Nelson Mechanical makes a green bet that pays off

For six years, Brian Nelson and David Sprague have often resembled plumbers and mechanical engineers turned preachers, promising financial salvation for homeowners through alternative energy sources. The recommended technologies include geothermal, wind, and solar solutions that do not use, or limit the use, of fossil fuels.

The partners in Nelson Mechanical Design Inc. in Vineyard Haven have poked and prodded, traveled and researched, and served as guinea pigs for their green energy commitment.

Today they say they think the green energy business is on the cusp of huge advances. Mr. Nelson said new technology, geopolitics, and a shifting U.S. culture, spurred by rising fossil-fuel prices, now prize energy efficiency. He describes his prognosis as common belief in much of the developed world.

Mr. Nelson has seen a dramatic shift in his business as a result.

“When we began six years ago, 75 percent of our heating and cooling business came from conventional boiler systems using fossil fuels,” he said in a phone interview this week. “Now it’s reversed. Seventy five percent of our business is green today. And the [remaining] 25 percent is driven by customers with existing boiler and radiator systems.

“It’s important that we offer both conventional and green solutions because we want to feel that we know both and can give them the best solution,” he added.

Nelson Mechanical offers a complete range of conventional boiler/fossil-fuel heating systems. With hard-won knowledge of green systems, the company has figured out how to blend a conventional fossil-fuel system already in place with solar, geothermal, and wind systems for cost savings and efficiency.

New air-to-air and air-to-water heat pump technology will marry conventional baseboard/radiator systems already in homes with alternative power sources, replacing or reducing the role of fossil-fuel boilers, Mr. Nelson said.

“And that will engage the last 25 per cent of our conventional business,” he said. Systems coming on line use air, water, even carbon elements, as energy sources.”

An award

Pioneering work in green energy recently earned Nelson Mechanical the 2010 Contractor of the Year award from Contractor magazine, the 50,000-circulation industry publication of the mechanical engineering industry in the U.S.

“I think what attracted them to us was our commitment to new technology — taking the initiative to learn it ourselves, going through the trial and error process, being willing to be the guinea pigs ourselves to prove that green stuff works,” Mr. Nelson said.

An example of Nelson Mechanical’s aggressive position in alternative energy applications for residential uses is the installation of a Japanese heat pump system in a West Tisbury house last week. The system converts the energy found in outside air into a heating source, regardless of how low the outside temperature is. But the system, called Daikin Altherma, will not be available in the rest of the U.S. until its debut later this month at the national mechanical contractor convention in Las Vegas.

“This homeowner will be able to operate the Altherma heat pump for 80 percent of the heating load all winter long. A Viessmann radiant boiler will pick up the slack when it gets really cold. The end result is a much ‘greener’ heating system — using less fossil fuel, releasing less carbon dioxide, and greatlyreducing the annual operating cost,” he said.

“Our responsibility to our clients is to investigate all the applicable approaches to the homeowner’s heating, cooling, or ventilation needs and to develop an appropriate solution. We have so many different ‘flavors’ to choose from today,” he said, adding that emerging technology in heat pump systems “is going to be the new ‘vanilla.’ It’ll work for everyone,” he said. “Our job is to be a “filter” of what is ‘wild internet fantasy’ (e.g. 400 mpg carburetors?) versus systems that will deliver what they promise and serve as a lasting investment,” he said.

A matter of price

Increased awareness and availability of viable green energy alternatives have accelerated their use but, as in most things, price is the driver, Mr. Nelson said.

Early efforts at green energy tended to favor wealthier, socially conscious homeowners who could use engineers and product testing to customize a solution, but times have changed, Mr. Nelson said. The company completes about 10 large-scale (complete houses or new systems in existing homes) projects a year in addition to smaller green projects, along with its general plumbing business.

“The Island has always been ahead of the (alternative energy) curve. When times were good, people had funds to pursue early green alternatives. Now the economy is poor but, ironically, the price of green solutions has come down so that all my customers can use them,” he said, noting the installation cost of a conventional boiler system is the same, $20,000 to $30,000, as the cost to install a green system, with an estimated five-year payback for a 2,000 square foot house.

“The real difference is fuel price savings — $2,000 a year for electricity versus $4,000 a year for propane. And with electricity generating alternatives that can be married to the system, the cost of electricity can be reduced further,” he said.

“How alternative energy system prices have become affordable is kind of dramatic. The Japanese believe heat pumps are the future of society. In 2005, Japanese heat pumps were available. The cost was okay, but the products available didn’t have capacity to heat our homes, which are larger than Japanese and European homes. But today the American market is attracting best efforts of European and the Japanese, as high fossil-fuel prices have motivated us to think green,” he said.

“The Island is a green-friendly environment in which to do business. I can’t think of any real obstacles to doing business here. Because of the nature of green energy, there are no threats to public safety requiring regulation. There are some zoning issues around building wind turbines but that’s about it,” he said.

“The Europeans and Japanese are not intrinsically smarter, they have just dealt with high fuel prices for 40 years. Our appetite for their innovation goes up as our costs to heat and cool our homes go up,” he said.