Entek shifts focus to efficiency in down economy

Longview heating and cooling firm launches Vancouver pilot project

By Libby Clark, Columbian Web Editor

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Like most companies tied to Clark County’s once-booming construction industry, Entek Corp. has had a rough few years. But the heating and cooling contractor has managed to keep most of its staff employed full time throughout the downturn.

Entek made it through by reinventing its approach to contracting. Instead of just “getting air through ducts,” the company now also looks at how efficiently that air is moving through the entire building in order to help its clients save energy and cash. Though fewer clients are calling about new construction, the shift to efficiency has kept the phones ringing.

While some contractors have faltered, Entek’s revenues have held steady, as have its employment levels, although a growing portion of its 55 employees are now energy performance technicians.

And now the Longview-based company is testing just how well its energy-saving programs work with a pilot project in Vancouver. Matt Todd, sales and engineering manager at Entek, hopes the results of that project will spur still more building owners to give his company a call.

Larger specialized contractors, such as Seattle-based McKinstry Co. and Portland’s PECI, have long helped businesses evaluate their energy use. But more Clark County contractors are now entering the industry, in part because the market for those services is growing here. Northwest Natural Gas Co. recently extended its energy-efficiency incentives to residents and businesses here and more federal stimulus dollars are available for efficiency projects, at the same time the county has faced a slump in the local homebuilding industry.

“It’s an industry trend for smaller contractors to pursue this as a business opportunity,” said Susan Jowaiszas, a spokeswoman for the Energy Trust of Oregon, which also certifies energy-efficiency contractors in Southwest Washington. “They’re expanding the range of services to become more comprehensive energy service providers.”

The big picture

Entek’s transition began five years ago, when it began working with the Bonneville Power Administration and Clark Public Utilities to test the energy savings of rooftop economizers. These mechanical units help circulate fresh outside air and cut down on cooling costs. The units can also be controlled wirelessly, making it easier to regulate the building’s ventilation.

Economizers have gained popularity among building owners in recent years because they can be tacked onto an existing heating and cooling system, resulting in energy and cost savings without completely replacing the old system.

“It’s like having a big control system, without paying for a big control system,” Todd said.

But even with brand-new rooftop economizers, most building owners weren’t saving as much energy and money as they could, Todd said. After years of testing these installations, he realized that installing an economizer or new lighting and controls isn’t enough.

Every aspect of a building, from its architecture to its exposure to the sun and its electrical and mechanical systems, contributes to its energy consumption. So Entek started developing specialized knowledge and skills to offer comprehensive energy-use reviews.

The company is now increasingly focused on selling whole-building assessments along with its regular heating and cooling work.

In demand

Entek hopes that demand for its services will climb still more as prices drop for rooftop economizers and other energy-efficient equipment. Entek’s latest project with the Bonneville Power Administration aims to bring costs down even further, which could make efficiency upgrades more accessible to small and midsize building owners.

The company is testing Honeywell’s new economizers at Japan-based Wacom’s North American headquarters in Vancouver. BPA will be looking to verify the energy savings of the new units and measure the cost savings, said Mick Shutt, a spokesman for Clark Utilities. The more financial certainty contractors can provide, the more likely building owners are to invest, he said.

“The measurement and verification can be an expensive part of doing some of these projects,” Shutt said. “This (project) makes the whole method of conservation available to more customers. They can expand the programs without doing extensive (measurement) on each and every project.”

Entek expects these pilot projects to eventually help fuel its own expansion by increasing its expertise in the field and growing its customer base. The company is now always on the lookout for qualified technicians, a rare breed of computer whiz and mechanic, to help support its new focus on energy services, Todd said.

“That’s the one job in all construction trades that’s still in demand,” he said.