HVAC Residential Market / Geothermal Heat Pumps

Dakota Contractor Digs New Technology

May 16, 2011
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Randy Mathern is the owner of Comfort Zone Heating and Air, based in Bismarck, N.D. When he started the company in 2001, he began by researching geothermal technology, and he is now an IGSHPA-accredited installer.

Randy Mathern has been in the business for 36 years - ever since he graduated with a refrigeration degree from the North Dakota State School of Science. But it wasn’t until 2001 that he decided to start his own company, Comfort Zone Heating and Air.

Based in Bismarck, N.D., the company is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and it has grown from Mathern as the sole owner-operator to include two more employees.





TAKING ON TECHNOLOGY

In the 1990s, Mathern explained, he was working for a large contractor as the general manager and sales manager. “I felt like the head babysitter,” Mathern laughed, and said that was when he realized he still had a lot of passion for the industry, just not in that position.

To get started on his own, Mathern decided he needed to become an expert in a progressive technology, and since geothermal technology had been around for a little while, he decided to jump into it. “It seemed like a good place to hang my hat,” he said. “My goal was to find something on the beginning of the bell curve.”

Mathern took training from the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA) to be an accredited installer, and he has been selling and installing geothermal heat pumps ever since.

“Yes, it’s more expensive,” he acknowledged. “But we’ve been able to sell it on payback alone.” He also noted that the federal 25C tax credit is still in effect for geothermal installations until 2016, and the state of North Dakota offers a tax credit, and local utilities offer rebates for geothermal heat pumps.

Mathern uses his office as a place to dabble in and learn about new technologies, including radiant floor heating and this Mitsubishi two-zone mini-split heat pump, which is used to heat and cool the office.

EFFICIENCY IN EXTREMES

Some might think that a small three-person heating and cooling contractor in North Dakota would struggle to stay afloat, especially one with an emphasis on new technology. But Mathern believes his home state is full of opportunities and refers to it as “the last frontier.”

According to him, there are only 650,000 people in the state, and about 100,000 of them in the Bismarck metro area. Still, Mathern said, “There’s always been a steady amount of work here.” He noted that the local economy “didn’t see much of a peak in 2007, but didn’t nosedive in 2008.”

Mathern added that the building industry has remained steady, and part of that is due to North Dakota’s abundance of energy resources, including oil, coal, and wind. “We’re pretty much an energy exporter,” he said. However, despite their abundance of natural resources, he said that North Dakotans naturally tend to be conservative. “You’ll see all sides of the spectrum, but we’re hardworking and conservative and not ones to be wasteful. It’s probably to do with the heritage of the people who homesteaded here - the Germans and Norwegians were a thrifty bunch.”

So it follows that sustainability is an attractive concept to Mathern’s customers. In fact, Mathern said, he was raised by parents who taught him not to be wasteful. “I was raised by parents who went through the Depression; now we call it sustainability,” he said. “But it’s just the way my parents were and how they taught me at a young age.”

One of the reasons why it makes sense to conserve energy and use it efficiently in North Dakota is the state’s extreme temperatures. It can drop to between 20 and 30 degrees below 0 in the winter, and often exceeds 100 degrees in the summer. “Because of our climate here we’ve always had to build to a better standard,” Mathern said. “I’ve been in Bismarck for most of my career, so I’m familiar with the town and what it takes to do heating and air conditioning here. The temperature extremes make us build to a better envelope in our buildings.”

Moreover, Mathern said, “Every- body enjoys a low utility bill. Nobody ever says, ‘I wish you hadn’t installed an efficient system.’ ”

On a recent job Comfort Zone completed for a large general contractor, the team installed three 4-ton ClimateMaster geothermal heat pumps, which are heating and cooling approximately 8,000 square feet of office space.

VARIETY AND GROWTH

And Mathern and his crew of two are installing efficient systems in residential and light commercial applications. “There’s a lot of variety - that’s been the exciting part of it.”

He added, “We don’t end up being the low bidder often. There are so many trying to find the cheapest bidder, but lots of people like good quality. We don’t think that’s out of fashion.”

Most of the company’s customers have been referred through word-of mouth and Mathern’s relationships with people in the building industry. “We’ve done a limited amount of advertising, but hopefully our trucks and work speak loudest for us.”

Comfort Zone drives red Sprinter vans that Mathern said “are cleaned all the time.” Mathern wants to stand out and be noticed, both to keep his clients happy, and to keep his employees engaged. “We’re trying to do things with the right tools, safely, the right way, and make it fun, make it something challenging to show up for.”

Four years ago, Mathern expanded by bringing on Steve Olheiser, a technician who was doing what Mathern called “cookie-cutter, repetitious work.” In contrast, Mathern said, he tries to find interesting jobs. And a year and a half ago, he expanded again, adding Chris Locken, a second technician, to his team.

“We’ve learned to work together,” he said, noting that their help has allowed him to keep more of a hand in design, service, and sales.

Over the years, Mathern has also learned it’s best to delegate some of the tasks that frustrate him. “I outsource the office work,” he explained, which includes some accounting tasks, as well as bookkeeping. He also contracts the sheet metal work to a specialty contractor a few blocks away. “We utilize other companies to make us more efficient and keep our overhead down.”

In addition, Mathern and his team continue to dabble in new technologies to learn about more options they can provide for customers. “I always want to know what can be done better. I’m not satisfied with just doing it the same way,” he said.

He continued, “There’s so much neat stuff out there. I find it really fascinating. It’s not just forced-air furnaces and air conditioners.

“We have a little experiment in our shop - we like to use some of the technology here to see how it works. So we’ve installed radiant floor heating. And I’d like to dabble in solar thermal to see how far along it’s come.”

GAME PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

According to Mathern, he’s got a good game plan for 2011. “We’ll probably be back to our 2007 levels if not higher,” he said. “It should be busy, but let’s not confuse busy with profitable. I want it to become more profitable for me and the folks that work for me.”

Looking further down the road, Mathern, 56, foresees that he’ll stay involved in the industry even though he may look like “somebody that’s supposed to be getting in the twilight of my career.”

“My dad worked until [age] 75,” he said. “As long as I’m having fun, I’ll keep doing it, and I’m having fun.”

Publication date: 05/16/2011

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