Hot and Cold: Shop Climate Equipment

Hot and Cold: Shop Climate Equipment

Let's face it, being a technician has its good points, and its bad. When you solve a problem for a customer that gets them back on the road, that's a good day. Knowing that you can fix things that most people don't even understand is nice. Standing in a shop that is 100 degrees with sweat trickling down your back and pooling in your boxers ... well, that's not so nice! (To say the least!) Or how about standing in a shop that is 25 degrees, with feet like blocks of ice - if you can feel them at all!? Also not so nice.

Let’s face it, being a technician has its good points, and its bad. When you solve a problem for a customer that gets them back on the road, that’s a good day. Knowing that you can fix things that most people don’t even understand is nice. Standing in a shop that is 100° with sweat trickling down your back and pooling in your boxers…well, that’s not so nice! (To say the least!) Or how about standing in a shop that is 25°, with feet like blocks of ice — if you can feel them at all!? Also not so nice. But there are many ways to be more comfortable at work. The following is a summary of approaches that you and your shop can take to control the comfort of the environment that you spend your days (and sometimes nights) working in.

Shop Heating

You’ve heard all the funny sayings to describe improbable things, like selling ice cubes to Eskimos or blankets to the devil. Well, this first section is going to seem a lot like that. Why, you ask, am I talking to you about heating when its 9 million degrees outside? Well, if you can take a break from frying eggs on the pavement, I will tell you my logic.

This article is designed to help the shop owner and technician choose methods and products to correct or improve the climate in their shop. The way I figure it, depending on what part of the country you are in, you have already started to see some relief from the heat or you are experiencing the absolute hottest part of the year. Either way, I am going to talk to you about heaters first, so that if you experience especially cold winters where you are, you will have time to make plans to modify, design or purchase the system that will keep you warm during those bitter winter months. For the rest of you who don’t care about or need the information about heaters, your reward will come later, as I talk about how to cool off the shop.

There are a few different ways to heat a shop. The method you ultimately choose will depend on several factors including budget, cubic feet of air you need to heat, weather conditions, geographic location, power supply, number of technicians, building construction, availability of fuel and a host of other factors.

Let’s start with a general categorization of heat sources and then we can narrow that down. Each of these will be familiar to you, so I won’t spend much time on defining them.

Electric Heat — This method of shop heating is generally the most expensive and the least effective. The only exception to this can be small space heaters used to warm the work area of a single technician for small periods of time. Small electric space heaters do offer low cost, extreme portability and small size. All of these are great assets and can make electric space heaters a viable solution in the condition listed above.

Non-Electric (combustion) Heat — This group of heat sources, while using different methods and fuels, has one characteristic in common: they all use an ignition source, as well as a fuel of some sort that burns and, in turn, creates heat.

The combustion-style heaters fall in to two main groupings and then they are further categorized by several other characteristics. I am going to start from the highest view of identifying these and then work my way down to the finer points.

It is important to decide if your shop needs permanently mounted heat sources or portable devices. This will be determined mostly by the frequency of use and the amount of cold weather that your area gets.

Permanently installed heaters are the most expensive initially, but will be much cheaper to operate in the long run. Portable units are considerably less expensive up front, but cost much more to operate in the long term. When trying to decide what makes better sense for your situation, talk to your distributor or equipment dealer. They can show you charts that calculate ROI. These will calculate several things, one of the most important being cost per BTU. BTUs are British Thermal Units, and this is how heating capacity is expressed and calculated.

Portable heaters come is several different sizes, shapes and heating capabilities. The least ­expensive heaters are radiant-style, propane-powered units. These small units are very effective although not the most efficient. The real beauty of these heaters is their ease of use, portability and, of course, low cost. The only requirement is a 20-lb. propane cylinder and about 5 minutes of set-up time. The down side to these small units is that their effectiveness is limited to a very small area. They can provide heat for a single technician in an area approximately 25 square feet. While better than no heat at all, the entry-level units are just that. 

Still in the portable propane family, there are larger units that also feature the benefit of quick set-up, and portability, but can heat larger spaces. The downside to these “mid range” propane heat sources is that they consume fuel relatively quickly and therefore are not a great choice for heating large spaces for an extended ­period of time.

The largest and most effective portable heaters are called torpedo heaters for their distinctive shape. These heaters are also known for their distinctive and irritating sound, which is just slightly quieter than a 747 jet engine. These heaters are the workhorses of portable heating. They are extremely flexible — the newer equipment is able to run on a host of different fuel sources including diesel fuel, kerosene and propane. If you need a portable heat source and can’t afford an installed heat solution, these are probably your best choice. These heaters generate a large amount of BTUs and because of their design, you can direct the heat source more accurately and precisely than with some of the radiant heat sources.

Fixed Installation Heat

For this discussion, there are really only two main types of permanently installed heat. The distinction between the two is fuel source. The first group, which I will call the conventional group, uses either LPG (Liquid Propane Gas) or natural gas as its fuel source. The choice here will be dictated by fuel availability. If your town has natural gas lines available, that will be your choice. If not, you will have to rely on a “bottle” for your gas supply.

These systems are relatively simple to operate, but will require an HVAC contractor to help with selection, installation and initial start-up. This process will take several weeks from start to finish so it’s time to be thinking about installing heat now while it is still hot outside. The same suppliers that build and offer the small radiant heaters and portable units also offer larger, installed heat systems for garages. If you’re happy with the operation and reliability of the small heater you’ve been using, look into that company to see if they can help with a larger and more permanent heat solution.

The second grouping of heaters is one that will make sense to many garages, environmentalists and penny pinchers! Waste oil heating systems are just what the name implies. They make heat by burning waste oil. OK, so let’s think about this a minute, what do vehicle repair facilities generate a lot of? Yes, WASTE OIL! It’s a marriage made in heaven. You do oil changes all year long, and collect waste oil. In the past, this was a financial burden: you had to arrange for a waste oil hauler to pick it up every month. You have to track it and report on it; it’s generally a pain in the butt. What if you could take that same waste oil, and turn it into fuel to heat your garage all winter? Yes Virginia, there is an Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy! Oh…and yes, you can heat your shop with a free fuel source.

I know, you are asking: “What’s the catch?” Well there really isn’t one. The closest thing to a catch is for your shop to make the commitment and decision to invest in a waste oil heating system. Depending again on shop size, weather conditions and available budget, a waste oil heat system may be your best choice. There are some amazing benefits to your shop: savings on paying to haul waste oil, elimination of paying for heat in the winter, protection of the environment by burning the fuel in a clean system versus pumping it, hauling it, pumping it again and then either burning it or recycling it. All those activities take energy and manpower, and there is always the risk of spillage, leakage, etc.

Today’s waste oil heat systems use technology much like the catalytic converter in the cars you are used to working on. By using precious metals and super high heat, the waste oil is burned up completely, cleanly, with little or no harmful emissions to the environment, or to the people in the shop. The result is clean, efficient heat, at a lower total cost per BTU than almost every other heat source.

Now, for the fine print about waste oil heat systems. These systems are definitely more expensive initially than any of the portable heat solutions discussed earlier. They are comparable to the cost of propane/LPG systems. Just remember to evaluate total cost over a two-year period when making your final decision about which system makes the best sense for your shop.

Shop Air Circulation

Shop fans come is several sizes and configurations. They range from personal devices to cool one person, to fans with a 24’ diameter.

There are some really good small, portable fans that can provide relief on those dog days of summer. When making a buying decision on small personal fans, some things to think about: Is the fan UL/CSA listed? Does the fan have auxiliary 110V receptacles? Can the unit accommodate a heater unit for use in the winter? How long is the cord on the unit? Is it plastic? Metal? Can it be tilted for use at different angles? Does the supplier offer replacement parts? (The fan cage is a high failure item as are switches and motors.) Are these items available from the supplier? How about the warranty?

The next group of fans would include small bench top, stand-up pedestal fans, oscillating fans. All of these are still subject to the same concerns and questions listed above. One additional thing to add here is a concern for after the purchase is made. This group of products has an excessively high damage in transit rate. If you order a shop fan, DO NOT sign for it before you open the box. These items are notorious for hidden damage in shipping. It is up to the customer to check this before letting the delivery driver leave.

The final group of fans would be large “barrel style” fans. These monsters, usually on wheels, can be anywhere from 24” to 48” in diameter. These fans can be ­direct drive (fan is hooked to a motor) or belt drive. The larger the fan, the more likely it is to be belt drive. There is no real difference in reliability between the two types, and the belt life on these can range into the years.

Fans are a great solution for many shops, especially in parts of the country where the ambient temperature doesn’t reach triple digits.

Evaporative Cooling
This is one of my favorite subjects to talk about. At heart I am like Bill Nye the Science Guy, and evaporative cooling is all about science, and maybe just a little black magic. About a zillion years ago, the Egyptians would take Papyrus reeds, stretch them across a door opening and drip water across the reeds. Voila! Evaporative cooling. So here is the 411 on evaporative cooling: Air molecules contain heat. One way to remove that heat is via evaporation. Evaporative cooling combines water with a fan to accomplish this. Simply put: as water evaporates, it “pulls” the heat out of the surrounding air. The result is cooler air coming from the coolers. (Please, no letters, I know I over-simplified the process, but really, no one cares as long as the air is cool coming out of the fan!)

So out of respect to the tech geeks who are reading this, the one way that evaporative cooling can become less effective is with an environment that has excessive humidity. So, if you live in areas where humidity approaches the high 90s, evaporative cooling will be much less effective than in other parts of the country.

OK, so much for the fine print! Back to the program in progress. Evaporative coolers range from small units with self-contained water tanks, to 48” behemoths that require the connection of a water hose to provide water to the unit. The choice, like many of the other items above, will be dictated by cost, space and needs.

Evaporative coolers provide some of the best value for dollar spent in terms of technician comfort. I live in perhaps the wettest and hottest part of the country (Central Florida) and we still see relief from the use of portable evaporative coolers. While not as large a temperature drop as you would see in Montana, it is still an improvement. In the middle of July when the standard temperatures are HOT, HOT and HOT! any relief is a great improvement.

Hopefully this has provided you with some thoughts and prompted questions for you to ask your tool dealers the next time you see them.

Try to stay cool/warm out there and take care!

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