Friday, April 11, 2008

The Swamp Cooler

Another thought about the details and the big vision...

I met last week with Si Hyland (Si is pronounced "sigh"), a friend of a friend that's making an energy efficient home air conditioning unit. Given my curiosity around "green" products and businesses, and given Acorn's focus on energy efficiency, Brett, my old friend and neighbor, figured there was a connection to be made.

We went to lunch, and Si the air conditioner man told his story.

He's part of a quiet little division at Speakman Company, the big plumbing fixtures manufacturer, and his group has spent the past couple of years developing what they think is a pretty exciting new air conditioning technology: the next generation of the swamp cooler.

If you haven't heard of a swamp cooler (which I hadn't before meeting Si), it's basically a souped up version of a fan blowing air over a bucket of water. The water evaporates, mixes with the warm air, cools it, blows through the house, and makes people less hot. You can ask science to tell you why this happens, but I think magic is a reasonable explanation as well.

Anyway, I asked some questions, and Si walked us through a bunch of the details. He talked about the problems with traditional swamp coolers. He talked about patents, design challenges, potential competing technologies. He talked about the plastic plates that pin the water vapor in and transfer the coolness to a dehumidified chamber. He talked about humidity, geographical constraints, energy usage, prices, product distribution, mold.

He explained why his cooler is hot.

And it was great. I had a good time hearing about it. I'm curious about stuff like that. I want to know what swamp coolers are; I want to know how they work; I want to know how a business can be built around them.

But, as we walked away from lunch, I knew that I probably wouldn't be following the project all that closely. It was fun to do a little learning, but I wasn't really hooked on the story.

The conversation continued, however. Si had driven to lunch, and he offered me a ride back to my office. In the car, we didn't talk about details. We talked about the size of the market. We talked about potential aggregate energy savings. We thought about it in terms of reduced demand, coal fired power plants switched off or not built, CO2 not emitted. The vision got big.

And I walked away from Si's car feeling quite different than I had felt when I walked away from lunch. Now I was hooked. I was excited to see Si run those numbers in a less offhand way and send them to me. I was excited to talk to my Acorn colleagues about swamp coolers. I was imagining front page news: Swamp Coolers Reduce LA's Summer Energy Consumption By 30%.

Who knows. Maybe nothing will come of it.

Maybe swamp coolers have horrible environmental side effects that haven't yet been brought to my attention. Maybe Si and his colleagues won't be able to hit that all important competitive price point. Maybe we'll plunge into the next ice age in a couple of years and not need an air conditioner again for centuries. Maybe, when faced with the choice between the newer model of the old standard unit and a fancy new swamp cooler, the don't try new things so you won't get hurt by new experiences mindset will prevail.

But maybe not, and maybe communicating the big vision is key. It worked on me anyway. Pitch me a swamp cooler with details, and I'll think it's cool. Pitch it to me by telling me I can be a part of something big and important, and then I'll think hard about buying one.

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