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Company Profile: Ability Projects - it's blowing a gale for EC fans

Peter Lowther, managing director of Ability Projects, discusses the issues surrounding fan coil units and his business. Paul Braithwaite reports
Company Profile: Ability Projects - it
PETER Lowther, managing director of Dorset-based Ability Projects, would be the first to admit it has not been all plain sailing since his company was launched on January 2, 2001.

The four owners had all worked for another manufacturer which moved out of the area, so with their contracts completed they decided to start their own company.

Hence Ability Projects.

Peter and his three other working partners spent much time setting up the systems for the business, finding the factory and designing the products so that, as best they could, the company would 'hit the ground running'.

In fact, Peter adds, January 2 was also the day they invoiced their first client.

Peter says that when they looked at what they should do they decided that, as fan coil unit experts, there was only the one option, to start a new fan coil company. However, they made it a priority to learn from their previous experiences and apply the lessons learned to the new operation.

'We had seen what worked and what didn't.'

This all meant the systems - manufacturing, programming, material supply - which the company put in place, could be tailored to the business from day one.

'We set out knowing we would be a fan coil company and that this is what we intend to stay. We cannot compromise what we have by introducing other products that we are less familiar with.'

Peter says Ability Projects has half the staff of his previous companies but with the same turnover.

'Technology has moved on of course but when we have come up against a problem we have tended to try and sort it out with a system enhancement rather than an extra body.'

He admits, however, his five-year business strategy did not go strictly to plan.

'Market influences inevitably forced us to rethink our strategy and direction as time passed'.

For the first couple of years, the plan was on schedule. Then in 2003 and 2004, the market for fan coils reduced significantly.

'Ability, as a new company, expected to grow year by year. However, during that time, we had to swim hard against the tide to stay ahead.'
Following the market turndown, material prices went through the roof.

So 2005 and 2006 were even tougher, says Peter, with orders both hard to come by and spiraling material prices. However, in about March 2006, enquiry levels started to climb significantly.

'From March 2006 to March 2007, both turnover and quotation levels more than doubled'.

Peter says no-one seems to be able to identify the reason for the upturn but he thinks it could partly be to do with the build-up to the Olympics.

He continues that market levels and materials aside, starting a new company is never easy. However, this upturn has brought additional money to spend on 'the things we always needed', such as a test room which was being built on the new mezzanine floor when I visited.

As the Olympics comes nearer, this should keep the industry buoyant and optimistic. He adds that most of Ability's work comes from offices and hotels and some up-market apartments.

There is also a two-man service and maintenance team. However, as much as half of their time is devoted to paid-for service and maintenance work where Ability's considerable experience with fan coils proves invaluable. 'We recently refurbished the Atholl fan coil units at St Olaf's House, an Art Deco property near London Bridge.'
The factory is not running at full capacity. Currently, there are two shifts so a third could be added bringing the output up to its optimum level.

'Our output levels have more than doubled in a relatively short space of time and the growth pains have been substantial so the next couple of years will be for consolidation'.

And what about the next step!

For Peter it may be a eureka moment when a few of the team are brainstorming, it may be to develop a new product range but only when Ability Projects has consolidated its position in the marketplace and taken full advantage of all the recent improvements it has made.

All component must be in-house

ABILITY Projects has a healthy order book. However, as is usual it is able to build only about 20% of this, says Peter Lowther.

The company cannot give a completion date on any order - or even build it into its production schedule - unless all the components, especially those which are to be 'free issued', such as the controls, are at the factory.

'Before we operated this system, there were occasions where the lack of components meant we had to send the workforce home, even though the order book was full. The margins on fan coil units are tight enough so no company can do this too often without it having a detrimental effect.'

When control systems were simpler, it was often the fan coil unit manufacturer who was made responsible for both purchasing and fitting the controls package.

Peter says that often Ability will seek permission from the client to talk to the controls company directly instead of through its contractor customer so that it knows first hand what is happening with the components.

The ratio has now changed. Instead of 80% of controls being ordered by the fan coil unit manufacturer and 20% by the contractor, the opposite is now the norm.

During the last 10 years, the increasing complexity of controls packages meant they were best left in the hands of experts.

Peter says that with the new universal BacNet system, there is an opportunity for fan coil companies such as Ability to start taking back the ordering of controls. He is already talking to a couple of controls houses, which use BacNet, about specific controls for his units as they will be able to communicate with the BMS via BacNet.

EC fans: the next step

ABILITY Projects is now on its second generation of EC-driven fans.
'In 2002 Ability Projects was a finalist in an Environmental Initiative Award with its EC-driven fan coil.'

Peter Lowther, managing director, says they worked well but were expensive and therefore difficult to sell.

Nevertheless, he adds: 'Until nine months or a year ago, only Ability and one other manufacturer saw EC-driven fan coils as the next step.'

Now, Peter says 50% of his firm's output is EC.

'We believed as far back as 2002 that EC-drive was the inevitable way forward.'

Because Peter and his team have always believed in EC-driven fans, they have been working on refining their products. So while most others are still getting to grips with EC, Ability has taken it to the next step - the Matrix.

'Virtually every control system has available 0 - 10V outputs which will drive valves and suchlike but it will also control the speed of an EC fan.' Previously remote adjustment of an AC fan coil fan speed was expensive and complicated, maintains Peter.

'Now, for the sake of one more wire and very little extra expense, speed control can be infinite and determined remotely.

Fan coils only work at their maximum capacity for a very short period of the year.

'Therefore, I suggest to building designers that they could size their fan coils on say 85% of the peak load condition and let the fans, through the BMS, take up the last 15% on the very hottest of days. It may well go against conventional thinking to design this way but it does reduce both energy and material consumption.'

Also, this will save on the capital costs of the project which will more than pay for the additional costs associated with the EC fan.

'So the next step for designers striving for energy efficiency is to take these EC products from Ability and use these features and functions in their designs and take advantage of the energy saving benefits they offer.'

Previously, in a unit with, for instance, three fans, they would all work at the same speed.

'Now, we can control each fan individually.'

Normally, the fans blow into a common discharge plenum which is connected to the ductwork, explains Peter.

'To effect a balance between the ducts, volume control dampers shut down the air in the ducts with least resistance so that all the connected ducts give the same air volume.'

Peter says this means all fans in a conventional fan coil have to work harder to deal with the worst case resistance with the flow in the other ducts being mechanically restricted.

With the Matrix fan coil, using Ability's controller through the BMS, each of the fans works independently but only hard enough to maintain the correct volume flow in the duct it is connected to.

Now, says Peter, the fans need operate only as fast as they have to.

1 April 2007


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