As one of the original pioneers of the geothermal heat pump industry, WaterFurnace has played a key role in the rise of geothermal as a renewable energy source. Founded in 1983, the company has maintained its leadership position thanks to
an unwavering focus on customer service and innovative product development. WaterFurnace is so confident in the benefits of its products that its 120,000-square-foot headquarters in Fort Wayne, IN, is completely heated and cooled by WaterFurnace geothermal equipment.
WaterFurnace has been at the forefront of a technology that continues to grow and gain acceptance in both the commercial and residential markets. As these markets begin to rebound after a multiyear pause, WaterFurnace and the geothermal market are looking forward to great things in the coming years.
“While we’ve certainly seen some of the lowest new construction building rates in history, that’s quickly changing and will be one of our biggest opportunities going forward,” says Tom Huntington, president and CEO of WaterFurnace Renewable Energy. Huntington has led WaterFurnace since 2009 and has spent his career in the HVAC industry. “The future has never looked brighter,” he says as he looks at the expected rate of building growth over the next few years.
Of particular note is the expected growth in the government, health care, institutional and education markets, which have traditionally been sweet spots for geothermal. They typically have more room for the loop fields and tend to support LEED buildings as compared with manufacturing and retail buildings. WaterFurnace is already seizing some of these opportunities, both in the United States and abroad.
The future of geothermal depends largely on education about what exactly geothermal is and its benefits to building owners, homeowners, tenants and the utilities industries. “It’s an ongoing process,” says Huntington. The first wave of professionals who were schooled in geothermal energy and the role it could play in the building and utilities industries is retiring. That leaves a new generation of professionals who may not fully understand the benefits of geothermal energy. “There’s some residual knowledge, but it’s not yet sufficient for the size of the opportunity that we have in geothermal,” he says.
WaterFurnace partners with advocacy organizations like the Geothermal Exchange Organization (GEO) to help educate state and local governments about the benefits of geothermal and promote energy policies that recognize thermal energy as a renewable resource. The organization, of which Huntington is chairman, calls itself the “voice of the geothermal heat pump industry in the United States.”
Although relatively new, the team at GEO has had a number of successes so far. One of the biggest was its role in securing the current 30 percent federal tax credit for residential geothermal installations and 10 percent tax credit for commercial installations. The group has quickly become an important partner for WaterFurnace, as well as other manufacturers of geothermal and water source heat pumps.
As he looks at the overall geothermal industry, Huntington is optimistic. He says utilities will be a major driver of geothermal’s growth as they face new requirements demanding renewable energy for power generation, seek out higher energy efficiencies and look for alternatives as power plants shift from coal to natural gas.
On the commercial side of WaterFurnace’s business, manufacturers’ representatives reach out to large commercial building owners and real estate management firms as well as construction firms to tout the long-term savings potential of a WaterFurnace geothermal system. “Every customer has a different viewpoint,” Huntington says. For real estate management firms with long-term tenants who pay the utility bills, there are huge savings in geothermal systems. For building owners, the tax credits associated with a geothermal system and the lower operating and maintenance costs are key selling features.
A new commercial product line from WaterFurnace is enhancing geothermal’s appeal among building owners looking to replace aging water source heat pumps in boiler tower applications. WaterFurnace conducted exhaustive research on all water source heat pump configurations that were manufactured during the 1970s and 1980s and redesigned its commercial line to drop into the existing space. “There are millions of older low-efficiency units out there,” Huntington says. “Our products give the building owner an opportunity to save energy with high-efficiency operation while minimizing the need for duct and electrical modifications.”
On the residential side, WaterFurnace attracts consumers by touting many of those same benefits in national advertising and social media campaigns: lower operating costs, big energy savings and ease of installation. A savings calculator on the WaterFurnace website (waterfurnace.com/savings-calculator) gives consumers a quick way to see the benefits a WaterFurnace system would have in their own home. State and federal tax credits, along with retrofit installations, are also helping WaterFurnace in the consumer market.
Distributors play an important role in promoting and selling WaterFurnace products in their regions, but the company makes sure that its dealers are also fully versed in these products before they can sell them. This includes a mandatory training course requiring commitment by the dealers to ensure ultimate consumer satisfaction.
A recent breakthrough for WaterFurnace that has sparked considerable interest in the market has been its 7 Series, the first fully variable geothermal heat pump for homeowners. “That’s something we’re exceptionally proud of,” Huntington says. “The efficiencies are extremely high, the comfort is unmatched and it’s the perfect complement for a home that can benefit from zoning.”
Huntington says the 7 Series is the only unit to surpass both 41 energy efficiency ratio and 5.3 coefficient of performance, which represents efficiencies twice that of traditional air conditioners or heat pumps and 30 percent greater than current geothermal units. WaterFurnace launched its 7 Series last July in combination with its IntelliZone2, a system that provides temperature control in up to six separate zones for precise comfort. Huntington says the variable capacity unit is “very exciting and fun to sell.” The system may sound complicated, he says, but it’s actually very user-friendly and intuitive. The
7 Series also recently achieved the Energy Star Most Efficient designation from the U.S. EPA, joining the WaterFurnace 5 Series, Synergy3D Series and Envision Series on the 2013 list.
WaterFurnace has a number of long-term dealers, and through the years they have grown together. With the help of WaterFurnace, HVACR distributors and dealers can become “geothermal heat pump professionals,” says Huntington, who adds that WaterFurnace continues to seek out businesses that want to become part of the geothermal movement.
WaterFurnace’s best dealers, he says, have a commitment to the entire process of retail, from getting customers in the door to follow-up after the sale is made. “They’re extremely thorough on their installation practices, know-how and quality,” Huntington says. “And then they’re generally connected to their customers through maintenance contracts, building long-term relationships along the way. That’s one of the more important attributes: the uncanny ability to understand their customers and exceed their expectations.”
Last year, WaterFurnace seized a new opportunity by establishing a joint
venture agreement with the Ningbo Shenglong Group Co. Ltd. to form
WaterFurnace Shenglong HVACR
Climate Solutions Co. Ltd. (WFSL). This new company is providing HVACR products to the Chinese market under the brand name WFI.
The Chinese geothermal heat pump market is primarily commercial appli-cations, but Huntington says there is tremendous potential in the residential market as well. In the 1990s, the Chinese invested considerably in geothermal, but there was little quality control in
the installation of loops, and the systems did not perform as designed. As the Chinese economy grows and the need for expanded and reliable power resources intensifies, geothermal is once again attracting considerable interest. Geothermal is also seen as a way to reduce air pollution in China’s larger cities.
November was the first full month of manufacturing at a factory that is the same size as WaterFurnace’s Fort Wayne facility. Despite the recent launch, there are already 18 sales offices around China to support this new company. “They are just a wonderful business partner,” Huntington says of the Ningbo Shenglong Group Co. “We’re delighted with how things have progressed.”
WaterFurnace has also looked abroad to incorporate new technologies into its products. At the beginning of 2011, WaterFurnace purchased Hyper Engineering in Australia, which designs and builds devices to limit the inrush current that electric motors use upon startup. Eliminating the spike of current extends the life of electric motors and eliminates the annoying flicker of light it causes. Huntington says WaterFurnace was already using Hyper’s devices and decided there was so much potential with the product that it bought the company.
Continuing to evolve WaterFurnace’s technology to enhance homeowner comfort and create additional energy savings will drive the company going forward, Huntington asserts. “We’ll focus on and further develop variable- speed options. We’re going to provide advanced zoning for comfort and additional efficiency as well as home energy management, so the homeowner can see and remotely monitor equipment and measure the amount of power being used in the home,” he says.
Even as WaterFurnace focuses on innovation of its technology, Huntington says it will not lose focus on its other hallmark: customer service. One of the most well-known aspects of WaterFurnace customer service is its short lead-time – three days for residential products. This impressive lead-time can be made even shorter if a dealer has a customer emergency – a no-heat/no-cool situation, for example. As long as an order is received by 2 p.m., WaterFurnace can fulfill and ship that order on the same day.
Huntington says WaterFurnace has positioned itself well for growth in the years ahead because it is focusing on the things that matter to its customers. “Our longevity in the industry, our training and our brand awareness are all characteristics of a company in a leadership position,” he says.
Michael Maynard is a contributing editor based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at [email protected].