AIRVAC Turns 40

AIRVAC was a tiny company with only a handful of employees when Mark Jones came aboard in 1972. Three years later, in 1975, he was the only employee.

Jones, a mechanical engineer fresh out of Purdue University, was all alone for several months in 1975 as the company teetered on the brink of extinction. Few seemed interested in vacuum sewers. Gravity, after all, worked just fine. There were flaws in the new technology and AIRVAC’s parent company was in financial trouble. Furthermore, a recession was crippling the national economy.

Today, 40 years later, AIRVAC is thriving. Revenue has skyrocketed and there are more than 300 AIRVAC vacuum sewer systems in the United States, as well as 600-plus AIRVAC systems worldwide.

“Yes, things are quite a bit different than they were in 1975,” said Jones, who, today, is the president of the company with more than 80 employees.

The history of AIRVAC is a study of people and persistence, education and innovation and solid Midwestern values. It’s about hard work over many years. It is the story of a better mousetrap, and what it takes to convince people that the new mousetrap is better.

In the Beginning

The story of AIRVAC goes all the way back to 1969 when National Homes Co. acquired Burton Plumbing and Heating (BPH) of Rochester, Ind., one of the largest mechanical contractors in the United States at that time. BPH president Bryce Burton traveled to Europe and discovered a new sewer technology by the Electrolux company. National Homes Co. purchased the rights to sell the technology in the United States, from Electrolux. The company was called Sanivac, and Burton was put in charge. About a year later, Burton would go into semi-retirement and move to the Bahamas. Sanivac was left primarily in the hands of a few individuals who began to study the hydraulics of a vacuum system.

The European version of vacuum sewer technology was quite different than the vacuum systems we now see in America. The Electrolux system was a two-pipe “black-and-gray water” design, not the one-pipe system common in the United States. There were also problems with the vacuum valve apparatus and system hydraulics. While a good idea in theory, the practical application of vacuum sewers left much to be desired.
Realizing its need to reinvent the technology, in 1971 NHC changed the company’s name from Sanivac to AIRVAC and decided to pursue the one-pipe idea.

“The market in America was quite different than it was in Europe,” explained Jones. “If we were to succeed in America, we needed a one-pipe system. So we started doing some research into various types of valves. We eventually discovered the best option was a 3-in. wye-body valve with upper and lower housings that is similar to the one we use today. Scott Paper Co. in Mobile, Ala., was the first AIRVAC project in 1972. Later that same year, a municipal system in Martingham, Md., was completed. Both projects used hand-made 3-in. wye body valves with brass controllers. From 1972 to 1973, we stayed busy drawing, molding and fabricating valve prototypes. The first true AIRVAC valve, with a controller made by Johnson Controls, was developed in 1973.”

With a new name and improved valve, the company was able to secure a few more jobs. AIRVAC was off and running, but the road ahead was hardly smooth.

Stumbling blocks soon appeared that almost put AIRVAC financially underground.

Moving Ahead Slowly

Anticipating rapid growth, AIRVAC manufactured 5,000 of the new valves in 1974. But in 1975 came the oil embargo and the recession. National Homes Corp., which had invested millions into AIRVAC, fell on hard times, and because the vacuum sewer business was still growing slowly, it decided to sell the company. It was during this period that Jones found himself the lone employee of AIRVAC, a distinction he would have for several months.

Re-enter Burton from his semi-retirement. Burton moved back to Rochester from the Bahamas and purchased Burton Plumbing and Heating, as well as AIRVAC, back from NHC.

Burton’s time in the Bahamas yielded an unexpected benefit. While there, he met an Englishman named Brian Foreman. Foreman had significant experience with vacuum sewers in the Bahamas and Burton tapped him to become AIRVAC’s new general manager and chief engineer. Foreman and Jones would re-develop the collection line hydraulics and create the patented “saw tooth profile” that would allow for much longer vacuum mains and shallower installation depths, two pivotal AIRVAC features.

Equipped with a more functional valve, a more effective liquid transport method and greater support in the home office, Jones began a sojourn that would last nearly seven years.

“From 1978 until about 1984, I really didn’t live anywhere,” quipped Jones. “I traveled around to jobsites to consult on installations and troubleshoot.”

The business model of having an AIRVAC technician available for all installations continues today and is an important reason AIRVAC’s customer service ratings are consistently high.

Innovation & Education

One of the things Jones discovered in his travels was that the AIRVAC controller, which is made up of a sensor and switching device, was not reliable. The faulty controller caused problems and required frequent maintenance and repair. In 1980, AIRVAC hired engineer John Grooms, who was tasked with designing a better controller. After more than two years of work, AIRVAC unveiled a new watertight control unit that worked flawlessly and required no electricity. Developing a highly reliable controller was the final piece of the puzzle. AIRVAC now had a system that was easy to install, extremely efficient and simple to maintain.

Another important milestone came in mid-1980s when AIRVAC began designing and installing skid-mounted vacuum pumps. Prior to that time, the company had only provided specifications for vacuum station equipment and relied on consulting engineers and contractors to design and install them. In 1986, Spyglass, Md., was the first municipality to install a predesigned, skid-mounted vacuum station designed and sold by AIRVAC. The company was now providing complete systems, from the home to the vacuum pit to the vacuum station.

It was during the 1980s that AIRVAC began selling international licenses to install its patented technology. In 1987, it sold a license agreement to Ebara Corp., a Japanese company and one of the world’s largest pump manufacturers. Ebara liked the technology so much that it purchased AIRVAC a year later. Through the relationship with Ebara came people like Tom LaHue, who would later become AIRVAC’s international sales manager, Yoji Yuki and Sam Hirano, who both served the company as president.

In 1990, another key player joined the AIRVAC team — Rich Naret. Naret, P.E., was initially hired to run the AIRVAC office in Tampa, Fla., but he was quickly elevated to national sales manager, and later, vice president. He came to the company with vast vacuum sewer experience. For 10 years Naret had worked with Cerrone and Associates, a leading civil engineering firm that had designed and installed nearly a dozen AIRVAC systems. Naret’s experience with the technology so impressed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the EPA asked him to author the chapter on vacuum sewers in its technical manual on alternative sewer systems. Naret later authored the vacuum chapter of the Water Environment Federation Manual of Practice on alternative sewer systems and remains one of the leading authorities on vacuum sewers in the United States.

The 1990s were a period of strong growth for AIRVAC, as the company installed nearly 100 new systems in the United States during the decade. In 2000, Jones was named president. In 2005, Ebara sold AIRVAC to Bilfinger Berger, a multi-billion dollar international company based in Germany. By the end of 2010, revenue was more than ten-fold what it was in 1990.

AIRVAC views the previous 40 years as a mere prelude to growth they anticipate in the coming years. Engineers now embrace vacuum technology as an effective sewer solution in many circumstances. Cost-savings, ease of installation and easy maintenance make it a favorite of public works directors. AIRVAC sewers also provide a high degree of environmental protection, a benefit that becomes more important every year. Add AIRVAC’s experience, their continuing support of their clients and their core Midwest values and it is easy to see why this is a winning combination.

Steve Gibbs is a freelance writer in Memphis, Tenn., with 25 years of experience covering wastewater collection technologies.

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