How HVLS fans are improving indoor air quality, maintenance and employee retention

June 17, 2021
In this podcast episode, Mark D’Agostino details the ROI on HVLS fan investments.

Mark D’Agostino is the Sr. Vice President and General Manager of Hunter Industrial Fans’ Commercial Division / Industrial Division. Mark studied Business Administration at Lock Haven State University, and has held the position of Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Power-Flo Pumps & Systems; President & CEO of Raven Products; and President & CEO of Wilo USA. Mark recently spoke with Thomas Wilk about HVLS fan systems, including the ROI on fan investments and the benefits of HVLS fans at your facility.

PS: To start with, let's talk about indoor air quality in general. We've all just entered the month of June, it's only going to get warmer out there and also inside there, especially on the plant floor. What's the role that high-volume low-speed fans, or HVLS, play in promoting good indoor air quality inside an industrial facility?

MD: It's a great question. I think sometimes all the benefits get slightly overlooked when we're discussing HVLS fan applications. Certainly, they provide a cooling effect, moving the air over your skin provides anywhere from an 8 to 12-degree cooling effect, so you perceive your body temperature as being cooling. That's one, and I think the most commonly thought of upside of using HVLS fans. But there's also much broader value propositions that HVLS fans bring to a facility and the employees within a facility.

In wintertime, in large facilities that are heated, warm air rises and you get a blanket of air collecting up near the roofline, which is away from where the people who are working need to feel it. HVLS fans can push or de-stratify that warm air and push it down to where employees are. This means you can lower the setpoint on the thermostat, and in many cases, you can save up to 30% on whatever fuel you use for heating. From a value proposition around energy savings, it's actually more effective in winter than it is in summer. That's probably one of the biggest overlooked benefits, outside of just the cooling effect of a fan.

HVLS fans also can help improve the ventilation in facilities. We get the opportunity to move out objectionable odors, or steam, or smoke, or anything that may be a byproduct of what the facility is doing and creating a less than ideal atmosphere for workers to operate in.

Lastly, it's the ability to control moisture. If you have moisture that's collecting on a work surface, or on raw materials that are waiting to be incorporated into a larger good, or if there's a sweating slab where there is the potential for slip and fall hazards, those sorts of things. By circulating the air we limit, and in most cases eliminate, the ability for that condensation or moisture to collect on those surfaces. Those are really the four huge benefits that we get from HVLS, overall providing a much more healthy work environment.

PS: One of the things that stuck out to me as I was looking at your website was that some of your HVLS fans have eliminated high-maintenance parts. That will resonate with our listeners who are often in the maintenance reliability sector, as it's going to reduce the amount of time that they'll need to spend working in hard-to-reach areas of the plant. I've heard stories about accessing the cooling tower, for example, and accessing a fan might be much the same. Can you talk about how these fans were designed and engineered?

Mark D’Agostino

MD: Absolutely. When we came into the HVLS business six years or so ago, when we launched this division, I think most manufacturers think about a product and the problem they're trying to solve and work from that point. We really decided to approach it from a different perspective. Our design engineers work backwards. They said, “what do people like about HVLS today the way it existed, and what do they dislike?”

The resounding feedback that we got from the market studies we did was these fans generally are installed highest ceiling, anywhere from 20 to 60 feet in the air. They are in areas that we refer to as COAs, or centers of activity, where there are people and operations happening, and tend to be very inaccessible. The traditional drive platform for HVLS fans has always been a typical AC motor driving a gearbox, and the gearbox slows the rotation of the motor down and increases the torque, enabling it to turn large blades.

That gearbox had become the weak link in the design of those products. They had seals that would fail and fans would leak oil. Over time the gears would wear and get sloppy and they would make noise, and ultimately become less efficient. So having these fans in places that are not easily accessible, in order to repair them or replace them, it required sometimes moving people, shutting down machinery, getting on a lift, getting high up in the ceiling, taking a lot of safety factors into concern, , all of those sorts of things, and then repairing or replacing the fan.

So we looked at the design of our fans and said, “what would be the ideal state?” To us, the ideal state would be to go through all of those challenges when you're initially installing the fan, and hopefully never have to get back up there again. We did things like a direct drive motor, which eliminates the gearbox. Overall, a very lightweight product that tends to be anywhere from 25% to 55% lighter than a competitor's product, the overall weight of the product, so it's easier and faster to install. There's a lifetime warranty on our motors, there's a lifetime warranty on our blades and blade holders. The product is very robust and durable, even in cases where there are impacts from forklifts or those sorts of things. Typically, all you have to do is reset the drive on the fan, and the fan will go back to working after a safety inspection.

All of these things were designed really to make it so once you're up in the air installing the fan the first time, you never have to touch it again. We even went an extra step: if the brain of the fan needed to be reprogrammed – let's say there was a catastrophic failure where the fan was hit with a forklift or there was a lightning strike and you had an issue with the power coming into the building – with the wall-mounted controls that we provide, you would simply unplug the Ethernet cable, plug it into a laptop, and we can reprogram the brain of the drive standing on the floor instead of having to get back up there. That's very different than some of our competitors. And really, we thought about, let's make sure you're up there once and that's the last time you've got to go up there and touch that fan.

PS: That's a really interesting way to approach that, not only to improve indoor air quality but then safety is improved right away too with these kinds of advances.

MD: In absolutely is. We have these great videos where we actually run stacks of goods on a forklift up and literally smash into the ceiling fan. And to see the fact that after we do that, and it's a video that shows multiple angles of it, how durable the product is – there's no risk of anything falling, there's multiple retention systems to make sure that if that happens, the fan blades don't bend – it's a very, very high quality, very robust product. It's really designed not to need any maintenance.

Listen to the entire interview

PS: You talked about the four benefits of these kind of fan systems. Could you talk a little bit about the performance standards that are in place to help maintenance teams or operations teams measure the impact of HVLS fans in a given plant?

MD: There's a couple of things that we provide. We can do these, sort of, documents, they're called air simulations, and you can actually see in a virtual world what sort of mix of the cool and warm air that you would get when an HVLS fan is operating. It shows you how much coverage you would get out of the fan in your specific application (height and size of the space and size of the fan, number of fans, density, the layout, all of those sorts of things), so that's a desktop review that you can do.

But one of the evolving areas around HVLS performance are standards. We think about HVAC products have been around for 100 or 150 years, which is the case most of the time. But HVLS is a very new industry, relatively speaking, it's less than 25 years since the first HVLS fans hit the market. Performance standards didn't exist at the beginning, and manufacturers used their own testing data to quantify performance. Slowly but surely the governing body, AMCA, which is the Air Movement and Control Association, AMCA began layering in standards and subsequent revisions to that standard to quantify performance.

They really wanted there to be a standard that everybody would (lead to confidence in data quality). So when I'm communicating to you, let's just say you're going to buy a fan and I'm telling you my fan has a coverage area of X square feet, or my fan generates Y cfm, you can look at that data and be confident in that data. It's not my data telling you that, it is the data as it's been tested to the standard that AMCA has set.

Some manufacturers, and Hunter is one of them, have gone the extra step, and we are an AMCA-certified lab in our manufacturing facility in Nashville, TN, so our data is actually overseen by, and our lab goes through recurring certification by, AMCA. We are providing data to the marketplace that says, this is not just what we say our our fans will do, this is our fan performance tested to the latest AMCA standard and certified by AMCA. They're reviewing our lab, they're reviewing our test results, and they're certifying the outcome. We're the only manufacturer that has our entire HVLS portfolio AMCA-certified in performance. We feel like that's an incredibly important thing because these fans are not inexpensive. You're making an investment in your employees and your facility, and if you're basing that decision based on what I'm telling you as far as performance, I certainly would want to know that that performance is real, that that data has been verified by a third party and certified as real.

PS: It makes a lot of sense. I was going to ask you about the investment question on that. When it comes to HVLS system investments, what sort of ROI are your clients achieving on that?

MD: You know, it's funny, I feel like my career in the HVAC business goes back many decades, and there's always sort of the hunt for the unicorn at the end of the rainbow about ROI, right? How much am I investing, how soon do I get it back? Typically, when we talk about ROI, we're comparing it to something else. I'm taking out a high-mass low-efficiency boiler and I'm putting in a high-efficiency compact boiler, I can talk about the electricity I'm saving or the natural gas I'm saving or all of those sorts of things.

When we talk about HVLS, it's slightly different because we're not really replacing existing equipment, it is an add-on to improve the environment in a building. These are not buildings that are air conditioned. We're adding HVLS fans to supplement the air conditioning. Yes, what I talked about earlier in our discussion today around de-stratifying during heating season, you can quantify that part of it, where we're able to save some gas or electricity that you're using to heat the building with in the winter. But really, the ROI is difficult to quantify in that regard.

At Hunter, we look at the ROI from a different perspective. We did a year-long study where we talked to many different kinds of business owners, and different personas within the facility operations world (we talked to facility managers, plant engineers, employee health and safety professionals, human resources professionals). And we also leveraged a study that was done just couple years ago by NASA, and a study that was done in the Harvard Business Journal. All of this data told us something very interesting. The Harvard Business Journal went out and they asked employees that work in factory settings, “what are the most important things to your job satisfaction and your ability to work at an optimum level?” And 57% of the respondents said air quality was the number one thing. We found that incredibly insightful and incredibly enlightening.

Then if you look at the NASA study that we reference in a lot of our documentation, NASA did a study where you get to a point where every incremental 5 degrees in perceived temperature going up by somebody doing a task, they become less efficient and they become less focused, so there’s risk around injuries or reduced productivity. It's a great linear chart goes up, and then you sort of hit this point, and then it starts dropping every 5 degrees significantly in both focus and productivity.

We started talking to a lot of people, many of them not our customers. We wanted an unfiltered view of this, and what they said was that when we fire somebody or somebody quits, or somebody says “it's too darn hot in your warehouse, I don't like working here anymore,” it typically costs a company about $8,000 to replace that employee. They go through this whole band, right, paying out Cobra, or if there's a severance involved, or paying back unused vacation, and then loss of productivity while you go out and hire somebody, plus the cost to recruit people, which is getting more and more expensive, and more and more difficult. And then again, to reduce productivity while you onboard that person and train them and get up to peak productivity within your facility.

When you look at that investment, we started to say to facilities, “what if we can retain one employee a year because we're making it a more pleasant, efficient work environment for your team members?” To us, this is really what the ROI is: it's the person ROI, the ROI around taking care of workers, taking care of team members, taking care of employees, their businesses and their facilities. If you can retain one employee a year, that pays for one fan including installation and you got a few bucks left over. What we find is this helps maintain multiple employees, not just one. So that's really Hunter's approach to an ROI on HVLS.

PS: That makes a lot of sense, and especially there's a widespread hiring challenge at the moment too, so in moments like this, that kind of ROI and value-add just goes up.

MD: It was funny, one of the personas, again, not a customer, but we talked to somebody that was the global EHS person for one of the largest food purveyors in the United States. (I don't have permission to use their name, so I'll be a bit vague with who it was.) But this EHS person said that the number one thing they looked at was employee retention, and it was a significant issue when an employee quit because of something the employee viewed, as a corporate issue, a management issue, or a work environment issue. It was so difficult and so costly to replace employees, especially in the current atmosphere that we're in. Management meetings were held to review and do an exit, post-mortem, if you will, on employees leaving, specifically to find out how they can improve. HVLS is one of the things they're using as a way to maintain good employees.

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