FUNNY HOW ways not to make a living can ultimately come around to ways to make a living. Brian Nelson discovered that you can’t make a living as an engineer on Martha’s Vineyard, that island four miles off the coast of Massachusetts that has changed from fishing village to playground of the rich and famous. Being an engineer was more practical than playing saxophone in a bebop quintet. You can’t make a living anywhere doing that, especially not on Martha’s Vineyard. And certainly not with a wife and growing family.

So Brian Nelson became a journeyman and then a master plumber. That not only allowed him to make a living, it also gave him the good fortune of meeting his good friend, fellow master plumber Dave Sprague. They worked for a local plumbing and heating company and, after they both passed their master’s exams in 2004, they decided to go out on their own, with Brian starting Nelson Mechanical and Dave helming Mechanical Design.

Before going off on his own, Sprague had more than 10 years of experience in rough and finish commercial and residential plumbing, hydronic heating, and HVAC. He is an Accredited Installer of geothermal systems as certified by the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association.

After a year of collaborating on various projects, the two merged into Nelson Mechanical Design Inc. Together, they make up CONTRACTOR magazine’s 2010 Contractor of the Year.

They still keep separate offices, which may be part of the secret to their success.

Gauge fetish

“Our partnership has been successful because our strengths complement each other and we can stay out of each other’s way,” Nelson says. “We have separate home offices — my office has the technical literature and our [direct digital control] design and testing ‘lab’ and his office is the home base for our trucks, two apprentices, and our office manager. “

“Lab” is right. Nelson’s basement looks like the mechanical room in a commercial office building. He has DX ground source heat pumps that provide domestic hot water and radiant floor heating and cooling. One of his storage tanks can switch over to chilled water for radiant cooling. He also has a tank hooked up for solar hot water but he hasn’t put the panels on the roof yet. He admits to having a “gauge fetish” because he likes to see what’s going on in a system at all times.

Many of the company’s jobs have their control systems on the Internet so Nelson can check on their operating characteristics from home. One of his pet peeves is that many residential operating systems won’t talk to each other. For example, he and Sprague are fond of Daikin equipment, but Daikin controls won’t talk to any other controls unless you buy their pricey proprietary interface.

Nelson is a controls geek with a DDC system in his own house. The company has partnered with General Electric’s Smart Grid division and the island’s local energy non-profit Vineyard Energy Project on a 50 family “smart grid” project. Nelson Mechanical Design is installing and commissioning GE heat pump water heaters, web-based connection points to GE “smart appliances”, and GE home/grid interfaces in 50 homes across the island. The home/grid interface will communicate via the Internet with the Vineyard Energy Project and will transmit data on how the electrical load varies minute by minute.

One example is the Slavin Residence that has almost all of the GE Smart Grid features — smart appliances, a heat pump water heater, and the GE home energy interface that sends real time energy use information to the Vineyard Energy Project web server. The house has both solar thermal and photovoltaic panels on the roof. Nelson is proud that they were able to arrange for rebates to pay for enough of the system that the Slavins, a young family with a new baby, were able to afford an efficient house on Sean’s Slavin’s salary as a police officer. Sprague has handled the water heater installation, connection of all appliances to the home energy server, and the programming of the interface.

Mechanical rescues

While Nelson Mechanical Design prides itself on its green credentials, a lot of its work involves rescuing systems that either don’t work or are in need of TLC. A case in point is the firm’s ongoing Mansion House hotel project that’s featured as the cover story in the Winter 2010 edition of Green Mechanical Contractor magazine. Nelson just happened to end up saving the hotelier a ton of energy and money along the way. The cooling system had been undersized, resulting in warm and unhappy guests. Nelson figured out a way to use 16,000 gallons/day of unwanted ground water to increase the capacity of the water-loop heat pump system.

Another example is West Tisbury School, originally built in 1929 with a 1993 addition. The building was a hodgepodge put together over the decades by various contractors with various systems. Many classrooms have both steam radiators and unit ventilators, neither one of which worked properly. Many of the fan motors in the unit ventilators didn’t work and the radiators were running uncontrolled. Nelson is slowly creating order out of chaos.

Creating order out of chaos and innovative energy saving designs come natural to them. It’s that combination of engineering background, master plumber know-how and jazz musician creativity that make mechanical systems play harmoniously together.