The facade looks nice enough, but when contractor Bruce Thornton first examined the HVAC system in this building, he described it as “a train wreck.”
LUBBOCK, Texas - You truly never know where you will find new business. For contractor Bruce Thornton, the lead for one project lead came to him while he was on a plane.

Thornton and Jay Eagan were members of the Lubbock Rotary Club and found themselves on the same plane returning to their home base in Lubbock. They sat next to each other.

Naturally, their conversation turned to business. Thornton is the owner of Bruce Thornton Air Conditioning and Eagan is an insurance agent with Mass Mutual who had previously been in charge of the Lubbock office.

There was more to Eagan than the insurance business. He also owned the building where Mass Mutual had its offices.

During the conversation, Eagan mentioned an ongoing problem with the building's heating and air conditioning system.

He said the agents were constantly complaining of being too hot or too cold. Thornton told him he would drop by and see if there was something he could do.


"What I found was a train wreck," Thornton said. "The boiler looked like it was the original one installed when the building was built in the '50s. The air conditioning system was newer, but not by much.

"The place had about 50 offices and only 10 zones. I told Eagan we would have to replace everything, and he gave us the go ahead."

Thornton proposed using Carrier gas/electric rooftops for the heating-cooling system, pointing out that they would be considerably more efficient than the antiques they were replacing and save Eagan money over time.

To solve the zoning problem, Thornton recommended network thermostats and a zoning system from XCI Corp., Irving, Texas.

"That was my first installation of these thermostats," said Thornton. "Where the insurance company once had 10 zones, now they have 50."

A Break

"The job took two months," said Thornton. "We had to work around the employees, so it wasn't easy." Work had to be planned so that the company's operations would not be disrupted - not an easy feat when you're talking about replacing major building systems.

The contractor caught a break when installing the thermostats. "The only thing that was easy was putting in the thermostats," Thornton said. "I'd seen a demonstration of them by our distributor, Robert Madden Industries. They looked like the ideal solution for small businesses that couldn't afford and didn't need the high-end, expensive building automation systems.

"Unlike programmable thermostats, these could be controlled from a personal computer. You don't have to walk all over the building to change set points."

"We've been handling these thermostats for a while now, and people are starting to get the idea how they work," said Rick Ennis, Carrier sales manager in West Texas for Robert Madden Industries.

"We did a demo at Bruce's business, and he saw the value right away," Ennis said.

"We've also been going to engineering groups and school districts. The thermostats are very good products for schools where they use the facilities at different times for sports, dances, or parent teacher meetings. The maintenance guy can program the thermostats to operate normally when there is an event in the evening or to drop to an unoccupied temperature when nothing is happening. It's a great energy saver."

Network Thermostats

Jerry Drew is the developer of the network thermostat system used at Mass Mutual and the president of XCI, the company that produces them.

"It all started when I was working as an engineering manager at Texas Instruments in weapons systems development and doing consulting work on the side on automated HVAC systems for high-end residences," said Drew.

"I realized that there was a serious need for something that could fill the void between individual thermostats and expensive building automation systems.

"I reasoned that there had to be a market out there in high-end residential and light commercial markets such as schools, banks, retail buildings, or churches - areas where the cost of a building automation system could not be justified."

He developed the idea of networking thermostats and controlling them through a personal computer. "We introduced our first network thermostat product at the Home Automation Association Show in 1995."

He said the company designed the system so that it would to be easy to use and maintain.

"Since then, we've made all of our improvements backwards compatible to the original versions so that the building owners can add, change, and move thermostats at any time without having to buy a new building automation system," Drew said.

"In fact, many of our installations have been as replacements for building automation systems that were outdated or not supported after only a few years."

It's Working

According to the insurance company's staff, the system is working very well.

"It's part of my job to manage all the thermostats in the building," said Debbie Holt, Eagan's administrative assistant. "It's easy.

"After they were installed, Thornton and XCI came in and helped us customize our Windows program so it fit our needs. They even put in a modem so the support staff at Bruce Thornton Air Conditioning or XCI could check our thermostats from their offices. And now when one of the agents complains, I can check on his thermostat's condition with just a few keystrokes.

"One agent called last week and said it was 80 degrees F in his office. I checked on my computer and told him it was 73 degrees, and he stopped complaining. We program each thermostat so the person in each office has a few degrees of latitude, but they can't set their thermostat to 60 degrees or 80 degrees."

"This is the ideal system for small to medium-size commercial projects," Thornton said. "We've already got an installation scheduled for a local church. It's much more affordable than building automation and more convenient than programmables."

Sidebar: You've Come A Long Way, Brucie

LUBBOCK, Texas - Thirty-three years ago, in January of 1972, Bruce Thornton started his air conditioning company like many new contractors have done - working from his garage.

These days Bruce Thornton Air Conditioning (BTAC) employs around 90 people, including technicians, engineers, and administrators.

The company now provides professional service, and designs and installs commercial and residential plumbing, heating, and cooling systems in West Texas and into the southern plains. BTAC also has a major industrial metal fabrication facility in the region.

Thornton himself is actively involved in many civic organizations and missionary work. The company also belongs to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association, and the Comfort Institute.

The company acquired Ideal Air Conditioning and Kerr Plumbing in 1999.

- B. Checket-Hanks

Publication date: 02/07/2005