Portable cooling for processes, people, and equipment

June 1, 2000
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While many think of portable cooling only in terms of truly temporary situations, such as for outdoor “tent” events (e.g., sports, rock concerts), emergencies, or equipment breakdowns, there are new niches emerging that rely on the portable technology permanently.

One of the “granddaddies” of the relatively new portable cooling business is MovinCool, Long Beach, Calif., an affiliate of Denso Corp.

Denso may not be a familiar name in the hvac world, but it generates more than $13 billion in annual revenue, supplying major automotive oem’s such as Toyota with air conditioning systems and components.

In addition, the manufacturer produces and distributes automotive components, wireless communications, navigation systems, and robotics.

So why did the company get into portable cooling? Basically, it designed such systems to solve its own problems, and decided to “share” the discovery with the rest of the world.

Cool your own first

It started when the Japan-based Denso was trying to find a way to cool its factory personnel who were working on the automotive line. It gets rather hot and humid in Japan during the summer months, and workers on the floor were extremely uncomfortable.

It was not feasible to install a central plant, so the company decided to bring the cooling down to the factory floor. Company engineers designed and manufactured portable cooling units to help keep workers cool, healthy, and productive.

The portable cooling systems worked so well for its employees, Denso decided to manufacture them for sale to the U.S. automotive industry. Since 1982, the MovinCool division of Denso has been marketing its portable cooling systems to a variety of markets in the United States. However, the automotive industry isn’t one of their major focuses.

As is often the case, U.S. and Japanese manufacturers had different philosophies. U.S. automotive manufacturers didn’t seem as concerned about keeping their workers comfortable, and they didn’t want to spend that much on cooling systems. (Even though the portable units aren’t as much as a traditional air conditioning system, they still run around $3,000 apiece.)

The company soon recognized that cultural and philosophical differences between Japan and the United States were hindering sales, so MovinCool moved to California to be more in touch with the U.S. market. That move led to a new niche for the company: cooling equipment, not people.

Cooling electronics

“We found a whole new market in the electronics industry,” says Karen Galas, manager of MovinCool Group. “The U.S. market tends to protect its equipment faster than it will its people.

“When they have a little tiny box that costs $30,000 to $50,000, buying a $3,000 air conditioning unit to make sure it runs all the time and never goes down because of heat is nothing.”

Knowing that the high-tech world may not be as impressed with its rather barebones “Classic” Series, which is designed for harsh environments such as factories and foundries, the manufacturer came up with the “Office Pro.” The sleeker units are designed for computer and office environments that require lower room temperatures (60° to 90°F). They also come with bells and whistles not found on the Classic units, such as programmable electronic clocks for automatic evening and weekend operation.

The explosive growth in the electronics industry over the last 10 or 15 years has been great for MovinCool. The company has moved its portable cooling units into many different telephone companies’ switching stations and closets, as well as into companies that have racks of servers and modems — equipment that was nonexistent just a few years ago.

The equipment needs to be kept cool or else it won’t function properly. Since it is unlikely that an existing air conditioning system can handle the additional load, a portable cooling unit makes sense.

“Electronic cooling is by far the hot growth market,” says Galas (no pun intended, we suppose).

Permanent portability for process and plastics

Another growth area is in the process cooling market. A great example where portable cooling makes sense is in food processing.

Several cookie manufacturers use the portable cooling equipment on their production lines to bind chocolate or frosting to the cookies. (No one wants smudged cookies!) Even though a fan may cool the people on the factory floor, it won’t help the cookies, because a fan doesn’t dehumidify the air.

The portable equipment directs cooled, dehumidified air onto the iced cookies, which is how they are sealed.

The plastics industry is another area into which MovinCool is moving. Here again, humidity is a problem. Too much humidity can cause plastic bottles to collapse once they come out of the molds. Or, there can be too much condensation, requiring workers to constantly blow out the molds to avoid a “mottled” look on the bottle.

“Portable cooling increases their yields and reduces their rejects,” says Galas. “We have one distributor who does nothing but serve the plastics industry — that’s all they’ve done for 30 years. They sell our portable units because they saw how many applications there were for their customer base.”

But the company is battling awareness in both the plastics and food processing areas. “We’re trying to make this a bigger area; however, production managers don’t even know our product exists or that it’s an option. We’re trying to educate that group on how much faster we can speed up their processes just handling hot things,” notes Galas.

She regularly uses the example of the company’s own factory, in which it produces all the tubes, hoses, and a/c kits for other joint ventures as well as the spot-cooling units. “When the air conditioning tubes are brazed, you can’t handle them because they’re so hot. Once somebody had fired on a tube, he couldn’t pick it up even with the special safety gloves for 20 minutes. With the MovinCool blowing one nozzle on him and one nozzle blowing on the bin that he puts the pieces into, they got it down to 11 minutes.”

Raising awareness through rentals

In order to teach the public about its products, the company routinely goes to many different trade expos — hospital shows, restaurant shows, avionics shows, etc. Most of the surveys they do at the shows (with the exception of the IAHR Expo, at which recognition is between 70% and 90%) indicate that most don’t know about portable cooling at all.

“Our biggest barrier to sales is not our competition or our price; it’s that people don’t even know it exists.”

One way in which people can become more familiar with portable cooling is to rent the equipment first. If it solves a problem, great. If not, it’s possible to return the unit to the distributor and not be out much money at all.

Galas notes that most rentals eventually turn into sales. “We have a three-year sales curve. A customer may rent it for two or three months during a real heat wave, when they need it. Then the next year comes around, and they may decide to rent it again.

“When the third year rolls around the customer usually thinks, ‘Why don’t we just buy this instead of rent it.’”

Rentals also work well for the many facilities that can’t buy capital equipment right off the bat. Hospitals and universities, in particular, are large users of the portable units because it’s usually easier to pay on a lease or a rental program than it is to obtain a fixed asset.

Here again, it may take two years to obtain approval to purchase a portable unit, which falls right into MovinCool’s three-year sales curve.

Most distributors don't carry it

The rental business is a very service-oriented business, which is why you usually won’t find many of the portable cooling units being rented out by a traditional hvac wholesaler.

Instead, this manufacturer has a core group of distributors that specializes in temporary air conditioning and heating.

There are a few traditional warehouse distributors, but unless they’re dedicated to delivering service, it’s usually not a good fit, says Galas. An exception to this rule is W.W. Grainger, which sells the portable units without any support at all.

“Hospitals and universities that have been using the product for years may turn to Grainger for the sale,” says Galas. “It may be a whole lot easier to go buy it from Grainger than perhaps the local regional distributor they’ve rented it from, because Grainger is an approved vendor.”

Contractors can benefit

Contractors, too, can benefit by using portable cooling equipment. In fact, Galas believes that if contractors don’t use portable cooling as an option for customers, they’re giving business away.

“Often contractors are at a customer site and they’re inconveniencing that customer while they’re performing service on a unit that’s not working.

“The contractors who are savvy and want to deliver customer service will roll a unit in, free of charge, just to show that customer how accommodating they are.”

She notes that it’s basically a business attitude; if you’re a service-oriented contractor, you’ll have some kind of temporary equipment available.

Whether it’s supplied free or you charge a rental fee, at least it’s beneficial to have something on hand to help customers.

“It also frees contractors up, because then they can go do two or three jobs simultaneously as opposed to having to finish one because the system’s down. The sophisticated guys see how to use this profitably.”

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