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VOL. 124 | NO. 191 | Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Engineered Comfort Discovers Green Homebuilding Niche

By Eric Smith

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HOT TOPIC: Walter Nelms, left, and Bob D’Orso of Engineered Comfort Inc. survey the geothermal system they are installing at a new home site in East Memphis.

Walter Nelms spent 15 years as a mechanical engineer specializing in the design of energy conservation systems for commercial buildings. In his spare time, he would work on residential projects, and what began as a hobby ultimately became a fulltime gig when Nelms launched Engineered Comfort Inc. in 2001.

Nelms’ company engineers, designs and installs heating and cooling systems for residential properties. And once a project is completed, the company does all the testing to ensure the systems meet the design specifications with regard to air leakages and insulation thicknesses.

Thanks to the popularity of green building – and homeowners looking for ways to “green” their homes by making them more efficient – Engineered Comfort found an important niche in the homebuilding industry with its air-to-air and geothermal systems.

“The flag that we fly is we make homes efficient, comfortable and healthy,” Nelms said. “That’s our reason that we exist, to focus on those three elements of a house: to optimize the efficiency, comfort and indoor air quality, which is health.”

Reduced footprint

Engineered Comfort will get to showcase its offerings at the Vesta Home Show Oct. 10 through Nov. 1. This year’s show, sponsored by the Memphis Area Home Builders Association, is taking place at the Villages at White Oak in Arlington and features eight homes that are green in their materials, systems and usages.

Nelms said the sustainable design and building approaches that will be on display at the Vesta Home Show complement Engineered Comfort’s business model perfectly. The company designed heating and cooling systems for three homes in the show.

“To our core being, we are that way,” Nelms said. “Now, when people are out searching for those qualities in a contractor, we can deliver a lot of what they’re looking for.”

Engineered Comfort’s heating and air conditioning systems use the ground as the heat sink instead of the air, helping reduce the energy needed to heat or cool a home. Though Nelms admits the company’s products and services are a little more expensive up front, the savings of using a more efficient system can be recouped in a short time span.

Bob D’Orso, who works in business development for the company, came out of retirement to join Nelms about a year and a half ago. D’Orso said he saw Nelms’ unique ability to “engineer a system that is many times less than what would normally be put in a home of any given size,” D’Orso said.

The Engineered Comfort system works smarter, not harder, so a home’s utility bills – and therefore its carbon footprint – are drastically reduced.

“What most people would have in an existing home, with duct work in the attic, historically the duct work would leak between 20 and 30 percent (of heat),” D’Orso said. “And that’s just heat loss to the attic, not going to the house. They just ran a test on our home at the Vesta show, and the leakage is in the 2 percent range.”

D’Orso said the return on investment is seen in a home’s utility bills but felt in the comfort of its climate.

“We offer an opportunity for people to be green and there’s a payback,” D’Orso said. “Other products you can put in a home that might have a green name to it, they might not have a payback. We can show paybacks in just a few years.”

Increased demand

Engineered Comfort also engineers and installs geothermal systems, which use the ground to generate heat for a home.

When Nelms began offering geothermal systems in 2003, he performed only two or three a year. But because of rising energy costs – specifically natural gas – and the availability of tax credits for green projects, Engineered Comfort has seen demand skyrocket for geothermal. They now comprise 50 percent to 60 percent of the company’s business.

Though Engineered Comfort specializes in the custom housing market, it also retrofits homes with heat pump and insulation systems. Nelms said one focus in light of the housing slowdown, coupled with the tax incentives for “regreening,” has been existing homes.

The company, with 24 employees, does almost all the work in-house. It subcontracts foam insulation to an entity in which Nelms is a partner.

Nelms said the company has 15 new-home jobs in progress and slated for the next month, with the average size home ranging from 5,000 to 6,000 square feet. One project under way is on Roane Road off Mendenhall Road in East Memphis, where Engineered Comfort is installing a geothermal system for a new home.

Engineered Comfort did see a slowdown in the spring, mostly as fallout from the financial crash the previous year. But that has changed as housing makes a comeback and the green movement is as strong as it’s ever been.

“The focus on energy and efficiency is keeping us very busy,” Nelms said. “We are crazy busy right now and trying (to figure) out how to get it done.”

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