By Bert Brown
In business, it can be good to think outside the box. The thing to keep in mind, however, is the importance of knowing when to venture forth with new ideas and when to keep things simple. In self-storage, the area of climate control should remain uncomplicated. While the heating and cooling of buildings may seem like a no-brainer, events can turn to trouble when “simple” is removed from the equation.
Let me relate a story to demonstrate how seemingly ingenious schemes can quickly turn to disaster. Most everyone has had at least one close encounter at which they look back in wonder at having escaped without the loss of life or limb. For me, the first such incident occurred when I was about 8 years old.
Like most of my near-death antics, this one took place with my brother, five years my junior, at my side. We grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, in what most would consider the country. Our father kept a garden, and every spring before tilling the soil, he would burn off the remnants of the previous year’s growth. I was captivated by his annual ritual. And during this particular year, after hearing my father remark to my mother about his plans to burn off the garden, I was eager to help.
With my little brother in tow and my father away at work, I began planning the job. The same ingenuity that caused me to disassemble my presents before my parents awoke on Christmas morning must have been what led me to use my father’s sprayer for the easy application of gas to start the fire. While my father traditionally used a cup or two of gasoline to start it, I must have used several gallons. I ignited the garden by throwing a lit newspaper, just as I had seen him do. The plot burst into quick flame and went out. My 8-year-old mind theorized that I must need more gas!
I renewed my efforts with the sprayer; and all was fine until I lit upon one small, smoldering twig. Suddenly, I was desperately running for safety, pulling my little brother through walls of fire. The smell of burnt hair is something you never forget. Neither is the memory of your brother looking up at you with big, buggy eyes, eyebrows singed and hair frizzled to a powder.
At that point, I remembered the pressurized metal gas can was still in the burning garden. Thinking of it as a bomb that would level the house and maybe the neighbors, I dashed back and grabbed it. Later, I buried it deep in the woods to hide the evidence. Surprisingly, I never heard a word about it from my parents. Perhaps one thought the other had taken the task (though I have no idea what they thought of my brother’s eyebrows and hair!). I managed to escape with my life and without reprimand. But looking back, had I just kept it simple, the experience could have been far less terrifying.
The Importance of Trained Professionals
The most common problem in climate- controlled self-storage facilities is a failure to keep things simple. HVAC systems are often over-engineered, making them inefficient and expensive to maintain. A properly designed system can provide a significant return to a site developer by decreasing his initial investment as well as operating and maintenance expenses. Increasing profits by decreasing overhead will have direct and positive impact on the overall value of a project.
The simplicity of climate control must start with a qualified HVAC contractor or engineer. Unfortunately, many architects, engineers and contractors lack the skill and knowledge to properly calculate loads and size equipment for the varying needs of self-storage. While many contractors are experienced in installing a typical residential or commercial system based on rules of thumb, many are not qualified to engineer a system specific to our industry. A qualified professional will be familiar with ACCA (Air Conditioning Contractors of America) Manual N, commercial load calculations, which covers important principles such as heat transfer, R-values, U-values, air infiltration and lighting as well as physical characteristics of a structure.
Consider All Angles
In a little town in north Georgia is a house my family sold to the Atlanta Historical Society some years ago. It served as a hospital to Union troops during their march to burn Atlanta in the Civil War. I recently visited the house for a family get-together on an extremely hot, humid day. While there, I could not help but notice how comfortable it was inside. While the house had no form of air conditioning, it was a comfortable retreat from the miserable Southern heat. Much thought had been put into its design. The builder had learned by the art of trade to consider common wind and weather conditions, landscaping and tree coverage, and characteristics of the structure that could contribute to creating the most comfortable environment possible.
In self-storage, it is important developers ensure similar consideration is given to the HVAC design during project development. While finding a qualified person to complete the Manual N load calculation is a first step, it is equally important the designer be familiar with the needs of your particular site. Be sure to clearly define the desired result. Even if the engineer professes experience in the industry, don’t assume he is familiar with the unique requirements of climate-controlled storage.
Climate Control for Marketing
Climate-controlled storage is not defined by a constant, maintained temperature. The typical range is from 55 degrees to 83 degrees. The purpose of climate control is to eliminate the exposure of stored goods to extreme climactic changes in the environment. Of course, any operator can change this temperature range to suit a specific marketing purpose.
One example of this might be in the case of pharmaceutical clients. Some of these tenants’ products have a limited temperature range for storage. You might want to accommodate these customers by narrowing your defined temperature window in some units. Take into consideration, however, whether doing so will drastically affect your utility expenses and if the revenue generated will justify the increase. If so, the temperature adjustment might serve as a promotional tool to satisfy a specific market.
For some operators, humidity is the most important and challenging condition. As a general defining rule, a storage building’s relative humidity should be kept below 50 percent to deter mold and mildew growth. A variety of people and goods will be moving through the facility and, coupled with air movement, that could introduce mold spores to the environment. While this cannot be avoided, a well-maintained facility will sustain proper humidity levels, controlling the moisture on which mold thrives.
A significant issue yet to be discussed is air-handling. Because of the wide temperature range used in self-storage, it is very common to over-engineer the duct work for conditioned and return air. This is a common area of unnecessary expense, as minor temperature changes—hot or cold spots—should not be of great concern. Remember, the desired result is simply to keep all areas within the acceptable temperature range.
However, do not overlook the need for air movement throughout the entire area. Most industry partitioning and hallway systems provide gaps that allow air circulation—usually a typical 8-inch gap between the hallway and divider system and ceiling. These gaps should be noted and used for air circulation in the facility design. Air-handling is paramount in controlling humidity.
While many residential homes require 1 ton (12,000 BTU) of cooling capacity for every 700 square feet, self-storage usually requires 1 ton per 1,200 to 1,500 square feet. (This is only a general rule of thumb.) When you downsize the HVAC unit, it must move a greater volume of air. This requires longer, fewer cycles, which are less burdensome on the equipment, helping to extend its life and minimize maintenance. The greater volume of air also allows more moisture to be removed during the cycle period, allowing better dehumidification. Finally, because more power is required to start and charge the system during every cycle, a typical HVAC unit is more efficient when operating 70 percent of the time during run season.
At the Very Least
For most developers, this is very rudimentary information. The premise behind it is you can achieve desired results via extremely simple means. A system can be straightforward in conception, so long as it has balance in its design.
By defining the requirements for climate-controlled self-storage to a qualified mechanical engineer or contractor, you are shaping a crucial part of the project success. There is a substantial return to be realized in the planning of the mechanical system. The designer should provide you many options, but once he understands the desired result, decisions will be fewer and of lesser consequence.
When I was eight, I achieved my goal and burned off the garden. While I escaped serious injury, the methods and equipment I used demonstrated my inexperience and poor judgment. I placed myself at a greater risk than necessary. At best, I should have been older and wiser; at the very least, I should have kept it simple.
Bert Brown is director of marketing for Janus International Corp., which manufactures a complete line of storage-facility components, ranging from roll-up sheet doors to self-supporting hallway systems. For more information, call 770.562.2850; visit www.janusintl.com.