For a company founded on the principles of energy efficiency and one that continues to this day to measure its success based on the energy efficiency and environmental quality of its products, RenewAire is doing quite well indeed.
The Madison, WI, company is a leader in energy-recovery ventilation systems, removing stale indoor air and bringing in fresh outdoor air through a highly developed air-to-air energy exchange core, all the while carefully modulating the flow for proper humidity levels in an energy-efficient way. RenewAire has also pioneered the use of “plates” that separate the two air streams to prevent mixing and contamination. For HVACR wholesale distributors, RenewAire offers opportunities to carry products for indoor air quality in the residential and commercial markets while reducing energy costs. Distributors also like to be associated with a company that is dedicated to ‘green’ principles.
RenewAire was born out of a competition, says Doug Steege, vice president of marketing and sales. “We actually won a competition that was sponsored by a local utility company for designing and installing a couple of solar water heaters in 1978,” he says. The company won for practical reasons: Its design could actually be built and marketed. In fact, RenewAire sold and installed about 1,000 solar water systems. During this period, its founders became more involved in renewable energy systems and, specifically, air-to-air heat exchangers. “We thought it was a nice complement — that was not dependent on tax credits — and a nice niche market for us.”
RenewAire's entry into the energy-recovery ventilation market in 1983 came at a fortuitous time in the construction industry. Homes were being built with greater energy efficiency in mind. Tightly sealed homes meant that cold air could not get in, and warm air could not escape. But this resulted in homes with poor, stale air quality and moisture damage. With a RenewAire system that could efficiently exchange indoor and outdoor air, contractors realized that they could solve a persistent problem of homeowners who wanted the benefits of fresh air while at the same time keeping their energy costs low.
RenewAire pioneered the use of a static plate cross-flow exchanger that transfers both heat and humidity, moderating the extremes of humidity as well as temperature. With this transfer of moisture, there is no buildup of condensation and moisture, which results in higher heat-recovery efficiencies and more reliable operation. During the air-conditioning season, RenewAire is typically three times more energy efficient than products that only transfer heat. The transfer of heat and humidity during the winter months means that RenewAire products typically recover more than 30 percent more energy than other air-to-air exchangers.
“We're a company that was founded on energy efficiency,” Steege says. “If the energy recovery ventilation fans were not able to save significant amounts of energy and it was wasted out of the exhaust stacks, then we wouldn't be meeting our mission.”
Its first customer was Auer Steel and Heating in nearby Milwaukee, and Steege says they remain a customer to this day. From Auer Steel and Heating to the national network that exists today, wholesale distribution is the way that RenewAire goes to market. “We have excellent distributors, many of whom are active in HARDI,” says Steege, adding that the company is always looking for long-term distribution partners to help grow its business. RenewAire has been a HARDI member for 10 years.
RenewAire sells a broad line of energy-recovery ventilators for the residential market under the RenewAire brand. It also builds products for Trane and American Standard. Last year the company introduced a line of bathroom fans that many consider the most energy-efficient fans in North America — five times more efficient than the average bathroom fan. “We're very happy with the sales. It's been very well received,” Steege says. “Obviously the residential construction market is down, but it's a good time for laying the groundwork for when the market does come back.”
Its line of commercial products is also broad, including package units up to about 8,000 CFMs. RenewAire also has applied products that can be set up in a mechanical room and built up to any size required for a facility, or be used in packaged air handlers.
RenewAire products have helped HVACR wholesale distributors establish a niche in the energy-recovery ventilator market. The simplicity of RenewAire's products — in both design and installation — has helped ease the worries of distributors and contractors. “RenewAire products can be sold to contractors with not a lot of experience in this area because of the simplicity and reliability of its inherent design,” Steege says. Once contractors have installed a couple of energy-recovery ventilators on residential projects, it's easy to expand that to light commercial jobs. “The products are exactly the same, just scaled up slightly,” Steege adds.
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RenewAire's product line has expanded over the years, but its basic design remains the same. What has evolved has been the type of packages that it produces, including its range of blower sizes and ventilator positions. They customize their commercial product line, basing it on the specifications of the job. Between 25,000 and 30,000 variations of the 25 RenewAire models are built into the company's production system, Steege says. The company bases the variations on everything from the orientation of the connections to the size of the blowers, dampers and controls.
Steege cites this custom capability as another reason for RenewAire's success and the loyalty that its products have created in the HVACR marketplace. "The reason that we're successful as a manufacturer in Madison, WI, is because we can build those units within a two- to three-week time period and deliver them to the customer for their installation," he says. "We're meeting their particular needs for their particular job."
When RenewAire started out in the energy-recovery ventilator business, it focused primarily on the residential market. In the late 1990s, the commercial market began to take off as building owners started to focus on indoor air quality and energy savings. Today, 70 percent of RenewAire's business is with commercial customers. AHRI has recorded a five-fold increase in the sales of commercial energy-recovery ventilators over the past 11 years, he says. "There's nothing else out there growing like that," he marvels.
Steege characterizes the residential side of the energy-recovery ventilator market as spread around the country. "The market is very strong throughout the entire country," Steege says. "You have a situation where you have not only a northern heating degree day base where there are opportunities for energy savings, but you have the South where we can reduce peak loads of air conditioning by cutting the load of ventilation air from one-half to two-thirds." That figure, he notes, is a typical amount of load reduction that RenewAire products are able to provide.
Many of the contractors who use RenewAire products on residential projects are involved in homes where energy efficiency is a big issue. Steege says these are more "cutting-edge" jobs where the customer may have a high-efficiency furnace, a geothermal or hydronic system, or may be installing radiant heating. "These contractors are providing products for customers that are interested in efficiency; they're interested in green technologies," Steege says.
Distributors of RenewAire's commercial line will generally not carry much at their locations because the products require such specificity. Instead, RenewAire will often work jointly with the distributors and specifying engineer on a project to meet their needs and to ensure that RenewAire products are included in the bid quote.
Steege credits a knowledgeable and dedicated group of 25 independent sales representatives for providing on-the-ground support to all its distributors who work with commercial customers. "They will do everything from reviewing plans to visiting project locations," he says. "We also encourage people to feel free to contact the factory directly. We are very responsive to getting back to people with what they need — either in the bidding phase of the project or on the purchasing side."
Steege says its sales and technical support staff in Madison assists distributors and their customers with a variety of questions and issues to help them select the right product and size for a particular project. "We pride ourselves on the technical and application support that we provide," Steege says. The company can be reached via its toll-free phone number or through the Web.
Steege is an advocate for the "V" in HVACR. While RenewAire has been in the ventilator business for 25 years, the company recognizes that its ventilation technology remains something new to many contractors. Education has always been a part of RenewAire's business, and its independent sales force works with contractors, consulting engineers, wholesale distributors and their dealers to emphasize ventilation when they work with customers. This education includes training at distributor locations as well as monthly ventilation workshops at RenewAire's headquarters in Madison.
"Ventilation is a tremendous opportunity for the HVACR industry — for HVACR distributors and their dealers," Steege says. "There's a significant value that can be placed on good indoor air quality." Homeowners expect the air they breathe in their homes to be healthy for their families. Workers expect the air inside their building to be safe for them. Steege says the awareness of indoor air quality has increased markedly over the past decade.
He thinks there will be a similar breakthrough in energy-recovery ventilator systems. "The penetration rates are still low, but can you imagine 10 or 15 years from now that there will be any exhaust hoods just blowing heat or air-conditioned air outdoors? It's hard to imagine that this will be the case. So it's something that our company is well-positioned to help distributors within this strongly emerging market."
Michael Maynard is a business writer based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at [email protected]
RenewAire LLC at a Glance
Definition and Example: Growing ventilation business through HVACR Distribution.
Significance: Heating and AC markets are mature, and sales rise and fall with temperature and construction activity. The ventilation market is in its infancy and largely ignored. Building this "third leg" of the HVAC "stool" is new business that is exploding as part of green and sustainable market development.
Benefits: Advanced ventilation products address two major forces that drive the green construction market: 1) Indoor environmental quality — providing healthy fresh air for people and moisture control for structure durability and 2) Energy efficiency — for low operating costs and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Procedure: Select a broad line of ventilation products that starts with Energy Star® bath fans and includes residential and light commercial energy recovery ventilators. Train sales staffs to make sure they are comfortable with proper sizing and control options. As a manager, make sure that you offer advanced ventilation products on every project. Homeowners and building owners assume good ventilation is being provided, just as they assume they will receive good heating and AC systems. Addressing ventilation will display best practice and result in more sales.
People involved: Distributor sales managers and outside sales staff along with contractor sales staff.
Timing: Ventilation is a year-round sales opportunity and is particularly a great focus during spring and fall when temperature extremes are not creating peak furnace and AC sales activity.
Cost: Inventory investments can be low if you focus on a single, quality brand and "sell ventilation," not decorator models, a multitude of lighted options and other gizmos that cause sales confusion and dead inventory. Energy recovery ventilators do not require drains and are mountable in any orientation, thereby reducing model requirements that need different orientations.
Other considerations: Ask any building owner three simple questions: 1) Are you happy with your building's current ventilation system? 2) Does it effectively exhaust and provide fresh air, and is it quiet? 3) Would you like to learn more about a ventilation system that does the job and will save you energy and money? They will appreciate you bringing up this important topic and you will be rewarded with more business.
Contact: Doug Steege, vice president, marketing and sales, 800/627-4499 ext. 210; [email protected].