F.W. Webb practices what they preach about going green.

These solar panels provide warehouse heating and domestic hot water for F.W. Webb’s Hyannis, MA, branch (photo courtesy of F.W. Webb).

F. W. Webb Co. aims to be its market’s leader in promoting alternative energy HVAC, and along the way decided to kill two birds with the same proverbial stone. So when New England’s largest PHCP distributor expanded its Hyannis, MA, branch last year, they incorporated thermal solar panels and an open loop geothermal system with distributed heat pumps (made by WaterFurnace) to provide the facility’s HVAC and domestic hot water, along with a host of other “green” features. Similar hybrid solar/geothermal systems (except closed loop versions of geothermal) will heat and cool new facilities going up in Waterford, CT, and Boston.

According to Jeff Pope, president of F.W. Webb Co., “Our contractor customers can utilize Webb locations as working examples of how to install and service new state-of-the-art equipment.” So not only do these sustainable energy technologies lower Webb’s energy bills substantially, they also serve to showcase products and systems for Webb customers.

The Hyannis facility includes a training room that receives hundreds of contractors throughout the year. “Customers have been ecstatic about being able to see the geo system in action,” said F.W. Webb’s Marc Nantel, who served as general manager of the Hyannis location during its renovation.

“Another thing that really impresses them is how quiet everything is compared with your typical building with big boilers and rooftop units,” he added. Hyannis relies on three variable-frequency-drive (VFD) pumps to circulate the ground water through the system, saving energy by matching the pump speed to the fluctuations in demand. “They hardly ever all run at once,” said Nantel. “All you hear is a motor and fan. Two other VFD pumps take care of the rooftop solar system. Contractors walk into the mechanical room and say, ‘That’s it?’”

Hyannis has 30 rooftop solar panels (made by Buderus) connected to a 2,000-gal. storage tank. Four of the panels are dedicated to domestic hot water, the rest to warehouse heating. If the sun goes hiding for several days and storage gets depleted, the geo heat pump will pick up the slack. Other features include ceiling fans in the warehouse to bring heat down (temperature differential between floor and ceiling is about 15 degrees), and motion sensor lighting to provide warehouse illumination only where needed.

Jeff Pope, president of F.W. Webb (photo courtesy of F.W. Webb).

Short sleeves in winter

"The system works great and makes for a pleasant working environment," said Nantel. "You see warehouse people wearing short sleeves even in winter." He added that energy savings have been even better than expected.

Jeff Pope elaborated that "our investment in alternative energy equipment in Hyannis will generate a savings of approximately $20,500 annually, based on current natural gas prices in the Hyannis area. That equates to a simple payback in less than five years. A modest increase in the price of fuel would drop the payback to as little as three years."

Andy McBeth is a project manager for the construction management firm JM Coull and oversees the Webb projects. He told me they got lucky with conditions in Hyannis favoring an open-loop system for the geothermal.

"Open loops are fairly rare because they require good water, good soil and no environmental issues, and we had all three in this case. An open-loop system in Hyannis was well suited to the sandy soil conditions," McBeth elaborated. "An open-loop system uses water pumped directly from the ground and returns it to the same aquifer via another well. Sandy soil is easily infiltrated and naturally filtered, helping the open-loop system to operate efficiently."

The Hyannis facility includes offices, self-serve counter area, a showroom and warehouse, all of which are zoned. "One of the benefits of a heat pump system is it makes it pretty easy to control different areas," McBeth noted. "The Hyannis project worked out nicely because it has southern exposure with a lot of windows, so you have heat gain in the hallways."

Variable-frequency drive pumps match pump speed to fluctuations in demand (photo courtesy of F.W. Webb).

Closing the loop in Waterford

Construction started on Webb’s Waterford, CT, facility last July and it is scheduled for opening in June 2011. Like Hyannis, it will include warehouse, showroom and self-serve counter along with offices, and VFD pumps will circulate water through the system, saving energy by matching the pump speed to the fluctuations in demand. Waterford, too, will incorporate hybrid solar/geothermal systems, although condi-tions there could not accommodate an open loop.

According to McBeth, in Waterford they originally considered using two 2,000-ft. boreholes for the closed-loop system, but the cost of drilling proved prohibitive. “We settled on twelve 500-ft. holes instead, each of which contains a closed-loop, U-tube heat exchanger. The loss in efficiency was minimal and the return on investment made better sense. F.W. Webb can expect to see a return in six to 10 years, when the cost of the system will be balanced by fuel savings,” he said.

The main alternative fuel source in the area is propane. An engineering study prior to construction estimated annual energy cost savings of between $24,000 and $60,000, depending on fluctuations in the price of propane.

Fifty roof-mounted thermal solar panels are integral to the system in Waterford, harnessing solar energy and feeding it into the 10,000-gal. underground solar storage tank. High efficiency and lower environmental risk result from the use of a solar panel drain-back configuration using plain water instead of glycol, which eliminates the need for efficiency-robbing heat exchangers or glycol additives. A single evacuated tube, high-temperature thermal solar panel will provide domestic hot water.

Construction of the new facility made use of pre-engineered technology, employing a 67,000-sq.-ft. metal building from Butler Manufacturing with split-faced masonry block. A 30-ft. clear height, combined with a narrow-aisle racking system, will maximize storage area in the warehouse. The site also accommodates parking and 40,000 sq. ft. of paved outside storage.

Earthwork encompassed half of the 20-acre site and included 40,000 cubic yards of cut and fill. The excavation included the creation of two large storm water infiltration basins and a vegetated swale. The location is easily visible and accessible alongside I-95.

John Thomas is vice president/HVACR at F.W. Webb (photo courtesy of F.W. Webb).

Showcase for technology

“The Waterford location is important to F.W. Webb’s expansion into Connecticut. It provides excellent access for our customers,” said Phil Vultaggio, general manager of the Waterford facility. “We’re particularly enthusiastic about having the hybrid solar-geothermal system in our new facility. Webb is committed to helping our customers explore options for alternative energy, and this just makes it easier to demonstrate what these systems can do,” said Vultaggio.

Like Hyannis, the Waterford facility will include a training room. An area in the warehouse near the training room will afford an open view of the operational geothermal system. This opportunity to showcase the equipment they sell for geothermal and solar heating and cooling systems is a big plus for F.W. Webb.

“We started looking at sustainable energy several years ago to understand where it was going,” John Thomas, the company’s vice president of HVAC/R, told me. “Alternative solutions for homes and buildings came out of the radiant and high-efficiency boiler part of our business. As energy costs started to rise we rounded out our products to cover the sustainable field with geothermal, solar, air-to-water heat pump technology and high efficiency boiler applications with radiant and solar interfaces. We’ve had a lot of success with the trade in those technologies, particularly geothermal and solar.”

They aren’t exactly an easy sell, however. Webb’s New England/upstate New York territory was never a hotbed of new home construction even when the housing market was sizzling, and green technology is costly and difficult in retrofit applications. Nonetheless, Thomas estimates that about 8-10% of Webb’s HVAC/R sales can be categorized as sustainable energy products, though not all go into fully integrated projects like the Webb buildings.

“These applications offer opportunities for contractors looking to gain an advantage or diversify, but they require a lot of education. So we saw an opportunity to take the lead with a rounded product offering and so-called ‘green’ solutions,” he said.  “With the Hyannis facility we decided to go as sustainable as possible from a building operations standpoint as well as providing a comfort system. Then we realized this can be a model of what we can do and an opportunity to educate contractors. So we decided to integrate the technology in our new facilities in Waterford and Boston as well.

“We’ve seen tremendous appreciation from our customers over the fact that we’re practicing what we preach to the industry,” Thomas added. “If we’re promoting it to them, this is consistent with that message.”

Piping coming out of the geothermal system (photo courtesy of F.W. Webb).

From sales to solutions

Webb’s construction projects benefited from government tax credits for sustainable energy projects totaling around $86,000. Federal incentives have been reduced going into 2011, and I asked Thomas if that would make sustainable energy systems a harder sell?

“Perhaps for small applications,” he responded, “but the ultimate goal of an F. W. Webb salesperson is to provide a range of solutions across a lot of applications. We want a contractor, building owner, facility director or whomever the customer might be to look at F.W. Webb not just as a product sales organization, but a company that can provide them solutions across a range of technologies and applications and help them grow their business via opportunities they might not be looking at today. Our salesperson can educate them, help them apply different solutions ranging from traditional to sustainable, and help them show cost savings to their customers.”

Jim Olsztynski


Jim is the editor of Supply House Times. He can be reached by email or 847/405-4006.