Providing energy-efficient hydronic solutions for its customers has been a way of life for Woburn, Mass.-based Central Cooling and Heating dating back to its start in 1966.
The 60-employee company’s strong reputation for energy-efficient inno-vation was evident during the recent construction of a 5,000-sq.-ft. home in the Boston suburbs. The builder knew of Central’s track record and immediately hired it - without any bids or estimates submitted - to design, build and install the most comfortable and most efficient system without using geothermal or solar technology.
Central efficiency guru Mike Bernasconi installed an extensive hydronic system that includes eight high-temperature zones (hydro-air, panels and a cabinet heater), four radiant zones and one snow-melt zone.
“We keep pace with the latest, most-efficient technology, especially renewable energy systems,” states Bernasconi, Central’s vice president of piping operations. “It’s all about educating customers and providing them with the best value.”
Sustainable historyCentral co-owner Darren Hamilton - the company’s sales manager - has seen sustainable technologies up close since childhood. His father, Doug Hamilton Sr., founded Central in 1966 and retired in 2001. Darren Hamilton owns the company along with his brother, Doug Hamilton Jr. (installations) and company veteran Ed Pollack (service).
“Back in the 1980s we did a lot of condominiums when heat pumps first become popular,” Hamilton notes. “We also did some geothermal and some original hybrid systems back then. We did a lot of plan-and-spec commercial-type work, and then realized we were good at design-build and got involved in residential. We’ve always been interested in energy efficiency.”
Central, a member of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association, started to get involved with hydro-air installations in the early ’90s, but subcontracted that work.
“Around 1994 we decided to hire our own plumber,” Hamilton recalls. “At that time we started looking at designing radiant systems. We wanted to learn how to do it ourselves.”
That led Hamilton straight to Bernasconi, who at the time was working for a specialty hydronics supply house in suburban Boston.
“We wanted to design radiant, solar and geothermal systems,” Hamilton states. “We were calling Mike to teach us how to design these projects to the point where we were doing them on our own. Mike ended up coming to work for us. Our goal has always been to try and do things the right way and that’s what led us into getting involved with renewable energy. We weren’t as concerned about the cheapest way to do it, more the correct way to do it. It’s about what fits, what works and what appropriate technology is available.”
Class is in sessionCentral ensures things are done the correct way by serving up a serious dose of education. On the second floor of Central’s headquarters is a large training center with the capacity to seat 40 technicians. Bernasconi designed the center, which features an extensive hands-on area with low-temperature radiant loops, a higher-temperature radiant panel, an indirect water heater, a mod-con gas boiler, a mini-split HVAC system and a variety of hydronic components, including Taco variable-speed pumps and zone valves.
Technicians and vendors train on a variety of different technologies and products, including Viega, Warmboard and Watts for radiant installations; Taco, Wilo and ECM pumps; Lochinvar, Bosch and Buderus boilers; Mitsubishi mini-splits; Lochinvar and Bradford White water heaters; Carrier ground-source heat pumps; Taco zone and circulator relays; and HBX and Taco iWorx (geothermal and special applications) controls.
“The service guys are able to see the same type of equipment on a consistent basis,” Bernasconi states. “We will discuss issues we’re seeing out in the field. If we hire a new person, we can give private lessons and show him what he’s going to see. Customers will come in and see what finished systems look like. New salespeople can come in and see the different systems and all of the parts that go into it. They can see what they are selling before they sell it.”
Inspiration for the training center came from Ray Isaac, owner of Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning in Rochester, N.Y. Isaac’s headquarters features an on-site training facility.
“We visited him in 1996 or 1997 and went back there this past September. I brought a couple of our guys with,” Hamilton states. “Their training program is a lot more in-depth than ours. We are going to redirect our course and get it to that point. One of our guys said the training must be expensive. I said, ‘I can’t imagine how expensive it would be if we didn’t do training.’”
Service tech Scott Mercurio says he greatly benefits from the various training programs.
“When I came here I had six years of experience,” he states. “I’ve been here three years and have gained four times more experience than what I had. The training helps, especially when you look at things as a group and everybody gives their thoughts on it. You have four, five and six people seeing things different ways, and the training helps get people on the same page. It definitely gives us a leg up. When you have someone looking over your shoulder during training, he can help you understand how to do it. That’s much better than trying to figure it out on a customer’s heating and cooling system.”
Bernasconi also designed a special pipe room, which physically is small in scope, but operationally provides the company with an important service advantage.
“We can make all the modules and get them prepared beforehand, so when the guys go on the job, they have everything they need right there and are not running out to the supply house,” he explains. “It’s only a 500-sq.-ft. space, but it’s a big deal. The installation crew does not have to stand there and think about how they are going to lay it out. It’s already done for them. Generally, it will take one guy a half-day to build a module in the shop. In the field, with two guys, it would be a full day.”
Expanding horizonsCentral has been installing geothermal systems for the better part of three decades. In 2011, it designed and installed 15 systems, including a fair amount of geo-to-radiant with water-to-water systems providing heat for geo-driven hydronic and radiant heating systems. A recent geo-to-radiant job encompassed a 10,000-sq.-ft. home, while another required 20 tons of water-to-water geo. Bernasconi sees a change on the geothermal horizon.
“It seems to be going away somewhat at this point and it’s because of cost,” he states. “If someone could come up with a good scenario for direct-exchange drilling where refrigerant tubing is buried in the wells, it would decrease the cost. It’s the most efficient way to do it, but for some reason the well drillers around here don’t want to get involved with that at this point. You see some of it on the mid-Atlantic coast and in New Jersey and Maryland. We would try it. You need a 4-inch bore and you tie all of the refrigeration loops in the center and drill out in a star. It could be a good way to increase the geo business, but you have to get the drilling part under control.”
Hamilton also has noticed a change in drilling philosophies. “A lot of towns around here do not allow for an open-well system for geothermal,” Hamilton notes. “Putting heat pumps in a closed well is not efficient.”
Of late, Central has seen a spike in the installation of variable refrigerant flow systems. “We’re always trying to stay on top of what makes sense and what is on top in the renewable energy market,” Hamilton says.
“A VRF system allows for the installation of multiple indoor refrigerant units. You end up with a lot more zones for equipment and you are not using as much electricity because the system is not coming on full-load. They modulate like a boiler. Going to variable systems, your efficiencies are much higher.”
Smaller, simpler and cost-effectiveBeing cognizant of current building trends has played a big role in how Central approaches different jobs. Hamilton picked up some valuable knowledge along those lines last year at a renewable energy expo in Boston.
“We went to a seminar on how to design a heating and air-conditioning system for high-performance homes,” he states. “Homes today are built so tight and efficient. The loads have come way down.
“We had a project where the heating load was 80,000 Btu. I gave the homeowner pricing for putting in an elaborate geothermal system, but I was thinking they could heat the home with a 100,000-Btu gas furnace. Are they doing the right thing by spending the money for geo when the operating cost for 100,000 Btu isn’t going to be that big? Back in the day when there were 200,000-Btu loads, there was a big savings because the load was so big. As houses are being built tighter and loads come down, the savings don’t seem to be there. We ended up converting them to inverter heat pumps and put in solar for domestic hot water. Their annual operating costs are $100 more a year, but we were able to drop the installed price by about $70,000.”
In addition to providing sustainable solutions that make the most sense, Central works to keep its systems as unencumbered as possible.
“We still do some complicated high-end things, but because the way houses are being built, it’s allowing systems to be simplified,” Hamilton states. “We did a house five or six years ago with a big and elaborate system with water-to-water geothermal, an emergency boiler backup and backup radiant heat. It works great and the homeowner is very happy. If you look at it now, how could we do it simpler? Think about the technician who walks into your house Christmas Eve and tries to figure out what is wrong with it. You have to keep it simple and less complicated and more efficient.”
Hamilton also places a major emphasis on educating customers on the various rebates available for installing energy-efficient technology. Central employs an individual full-time to handle nothing but rebates.
“We got through the economic downturn by doing a lot of research and participating in rebate and tax-credit programs,” Hamilton says. “Last year we did $164,000 in rebates and tax credits. We’re taking advantage of what is available.”
While netting a customer savings is key, making sure a system is producing the most bang for its buck is an even bigger must. That 5,000-sq.-ft. home Bernasconi referenced is loaded with sustainable hydronic systems and features an elaborate diamond-plated mechanical room. But beyond the glitz and glamour, the homeowner now has a cost-effective, sustainable heating and cooling solution.
“We approach every job with an open mind and give the customer the best-valued comfort solution that fits their needs,” Bernasconi says.