expand their skills with an advanced technical certificate. Gateway's HVAC-related fields of study include HVACR technician and HVAC geothermal technician. Apprenticeship programs are offered in plumbing, sheet metal fabrication, and HVAC.

Centennial celebrations recently marked the college's 100-year birthday. In 2012, the college implemented an expansive sustainability plan for the facility, which includes efficiencies in energy and transportation, buildings and grounds, policies and processes, and recycling and waste reduction.

Stations were set up inside the college to cover various geothermal concepts, including geological analysis.

In addition to Modine, Gateway Technical College is supported by Trane, Johnstone Supply, TPI, and Grainger Industrial Supply.

Gateway helps support "Modine University," which brings product knowledge and hands-on learning to Modine's manufacturer's reps, distributors, and HVAC contractors.

Gateway's HVAC school includes room to analyze residential and commercial HVAC system performance.

The recent HVAC press editors' tour of Modine headquarters in Racine included a visit to the college, where a geothermal session for manufacturers reps and distributors was in progress. There, Modine experts demonstrated the socket fusion and butt fusion methods of joining thermoplastic for geothermal projects, analysis of earth composition, instruction in Modine's Orb heat pump controller, and a first-hand look at a geothermal installation in progress at Gateway's Center for Sustainable Living.

The Center for Sustainable Living is a residence located near the Gateway campus, which was purchased by the college to be used as a proving ground for renewable energy technologies. A Modine Geofinity system will provide the heating and cooling to the home. Tom Niessen, chairman of Gateway's HVAC program, described the process.

Tom Niesen, chairman of Gateway Technical College's HVAC program, describes the drilling process for the geothermal at the Center for Sustainable Living.

"We'll be drilling five holes 20-ft. apart, for a 5-ton system," Niessen explained. "Our Manual J class performed the heat load calculations on the building. Our radiant floor class installed the radiant flooring. Our air rotor and mud rotor classes are doing the drilling, and our fusion class is doing the pipe fusion," Niessen said.

Niessen kiddingly referred to students' participation as "slave labor," however the truth is that Gateway Technical College's HVAC students are receiving valuable hands-on learning as they refurbish the home's comfort systems.