By Myles Ludwig
It's a beautiful day in southern Florida's Indian River region -- orange grove country. There's not a cloud in the sky. Barry Pitts, a 49-year-old consulting engineer, has come here -- some 45 minutes north of his home office near suburban Palm Beach Gardens -- to check up on a thermal-energy storage system he designed. Pitts creates cost-effective energy conservation systems; heating, lighting, ventilation, and, particularly, air conditioning are his areas of expertise.
No surprise, then, that the A.C. is cranked way up in his new Olds Intrigue.
Pitts is considered one of the leading and most innovative experts in his field. Numerous articles have been written about his successful systems. And when he speaks about his work, it's clear he loves what he does: "Engineering is an art based on the application of scientific principles," he says. "It puts science to work and involves both left and right brain activities. I like to find creative, imaginative solutions to problems."
The system he's checking on today, which was built for a Fort Pierce company that makes cases for cellular phones, is a Pitts trademark. Deceptively simple, it takes advantage of the fact that it's far less expensive (and thus more profitable) for a power company to make electricity at night, during off-peak hours.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Air Conditioning
In the late 1920s, Willis Carrier invented the modern air conditioner which took the air in a building, mixed it with fresh air from the outside, then passed it through a cooling process (a chiller) and sent it back into the building via a network of ducts. Before then, if you went to a public place on a hot day, your comfort likely depended on air cooled by a fan blowing over a block of ice.
Very low-tech stuff.
After Carrier (one is tempted to say A.C.), cooling technology improved quickly and dramatically, but the cost of producing energy also increased. Spurred by the oil crises of the 1970s, energy conservation became a priority for both users and suppliers.
So Pitts took a chip off the old block of ice and combined it with an up-to-date chiller to make energy-efficient air conditioning that pays for itself. Essentially, he's given a high-tech twist to an old-fashioned technique. His Fort Pierce design (which looks a little like a Rube Goldberg device) pipes a chemical called Glycol through the chiller at night, bringing the chemical's temperature down to 20 degrees. It then runs the Glycol through a big galvanized steel box lined with butyl rubber filled with miles of tubing around which ice is made and stored. It's one heck of an ice cube.
In the daytime, the Glycol is piped through the icebox and fanned though an air handler to cool manufacturing facilities and office buildings to 75° F, the comfort and productivity level considered standard.
"The cost of energy brought back ice," says Pitts as he reads the gauges and makes some adjustments to the equipment. Pitts' system reduces energy costs so significantly that it pays for itself, on average, within two and a half to six years of its implementation.
With Pitts' system, everybody wins. The power company, eager to support a system that consumes most of its energy during off-peak hours, is glad to shell out the $2,500-$5,000 cost of an initial feasibility study as an incentive to the user, and offers them an installation rebate to boot. The user, usually a building manager concerned with the high cost of utilities, is pleased because he gets an air conditioning system practically for free, due to the rebate and reduced power bills. And Pitts is pleased to create something that saves money for the client, makes money for himself, and, most importantly, is innovative.
"My philosophy is to create simple, economical, and durable systems," Pitts says. "I don't like mundane, run-of-the-mill engineering. There's a lot of 'rubber stamp engineering' going around. I want to do what hasn't been done before or hasn't been done successfully."
The Long and Winding Road
Pitts picked up a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from the University of Tennessee. But, after graduation, he didn't find a job he liked. He spent eight months working at a factory, where he discovered that the inner workings of the machines fascinated him more than the inner workings of a company.
So he went to back to college and earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. Then came a series of corporate stints. He spent five years as a mechanical engineer dealing with chemical processes for Georgia's Gilman Paper. From there, he moved to IBM, where for five years he was the Senior Facilities Engineer at Big Blue's 3,000,000-square-foot (now-closed) Boca Raton operation. He then moved to Florida Power & Light Company to focus on energy conservation, where he stayed for six years.
At FP&L, he was able to learn about the business side of the engineering projects he designed. He learned how to market a project, and he trained other engineers and consultants in the intricacies of energy conservation. It was then that he caught the IP bug. Pitts recognized there was a dearth of knowledge about thermal-energy storage systems, and believed he could make a business out of his expertise. "I saw a niche for a guy like me with my experience," he says. "I knew I wanted to be on my own. At the same time, I did not know how to do it."
"There was a time when I didn't have the guts to do [self-marketing]," he admits. "How do you get business? Most engineers are geeks, but FP&L forced me to be to be a public speaker. I found it nerve-wracking, but I developed confidence. You've got to have faith."
And so he took the IP plunge. Through his training and marketing activities, he'd built up a network of potential clients -- building owners, contractors, vendors, facilities managers -- and he would chitchat with them regularly. But business was slow. Though he makes a good living now, it was very tough in the beginning. For the first six months, he earned nothing. Not a dime.
"It helps to have a wife that works," he admits.
Finally, he landed his first big client, Johnson Controls, by calling a colleague he knew there. After that, he went through a lot of small jobs, mostly feasibility studies, before he secured a big deal with JM Family Enterprises, the largest exclusive Toyota distributor in the Southeast. Both of those clients are still with him. Now, he gets most of his leads through contractors, trade vendors, and the utility company.
Why It's Better to be David than Goliath
As an IP, Pitts can pick and choose the jobs he wants and gets to do the real soup-to-nuts engineering, unlike at a big firm where the work is parceled out in small pieces.
"I get to do the conceptualization, analysis, and design on really big jobs -- multimillion-dollar jobs -- a chance most engineers never get. I get to be creative and I have the opportunity to make a lot of money," he says.
The initial feasibility study is basically a loss leader, but it's the tool that enables him to get the rest of the job. Sometimes, it's followed by a more thorough investigation that looks at all aspects of a building's energy systems, including roofing, ventilation, lighting, even window-tinting. For this he charges about five to eight cents a square foot on buildings of 30,000 to 500,000 square feet.
Once he gets the job, the design fee ranges from $10,000 to $100,000. It's a function of the size and complexity of the project, how much time he estimates he'll devote to it and how much he wants to make. Generally, his design fee amounts to six to ten percent of the total cost of the job.
For commissioning, i.e. firing up the job and keeping the system running up to speed, he charges another $4,000-$25,000.
And though he relishes the freedom he has as an IP, he recognizes the real drawbacks. "It's definitely not for the faint of heart. There's no room to mess up. Mistakes cost money. And there's the anxiety of not knowing where the next paycheck is coming from: it's feast or famine. It can be a lonely existence. In a job, you have a built-in support system, but as an independent, it's just you by yourself without much interaction. What helps is going around seeing clients. They become part of your social network. They become friends."
And, occasionally, he's lost a job to a bigger firm, even after he's done the initial work. That rubs him the wrong way, "because I know more about this than anyone in the state."
But it's all worth it when a client chooses Pitt over his corporate competition, when his big idea beats their big name. "The challenge is doing a project more imaginatively and less expensively than the competition. There's nothing more satisfying than pulling in a project that blows away the competition -- usually a big firm. It's a David vs. Goliath kind of feeling."
May 22, 2000
Primary Editor: Katy Demcak
Illustrator: James Stringer
Production: Fletcher Moore
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Myles Ludwig is a freelance writer who lives in Lake Worth, Fla. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with him, or with anyone named in this article.