From Polaroids to Robots:
A Snapshot of SANI-VAC Service's 40 Years in Business

 

Sanivac Celebrates 40 Years in Business

 

By Mary Kremposky,
Associate Editor CAM Magazine

 

President and Owner John H. Line, III, ASCS, CECS began Sani-Vac Service, Inc. in 1975 with the help of only an assistant and one door-to-door salesman. The then residential furnace and ductwork cleaning company used the best technology of its day for inspection and documentation: a Polaroid camera. Fast-forward 40 years and this Warren-based business is now the go-to commercial and industrial ductwork and exhaust system cleaning company in Michigan. Virtually every major hospital system in Michigan, not to mention an assortment of high-tech firms and a broad cross-section of universities, enlists the expertise of this long-lived firm now with a staff of 50 and a full arsenal of state-of-the art equipment.

 

The company, the equipment and the ductwork cleaning industry have been completely transformed over the course of the last 40 years. Toss the retro Polaroid and its successor - a cable with camera attachments - for robots of increasingly smaller size and growing sophistication. “With the ease of playing a video game, operators now guide a robot smaller than the size of a shoebox through a building’s smaller and more difficult-to-access ductwork,” said Line.

 

The ductwork and air conveyance cleaning industry itself has gone from the ugly duckling of the HVAC world to an industry now commonly specified by architects and engineers. “One of the things that has changed in the last 40 years is there has been a major acceptance of the need to clean ductwork by engineers and architects,” said Jim Sica, Sani-Vac business partner and marketing specialist. “They are specifying it now, which was not the case for a long time.”

 

Today, the ductwork and air conveyance cleaning industry plays a crucial role in both hospital infection control and in quality control for the high-tech sector’s data and cleanrooms. Sani-Vac is heavily engaged in both sectors, being one of the few firms in Michigan with the expertise to successfully tackle these specialty environments.

 

Air Handling Unit

 

FRESH AIR FOR MAHOGANY ROW

Commercial and industrial duct cleaning first took root in the automotive industry, said Sica. As a budding company and member of Union Local 80, Sani-Vac hit pay dirt cleaning up the actual dirt in the ductwork of automotive plants and offices throughout southeastern Michigan.

 

Sani-Vac has cleaned such signature facilities as Ford Motor Company’s Research and Engineering Building. In 2014, Sani-Vac cleaned the entire air conveyance system in Ford’s historic Powertrain Operations Engine Engineering Building (POEE). Built in 1925, the facility was the heart and soul of invention in the early days of Ford’s automotive empire.

 

Closed in 2008, Ford Motor Company initially considered either selling the 365,404- square-foot building to The Henry Ford or tearing it down. William Ford, Jr. and Ford Motor Company’s new CEO, Mark Fields, ultimately elected to renovate the building and preserve its storied past. “I commend Ford Motor Company for resurrecting this unique and beautiful building,” said Line.

 

As part of its rich history, the building houses Mahogany Row, a wood-lined enclave containing the offices of Henry Ford and his team of Ford executives. “The engineering area of the building even has a column that Henry Ford and his executive team used to mark their heights,” said Line. “Today, it is preserved under a 12-inch square piece of glass placed over that part of the column.”

 

Supply Fan Before and After Cleaning

At the POEE Building, Sani-Vac “cleaned the entire air conveyance system, including 11,600 linear feet of ductwork, 111 variable air volume boxes and five large air handling units,” said Line. “Two 575-ton chillers in the powerhouse supply chilled water to all of the air handling units.”

 

Line compares the air handling unit to the heart of the air conveyance system, while the ductwork is the feeder “veins” supplying vital air to the facility. “If you are going to clean an air conveyance system, you must include the air handling units, because if you don’t clean the ‘heart’ you might as well not clean the ‘veins,’” said Line.

 

Laboring in a shuttered building and working on the very systems that provide heating, air-conditioning and ventilation, the Sani-Vac crew did not have the benefit of operational air handling systems. “The systems were not up and running, so we had no conditioned air,” recalled Line, “but all the steam pipes that still ran through the building created an immense amount of heat.” With interior temperatures soaring into the upper 90s, crews were well supplied with refreshment stands and fans during the day. “We also had several crews working in the building every evening for four months,” added Line.

 

Working under direct contract with Ford Motor Company, Sani-Vac launched the cleaning of the air conveyance system in May 2014 and finished in August 2014. The team of Roncelli, Inc., Sterling Heights, and DiClemente Siegel Design, Inc., Southfield, then renovated the entire building. The renovation is one of 12 award-winning projects that will be profiled in CAM Magazine’s upcoming October 2015 Special Issue.

 

AN INCREDIBLE SURGE IN ACTIVITY

Sani-Vac’s recent work also includes cleaning the entire floor plenum of La-ZBoy, Inc.’s new world headquarters in Monroe, another CAM Magazine award winning Special Issue project by the team of Rudolph/ Libbe, Inc., Plymouth, MI and Walbridge, OH, and The Collaborative, Ann Arbor and Toledo, OH.

 

Sani-Vac is also cleaning the ductwork for Wayne State University’s new Multidisciplinary Biomedical Research Building now under construction by Barton Malow/Brinker and designed by Harley Ellis Devereaux. “Because the Biomedical Research Building is going to be a LEED certified building, there was automatically a three- to four-page duct cleaning spec included in the project,” said Line.

 

Sani-Vac is seemingly everywhere, including at the recent jobsite of Bedrock Real Estate Services’ Chase Tower aka “the Qube,” a downtown Detroit building numbering a Quicken Loans office and a WXYZ studio among its tenants. In addition, Greektown Casino’s installation of new air handling units led to yet another large ductwork cleaning project for Sani- Vac. Past projects also include plenum cleaning at Quicken Loans’ Compuware offices and work at the Detroit Medical Center Cardiovascular Institute, as well as for Perrigo Pharmaceuticals in Holland, MI.

 

Clearly, Sani-Vac is experiencing an accelerated burst of business activity. “The work in the last six months to a year has been incredible,” said Line. In fact, the only strain is securing a sufficient number of operators to do the work. Applicants must pass background and drug tests in order to work in healthcare settings and at night in a variety of facilities. Training-wise, module study and on-the-job training typically takes three months.

 

THE 1980s: A COMPANY AND INDUSTRY ARE BORN

Working in his family’s HVAC business was the beginning of Line’s own training. “I am a third generation heating and air-conditioning contractor,” said Line. “My grandfather and my father first worked for Holland Furnace Company, a manufacturer of cast iron gravity furnaces, in the 1940s to the 1960s.”

 

Line launched his own company shortly after attending Macomb Community College for climate control technology and business. After working in the residential arena for five years, Line took the road less traveled. In 1982, he established a commercial and industrial duct cleaning and kitchen exhaust system business, then one of only a handful of firms in that side of the industry. “There were probably only two, maybe three, companies in commercial and industrial work,” said Line. Even today, duct cleaning companies in this sector number only 10 to 12 versus roughly a hundred in the residential side of the industry.

 

Line launched his business at an opportune time. The Energy Crisis led to tighter buildings, and in some cases, Sick Building Syndrome, a term originally coined in a 1984 World Health Organization report. The Environmental Protection Agency began to focus on indoor air quality, creating a stronger wave of social and market forces that helped to push duct cleaning from the back burner to the forefront of consumer concerns.

 

By 1989, the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA) was formed and began to establish professional standards for the nascent industry. Line even served on its Board of Directors for six years in the ‘90s. “NADCA started as a membership organization, before progressing from membership to worker certification programs and standards setting,” said Line. “Actual specifications then came from these standards.”

 

Back at Sani-Vac’s office, the staff grew from three to 10, and the company secured the first of many showcase projects, including the Fox Theater in Detroit. Inspecting the shuttered theater’s air conveyance system, Line discovered vintage air handlers with leather fan belts, as well as some stretches of ductwork clogged with four to five inches of dirt, dust and debris. “We ran into areas of ductwork where we had to shovel out the dirt before we actually cleaned the ducts,” recalled Line. “They kept a great deal of the existing ductwork, but they naturally had to modify some of the ductwork to fit the new HVAC units.”

 

Because of Sani-Vac’s work, everyone can breathe easier in such gems as the Detroit Music Hall and the Detroit Institute of Arts. In fact, Sani-Vac has been involved in virtually every major DIA project over the past few decades. “We recently finished a project for the DIA’s Detroit Film Theater,” said Sica.

 

HEALTHCARE SPECIALISTS: SWITCHING COURSE IN THE '90s

The staple or bread-and-butter projects of the ‘80s were skewed heavily towards the auto industry. “We were probably about 80 percent automotive in the early days,” said Line. “The percentages are now reversed, with automotive being 20 percent of our business and healthcare, schools and universities being 80 percent.”

 

As the auto industry “wobbled” in the early ‘90s recession, Sani-Vac switched course and developed a strong portfolio of hospital, nursing home and other healthcare projects. The company then began working in K-12 schools, but “as the economy tightened, school funding dwindled,” recalled Line. “Since universities are funded differently, we entered the higher education market.”

 

Sica’s marketing and sales savvy aided Sani-Vac in establishing a foothold and now a stronghold in these new territories. “Jim is a very big part of the growth of this company,” said Line. “We’ve grown immensely since he came aboard in 1994.”

 

Fox Theater Project

Today, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and other institutions of higher learning are strong clients. Sani-Vac’s customer base in the healthcare arena ranges from West Michigan’s Spectrum, St. Mary’s, Metro Health and Holland Hospital to Munson Hospital in Traverse City and Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey. “We also just did multiple jobs at Mercy Hospital in Grayling, and we have worked at War Memorial Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie,” said Sica. “We do healthcare work statewide. It is really a specialty that not many duct cleaners do.”

 

Some ductwork cleaners steer clear of working in healthcare facilities, because of the added complexity and liability. “You have to be able to sit down with infectious control nurses and put together a project to protect patients, but still get the job done within the facility department’s budget,” said Sica.

 

Sani-Vac has years of experience in blocking cross-contamination in healthcare environments through the use of HEPA filtration, containment cubes under negative pressure, and other strategies. “To avoid cross contamination, we also have to clean equipment very carefully in transporting it from one area of the hospital to another,” added Sica.

 

Sani-Vac cleans both existing and new ductwork. “Hospitals will ask us to come in and clean their brand new ductwork before they occupy procedure rooms, patient rooms, and other sensitive areas,” said Line, “because sometimes ductwork is used for temporary heating during construction, and even when it’s not, it’s virtually impossible to keep it clean.”

 

SURVIVING 2008

Sani-Vac’s success continued into the new millennium. One large project was cleaning the ductwork at Detroit Metropolitan Airport’s North Terminal. Sani-Vac’s 12- person team successfully navigated working in an active international airport and under the tight security conditions imposed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

 

In general, demand surged for duct cleaning services in this time period as consumer awareness grew even more strongly and spilled over into the commercial arena. “Once an afterthought undertaken only in the event of a budget surplus, companies began to actually budget for duct cleaning,” said Sica. “More companies began leaning toward preventive maintenance rather than waiting until ducts become plugged or dirt drifted down from the ceiling.”

 

Although demand dipped, Sani-Vac weathered the fierce recession of 2008, because as a specialty company, it could survive on the preventative maintenance, smaller projects and modest renovations available at the time. As capital budgets shriveled and demand for new construction died on the vine, Sani-Vac actually continued to slowly grow during the recession. “We’ve grown almost every year,” said Line.

 

Sani-Vac’s success over four decades is grounded in its impeccable customer service and attention to detail. “We never leave anybody dissatisfied,” declares Sica. Other ingredients in Sani-Vac’s “recipe for success” include investment in both people and equipment. “I have always believed, and I still believe, that the only way I am going to be successful is to surround myself with good people,” said Line, “and I think I have done that well. The key to success in business is to hire good people; they make our customers happy no matter what it takes.”

 

Equipment investment includes the use of robotics for inspecting, cleaning and sealing lined ductwork. “Because of computer technology, the robotics equipment has become more high-tech, as well as smaller and smarter,” said Sica. Line paints a “then and now” picture of a duct cleaner’s tools of the trade: “In the past, we used a large TV monitor that was difficult to work with. The operator can now run the robot through the ductwork by holding a small-screen monitor in the hand and controlling the robot’s movements with a joy stick. The technology has come a long way.”

 

Today’s robotic equipment has multiple cameras that zoom and swivel. These amazing miniature machines also have lighting systems, rotary brushes and other brush adaptors, and an air viper that allows the operator to run compressed air tools off of the robot. This versatile little R2D2 of ductwork even has the ability to spray and seal the inside of an insulated duct. A common practice in commercial buildings of the 1970s was to line the ductwork with fiberglass to improve the system’s thermal and acoustical properties. “Now they are finding that this insulation breaks down,” said Sica, “so if they can’t replace the internally lined ductwork, then we can seal it with a latex-based sealer registered by the EPA.”

 

Despite their marvels, robots are only used in select applications. “If the building’s ductwork is large enough, my crew will still crawl in and clean it,” said Line. “That is the most efficient, thorough way to clean ductwork. Robotic technology can be used for duct inspection and sealing in duct of any size, but it is used to clean only smaller ductwork.”

 

THE HIGH-TECH MARKETPLACE OF 2015

As Sani-Vac enters the second decade of the 21st Century, Line is seeing a resurgence of automotive work, continued work in the healthcare sectors, and the emergence of more projects in high-tech industries. “We have all these high-tech industries in Michigan,” said Sica. “These industries are manufacturing under such tight specifications, and they have such extensive cleanroom systems, that they can’t have any ‘dirt’ or particulate at all in these areas. It would adversely impact their manufacturing process and their products. There is also renewed interest on the industrial side in duct cleaning, particularly in plants where dirt blowing out of their ductwork would also impact their equipment and product.”

 

Sani-Vac has successfully navigated the sometimes rough waters of the past 40 years. From the automotive downturn to the Great Recession and back again, Sani-Vac has handled it all, and has created a company that provides a valuable service to a wide range of owners and to the entire construction industry.