The Blueprint: Cambridge Engineering's Randy Niederer
Editor’s Note: Every successful project starts with a framework. A vision statement. A blueprint.
The editors of Engineered Systems are proud to present The Blueprint — a Q&A interview with HVACR engineering’s leading voices. These one-on-one discussions will examine the trade’s history, current industry trends, and the factors shaping the sector’s future.
Cambridge Engineering is devoted to helping leaders create better working environments for hard-working people. It does so through a portfolio of products ranging from its S Series Energy-Efficient Space Heater, M-Series Makeup Air Unit, ESC-Series Indirect Evaporative Cooling Unit, and E-Series Direct Evaporative Cooling Unit.
Recently, Randy Niederer, director of marketing for Cambridge Engineering, sat down with Engineered Systems editor-in-chief, Herb Woerpel, to discuss the company’s latest releases, industry trends, the future of the direct and indirect evaporative HVACR market, and more.
Engineered Systems: Introduce those reading this article to Cambridge Engineering. What type of commercial equipment/technologies do you manufacture?
Niederer: We have our three main product lines. Two of them are incorporated into our S-series, which we call our high temperature heating and ventilation, or HTHV, product line. This has been our bread and butter for 50 years; it’s what the company was founded on. It’s a 100% outside air direct-fired solution for energy-efficient heating of high-bay buildings.
We also have our makeup air line. When there's exhaust replenishment or a ventilation need within a manufacturing or industrial facility, they're withdrawing as much as 100,000 cfm or more, and the building must maintain the right pressure so that when you open the door you don’t have a negative pressure that restricts the door from opening.
Last May, we purchased Spec-Air’s product lines and introduced our evaporative direct, indirect, and two-stage evaporative cooling products. Across all of our product lines, we've got close to 37,000 units installed covering more than 2.5 billion square feet of space.
Engineered Systems: Tell me a bit more about evaporative cooling solutions? How does this technology work?
Niederer: There’s two kinds of evaporative cooling solutions. There’s direct and indirect. It’s an age-old process. Even the human body uses evaporative cooling. We sweat, which creates moisture on our skin. When the wind blows across our skin, that water evaporates, which cools us down. That's the same principle that's used in direct and indirect evaporative cooling. It’s an airstream and water, and between those two there's a transfer of energy that will cool down that airstream.
Engineered Systems: So what's the primary difference between direct and indirect?
Niederer: Direct evaporative solutions are more in line with how the human body operates. There's a wetted media that water passes through. There's air being pulled through that wetted media, and as the evaporation process takes place, the air temperature drops. With direct, the airstream and water stream are in contact with each other. You're adding moisture to that cool air that you're pulling into a facility.
Indirect evaporative cooling utilizes a little bit of a different process. Indirect solutions utilize a heat exchanger. In our products, we utilize a polymer plate heat exchanger. Water is going through one channel, while air is passing through separate channels, and the two never meet. But the evaporative cooling process still takes place. As the plate heat exchanger is cooled down, the warm airstream that's passing through it is cooled down, so you get cooling without the added moisture.
Engineered Systems: At the 2019 AHR Expo, Cambridge showcased its E-series and ESC-series of evaporative cooling units. Can you tell us a little bit more about this equipment?
Niederer: That was the result of our acquisition of Spec-Air. We were really looking for something to fill a gap that we had out in the Southwest and the Western climate, mainly because we don't sell a lot of heat in Phoenix; they just don't have a need for it there. So, we purchased Spec-Air’s intellectual property, which is now our direct evaporative solution E-series. We also created an evaporative semi-custom system, or ESC-Series. The ESC is our indirect or two-stage unit, if that's the way you want to configure it. It can be customized with a number of options. You could add a DX cooling coil, a hot water coil, a steam coil, an indirect heat section, etc. The ESC is a semi-customizable solution that gives you more options than our E-series. The E-series is a direct evaporative solution only. So, it's the wetted media and a big blower. You have a lot of options that you can add to it depending on what you're trying to accomplish within a specific facility.
Engineered Systems: How has the market responded to these new technologies?
Niederer: The market has responded well. We’ve eclipsed $1.5 million in sales so far this year in both direct and indirect technologies, and we're just getting started. Our customers are having great success installing our equipment in many different types of applications.
Engineered Systems: Could you talk a bit about the cost advantages of evaporative technologies versus DX-type units?
Niederer: The operating costs are dramatically less when you consider that, at the bare minimum, direct evaporative technology is just water passing through a wetted media with a blower pushing air into a facility. The same goes with the indirect, so there are no compressors involved. Evaporative technologies just use less energy by design.
This technology is not only applicable in the arid Southwest — Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California, etc. Direct evaporative works in climates like those in Denver, Colorado. Anything west of the Rockies is a great place for direct evaporative, and anything east of the Rockies is where we see clear applications for indirect evaporative. If somebody says, “Hey, I want to set my thermostat at 70°F and maintain that temperature no matter what,” that's not going to be a great fit for indirect solutions. But companies that have a lot of exhaust air being pulled out of their facilities and those who don’t want to exceed 90° on the hottest day of the year may want to consider indirect evaporative cooling as a solution. There are a lot of buildings out there that are just pulling in outside air to cool their facility, or moving air through the facility, and those are great examples where indirect evaporative may work.
Engineered Systems: You’ve made some recent enhancements to your M-series makeup air units. Can you provide an update?
Niederer: We’ve always made custom products, and we’ll continue to make custom products, but when you make a custom product, there's more engineering involved. You’re sometimes making a product that’s a one-off, so it's not as easy to manufacture these units as it is standard equipment. But, with the purchase of our evaporative solutions, we’ve created a standard product in the M line that includes a direct evaporative coil. We've also made it so that you can add a DX cooling coil as well as a chilled water coil. So, now, not only can you replenish your exhaust by tempering the air on the heating side in the wintertime, you now have a way of tempering your cooling air in the summertime. So, all in all, we’re offering three new coil options to go along with the standard direct-fire heating options that are all part of that makeup-air unit.
Engineered Systems: Cambridge is really here to serve, aren’t you?
Niederer: Yes, we want to provide adequate solutions for our customers. We strive to help leaders create better working environments for hard-working people. And we do what we say.
Engineered Systems: The phrase swamp cooler has been used for years in conjunction with evaporative coolers. Is this moniker a good thing or a bad thing for the industry?
Niederer: It’s a funny term that was used ages ago. Fifty or more years ago, when direct evaporative cooling really started to come onto the scene, the media where the water and the air met together typically consisted of a wood fiber or a wool component. That wetted media would get smelly if it wasn’t changed or cleaned frequently. Eventually, it began to smell like a swamp. But our cell technology has gotten significantly better, and now we’re using media that’s mold or mildew-resistant. You’re much less likely to experience those swampy smells today.
Engineered Systems: Let's shift the conversation and discuss the company as a whole. Can you share some of the company’s recent highlights or accomplishments?
Niederer: Away from the product side, we've been doing some great things. We’re really focused on lean technology and leading within our organization. We have what we call our people-first initiative. Through this, we've been able to increase employee morale and create a much better environment for the folks who work at Cambridge. They’re excited to come in every day and manufacture these incredible products.
On the equipment side, we do have some new products that we’re launching into the marketplace. We feel really confident that there are some great opportunities in the marketplace in 2019, 2020, and into the future for evaporative solutions.
Engineered Systems: What has been Cambridge’s greatest challenge over the last year to 18 months?
Niederer: When you buy a company, and in this case it was just the intellectual property, you’re challenged to utilize and evolve your newly purchased technologies. For us, we were challenged to evolve from a heating and makeup air ventilation company to now manufacturing true cooling solutions. We had to consider where we were going to manufacture these items. We have dedicated lines for our S and M units, but over the last 12 months, we had to figure out how to redesign some of our facilities to incorporate a dedicated evaporative line. So, that's been a big challenge for us. But, you know, it's a good challenge — one that we've taken on, and we’re really proud of the progress we’ve made.
Engineered Systems: Let's talk about the future. What trends will have the largest impact on the industry’s future?
Niederer: More and more large companies are opting to cool their large facilities. Amazon kind of started the trend by cooling their warehouse and distribution space.
In California, they’re discussing legislation that will require all facilities be cooled to 87° if people are working inside them. There are numerous manufacturing, warehouse distribution, and industrial facilities that may now have to implement cooling. Today, workers have a choice where they want to work, especially given the tight labor market. It may come down to, well, I'd rather work for Company A because they cool their facilities over Company B, which does not.
With the lower cost of operation of evaporated cooling, we think there's going to be a great opportunity throughout the U.S. to help companies achieve their goals with evaporative technologies.
Indirect evaporative technologies are starting to get a foothold in the data center market as well. We all know data centers are energy hogs. All the electronic equipment in there is putting a strain on the grid. Big data centers used to be solely cooled by DX units, but now servers are being built to handle higher temperatures.
Data center managers are always looking for ways to reduce their footprints. DX doesn't really accomplish that. They're finding that two-stage, indirect evaporative units are meeting the not-to-exceed temperatures within their facilities. Data centers are growing very quickly, and our technologies are great solutions for those facilities.
Engineered Systems: What does the future hold for Cambridge Engineering?
Niederer: Well, we’ll be 57 years old this year. Cambridge is a family-owned business that believes in its products and personnel. We’re driven to continue to provide an incredible work environment with incredible opportunities for the right people. We’re excited at the opportunity to acquire more companies, and we're excited about what the future holds.