Back in late 2011, Advanced Cooling Technologies Inc. launched a line of energy recovery systems, heat-exchange units that make buildings' HVAC systems more efficient.
That initiative is a major reason for the 10,000-square-foot expansion underway at the company's site in Burle Business Park in Lancaster. About 40 percent of the new space will be devoted to the energy recovery product line, said Mark Stevens, ACT's director of new business development.
"Right now, we're squeezed," he said, indicating the section devoted to heat exchangers in the company's existing lab.
Most of the rest of the expansion will be devoted to office space and a break room.
Burle is excited about ACT's growth, said Althea Ramsay Carrigan, Burle Business Park's vice president of real estate.
"They're a very strong company. We're happy to have them here," she said.
Heat exchangers, as the name implies, transfer heat from point to point within air-handling systems. Doing so can save thousands of BTUs, Stevens said. Installing ACT's equipment can pay for itself in as little as six months to a year, he said.
ACT's technology is "passive"; that is, it uses no energy inputs and has no moving parts. Rather, a "working fluid" inside numerous thin copper heat pipes absorbs heat. The added energy makes the fluid vaporize and travel down the pipe to the condenser end. There, it changes back to a liquid, expelling the heat and sinking back down to the evaporator end to repeat the process.
Heat pipes are extremely efficient heat conductors — a thousand times better than solid copper by itself, according to ACT's product literature.
Cooling air in large air-conditioning systems is a multistep process, Stevens explained. First, the air is cooled to well below room temperature in order to wring out the humidity, he said. It then has to be heated back up before it is pumped into the building's air system.
ACT's wrap-around heat exchangers can take heat out of the incoming air stream and transfer it to the over-cooled air coming out of the cooling coils. This cools the incoming air, so the coils have less work to do, and partially warms the over-cooled air for free using what otherwise would be wasted heat. The overall result is a more efficient system, Stevens said.
The technology has been around since the late 1980s, but relatively few companies produce systems implementing it, he said.
Increasingly, however, "green" building codes and LEED building standards are making heat exchange systems for HVAC systems more appealing, or even mandatory, he said.
Energy wheels, another heat-exchange technology, are effective, but energy wheels have moving parts, he said. In addition, the wheels come into direct contact with the air streams, which is problematic in certain applications, such as hospitals and laboratories, where cross-contamination of airspaces has to be prevented.
The bottom line: There is a large potential market for heat-pipe heat exchangers, both for new installations and retrofits.
"I think we're going to do very well in this area," Stevens said.
The company hopes to partner with HVAC manufacturers, such as Johnson Controls Inc., the Milwaukee-based company that operates a plant in York County, to make ACT's heat exchanger a standard option for air-handling systems, Stevens said. That way, clients could specify the option as a part number, and it would come factory-installed, simplifying the process, he said.
The goal is to ramp up to about 50 installations a year, he said. The company has 12 "in the queue" at the moment, he said.
An ACT unit is part of a Johnson Controls-branded HVAC system installed recently at the McKinly Lab at the University of Delaware. Kevin Haskins, president of Building Systems & Services Inc. of Wilmington, sold the systems.
More than 20,000 cubic feet of outside air is transferred into the building per minute, Haskins said, and an equal amount is exhausted. The heat exchangers cool hot incoming air in summer using cooler outgoing air and do the reverse in winter, saving energy year-round, he said.
"It's a nice project," he said.
Heat-exchange units are just one of many ways ACT deploys heat pipes and the other "thermal solutions" it offers. ACT devices are used in satellites, medical equipment, manufacturing processes and on aircraft carriers. In many applications, heat pipes are used to channel heat away from sensitive electronic components.
In January, the company celebrated its 10th anniversary. It has grown to 70 employees since founder John Zuo started it in his home office.
"Today, they employ professionals literally from all over the world," Ramsay Carrigan said.
"This is what our facility was made for: the work of the future," she said.