A Breath of Fresh Air

Sept. 1, 2011
Lawrence E. Wetzel, PE, Chairman of the Board, Air Innovations Inc., Syracuse, N.Y.

It all started with the New York Metropolitan Opera House.

As that venerable structure was being built in the mid-1960s, Larry Wetzel, an undergraduate in the Pennsylvania State College of Engineering, looked on in awe.

“I've always had an interest in how things work,” Wetzel said. “I've always had an engineer in me. But what got me into the construction industry, and specifically the HVAC side of the industry, was the summer between my junior and senior years in college. I was working in New York City with one of the companies that was building the Metropolitan Opera House, and I was very intrigued by the amount of engineering that went into the HVAC system — not only the heating and cooling, but also noise, acoustics, vibration, and so on. I discovered that the real-world application of engineering can be very interesting.”

Wetzel rode that love of mechanical systems through a long and interesting career in the HVAC engineering field, and today, Wetzel, chairman of the board of Air Innovations Inc., Syracuse, N.Y., is the recipient of the inaugural HPAC Engineering Engineer of the Year award.

Wetzel is a professional engineer in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California and holds contractors licenses in those states as well as Florida and Virginia. He holds eight U.S. patents, with other patents pending in Europe and Canada. His 1983 design of the first packaged and modular air conditioning system for the cleanroom industry, AdvancAir, still is widely used today for environmental control of temperature, humidity, and air quality in the manufacture of semiconductors and other electronics and pharmaceuticals.

A deep interest in indoor-air quality has been a hallmark of Wetzel's career. He has authored several peer-reviewed articles and been the principal investigator in research projects totaling more than $2 million related to indoor aeroallergens and asthmatic responses in children. Not only that, he's a savvy businessman: Air Innovations was listed as the 102nd fastest-growing, privately held manufacturer in 2011 by Inc. magazine.

Wetzel's U.S. patents include those for IsolationAir, HEPAiRx, and the Wine Guardian Through-the-Wall.

IsolationAir, a portable contamination-control unit for health care and emergency preparedness, evolved after the 2001 World Trade Center bombings and the avian-flu pandemic. Wetzel's design incorporates HEPA filtration and ultraviolet lights into a portable, self-contained cabinet that can quickly change any hospital-sized patient room or emergency-preparedness space (such as a doctor's office or hotel room commandeered by the government for injury and illness overflow) into an isolation room with either positive or negative pressure.

IsolationAir prevents infectious diseases from spreading and protects immuno-compromised patients from being exposed to others' illnesses. Just as importantly, users can bring IsolationAir to patients instead of patients besieging hospitals or traveling long distances for treatment. The cost to purchase an Isolation Air unit is significantly less than the cost of a hospital building out a permanent isolation suite. Not coincidentally, Air Innovations sold its first unit to a hospital on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana that had first-hand experience with issues caused by Hurricane Katrina.

HEPAiRx is a window-mounted ventilating room air purifier for home use. It is designed to quickly dilute, filter, and reduce the indoor pollutants often cited as causes of asthma, respiratory irritations, and allergic reactions. The packaged device consists of an air-to-air heat exchanger, a HEPA filter, and an air conditioner. In clinical trials with asthmatic children in upstate New York, the window-mounted unit yielded statistically significant reductions in children's asthma symptoms.

Wine Guardian Through-the-Wall is a natural outgrowth of Wetzel's love of wine. It is designed to control temperature, air circulation, and humidity in wine cellars to protect valuable wine collections.

Before he became the chairman of the board and co-owner of Air Innovations (along with his son, Michael, who also is a professional engineer) Wetzel traveled a path familiar to many engineers: a life of learning and discovery — with some hard life lessons mixed in.

After he graduated from engineering school, the New York-based company that had been doing the work on the Metropolitan Opera House offered Wetzel a position working on a unique project in Upstate New York: a plant that was being built to process sugar from sugar beets as an alternate source of sugar after the Cuban embargo.

“There was a tremendous learning curve for a young engineer out in the field to see what worked and what didn't work and to learn some of the unintended consequences of design,” Wetzel recalled with a wry chuckle. “I could write a book about it. The plant ultimately failed for a number of reasons, but it was just one dumb mistake after another that caused me to learn very much very quickly.”

Preferring upstate New York to the city, Wetzel stayed in central New York after the sugar-beet-plant project and held various positions with two mechanical contracting firms in the Syracuse area that were doing commercial and industrial work. Little did he know he was about to be wowed again by a project that would change his destiny.

“I became involved as the mechanical contractor when the local General Electric plant built its first cleanroom,” Wetzel said. “I became really intrigued by the sophistication of the technology and the tolerances that were required to meet the performance criteria of a cleanroom. So I went off on my own and started a business called Cleanroom Technology Inc. that focused on designing and building cleanrooms for the pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries.”

The company grew very quickly and performed work for clients all over the country. Eventually, it teamed up with a French company that was manufacturing wall systems for the European cleanroom market. The French company, Clestra, eventually bought the cleanroom technology from Wetzel, and he became chairman of the company's cleanroom group.

During this time, Larry's son, Michael, went to work for Clestra in France, and Larry ultimately left the company to found a venture-capital company specializing in assisting startup businesses.

After three years in France, Michael moved back to the United States, and the wheels began turning again for the Wetzels. They purchased a company called Floratech that manufactured refrigerated display cases for floral arrangements. Using that as a base, the Wetzels began to develop new products, including small cooling units for cleanrooms. Then, in 1999, Clestra decided it wanted to exit the U.S. market, and the Wetzels were able to repurchase their original cleanroom technology from the company. That led to a burst of product-development creativity and a diversified product portfolio.

“We decided we wanted to diversify, and that's when we got into the cooling units for large walk-in private and commercial wine cellars,” Wetzel said. “Today, we're the largest and most diverse manufacturer of wine-cooler units in the United States.”

The original Floratech business now represents less than 10 percent of Air Innovations' total revenues. About 60 percent of the company's business is in original equipment manufacturing. For example, Air Innovations builds a filtration and cooling unit that is incorporated into a high-speed scanning machine used to examine checked airline baggage for explosive devices, as well as a cooling unit that goes into an automated blood analyzer used in hospitals and medical laboratories.

But these relatively high-volume items have not stopped Wetzel from being the inventive tinkerer he always has been.

“We still like to take on a couple of ‘custom’ jobs each year that are unique and that other companies don't want to be involved in,” Wetzel said. “We look for one-of-a-kind or small production runs that have a very high engineering content, and we actually have a lot of fun with those types of projects.”

Air Innovations recently completed a large order for environmental-control units for unmanned satellite launches.

“We have to control the air for the satellite and, in some cases, part of the rocket itself to very close temperature and humidity tolerances, and we have to be able to build these units over a very broad range because sometimes they're sending up electronics; other times they're sending up living organisms, biologics, pharmaceuticals, and so on,” Wetzel said. “We have to maintain very tight tolerance within the customer-specified parameters.”

As Wetzel looks back at the changes that have taken place in the field of HVAC engineering during his long career, he sees some positives and some negatives.

“The utilization of technology in our industry has been really exciting,” he said. “Software and on-board electronics have led to quality products capable of producing very close tolerances, and the ability to monitor and troubleshoot equipment via a phone or computer is very helpful.”

Some of the negatives he sees relate to the specialization of engineering curricula at the expense of social skills.

“Many engineers come out of school with adequate engineering knowledge, but they lack social skills, such as writing and communication,” Wetzel said. “They tend to think they can solve everything with a computer, and that's a mistake.”

Wetzel added that he has been greatly helped throughout his career by having a liberal arts background as well as an engineering degree.

“When I look back, I think some of my liberal arts courses — the language, writing, and logic studies — were as important to me as the engineering,” he said. “I don't think I would have been able to start and run businesses as well as I have if I did not have that background.”

Looking at the future of the industry, Wetzel — always a big proponent of the indoor-air-quality side of the industry — said he would like to see more emphasis on legislating rules and standards based on engineering facts, rather than politics.

“Just as an example, one of the problems we face today is the increasing number of upper-respiratory illnesses, such as asthma,” he said. “That's actually an unintended consequence of the energy crisis and the requirement that buildings be made tighter and tighter. I think buildings are much too tight, and people aren't breathing enough fresh air; people spend 90% of their time indoors and they are breathing too many contaminants that are generated within the building, from artificial materials such as carpeting and clothing and computers. We're not purging it. We're not cleaning the air that we're breathing.

“One of the negative consequences is that by 2009, nearly 25 million Americans had been diagnosed with asthma, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Wetzel continued. “This is nearly 7.3% more than had been diagnosed with the disease in 2001, which is a remarkable increase in such a short period of time.

“We use many artificial materials when we build, and we end up creating artificial environments and then trapping people inside them,” Wetzel added. “So I would like to see, before politicians write laws, that they have more analysis done to see what the unintended consequences might be.

“When I look forward, I hope that the energy crisis will be resolved by better utilization of whatever energy resources we have, but that, more importantly, we'll solve some of the problems people have with poor air quality, both outdoor and indoor,” Wetzel concluded.

Did you find this article useful? Send comments and suggestions to Senior Editor Ron Rajecki at [email protected].

Lawrence E. Wetzel, HPAC Engineering's 2011 Engineer of the Year, was nominated for the award by his son Michael Wetzel, PE, president, CEO, and co-owner of Air Innovations (www.airinnovations.com).

The Engineer of the Year award honors a mechanical or professional engineer engaged in HVACR or building automation who has made significant contributions to his or her company and customers, the HVACR industry, and his or her community.

For more details or to submit a nomination, contact Editorial Director Mike Weil at 216-931-9433 or [email protected]. Additional information and nomination forms are available at http://bit.ly/EofYAward.


Honesty and Custom Solutions Earn Customer Praise

Air Innovations Inc., Syracuse, N.Y., prides itself on its ability to take on difficult HVAC engineering projects and create customized solutions for its customers.

One customer is the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Susan Morrison, principal construction engineer, has high praise for the company, its products, and its chairman of the board, Larry Wetzel, PE, HPAC Engineering's 2011 Engineer of the Year.

“Air Innovations' products are fantastic for the DX-type cleanroom, where you need very precise and exact control,” Morrison said. “As long as you give their people good engineering data, you will get a piece of equipment that will work out of the box.”

Morrison said Air Innovations recently provided the Goddard Space Flight Center with what she calls a “custom-custom” piece of equipment.

“We needed a very large custom cooling and filtration unit for a very specific cleanroom application here,” she said. “But we had no way to crane the unit into the mechanical space. Air Innovations built the unit in pieces so that it could be brought up on the elevator and field-assembled. Not only was the unit customized for our cleanroom to begin with, it was further customized around our space and installation requirements.”

Wetzel and his company are honorable, honest, and straightforward, Morrison added.

“If Larry tells you he can do something, he does it, and he stands behind what he says,” she said. “If his company gives you a commitment, they live up to it. You can't ask for more than that when you're putting in a piece of custom HVAC equipment. Air Innovations' equipment is not cheap. But you don't buy it because of the cost. You buy it because of what it can do and how the company backs it up.”