Suddenly in hot water

June 14, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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A Grandville tool-and-die shop that serves the automotive industry is branching out into two new product lines: solar water heater panels that it already is manufacturing, and a vertical wind generator for urban environments that may be on the market by the end of this year.

Mike Gill, president of Digital Tool & Die, said the company is so excited about its new "green" business ventures that it called the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth and suggested that Gov. Jennifer Granholm visit the 20,000-square-foot plant at 2606 Sanford Ave. SW — which she did, last week.

Gill, who founded the company in 1989 with his brother Dennis, said several school districts in West Michigan are considering the purchase of a few hundred of the solar panels to heat their swimming pools. The Gills are hoping to realize total sales of the solar panels in the first year worth "between four and six million" dollars, which would effectively double Digital's current annual sales of about $5 million-plus, according to Gill.

The tool-and-die shop employs about 30 now, and most of its business is still making machine tools for companies that supply the auto industry.

"We did get a little bit slow there for a while, but we worked into some other industries. Got into some machining for military work, little odds and ends here and there to keep us going good," said Gill.

"Things aren't too bad for us in the automotive (market) right now, actually," he added.

If sales of the company's new solar and wind energy products take off like it hopes they will, Digital may hire an additional 30 or more employees within a year, said Gill.

The solar panels are made mainly from stainless steel. Gill said Digital licensed the design from a Dutch inventor and also bought machine tools from the Dutch company to start production here, along with the rights to sell the final product in the U.S. He declined to identify the Dutch firm, but said Digital is also making some of the major components for the solar panels for shipment back to the firm in the Netherlands.

The Dutch firm "found they can get things done cheaper here, especially with the euro and dollar difference now," said Gill. In early June the euro was worth about $1.42, versus $1.27 back in December.

Gill said one of the West Michigan school systems Digital is talking to may end up buying an array of 27 of the solar panels to heat its swimming pool, which he estimates would save the district $4,000 a month in natural gas bills. The solar heaters can also heat the water needed for the locker room showers, via a heat exchanger.

Gill said the swimming pool water itself can be circulated through the solar panels, because the chlorine in the water will not damage the stainless steel. He added that the very thin construction of the stainless steel channels the water flows through would prevent the metal from expanding enough to crack if the water ever froze in the panel.

The Dutch inventor has "world-wide patents on these flat solar panels that heat water," said Gill. "The nice thing about these is, they are far more efficient than anybody else's out there. The design is such that it really works great. They're kind of hard to put together but we have got the manufacturing processes down now, and we're going to be able to crank them out."

Gill said the new solar panels are capable of capturing some 90 percent of the available solar energy, while most water-heating panels capture from 40 to 60 percent.

The Gills are anticipating a lot of sales to homeowners, for either heating their hot water (via heat exchangers) or for providing all the heat throughout the house.

"I didn't think it was possible in Michigan to totally heat your house (with solar energy), but it can be done with the sun. There is enough (solar) energy in Michigan to do it," he said.

A homeowner who opts for just heating the home’s hot water would probably spend about $3,000 on the Digital solar product, said Gill. A system that would heat the entire house would be in the $15,000-plus range, he said, which would include the cost of a 10,000-gallon underground storage tank for holding heated water, and probably also a tracking system that will rotate the panels to keep them facing direct sunlight throughout the day.

Gill said the same system is being used in the Netherlands to heat entire homes.

"They have less sun energy and they're doing it," he said.

The same Dutch inventor has made an improvement to the Savonius rotor, invented by Finnish engineer S.J. Savonius in 1922. It is a vertical shaft wind machine, similar to a type do-it-yourself individuals have built using halves of 55-gallon drums split down the middle from top to bottom. Wind turbines using blades must turn to face into the wind for optimal efficiency, while a Savonius design can remain stationary, always catching the wind regardless of the direction it comes from. The mysterious Dutch inventor has created a device that diverts more wind to the surfaces that catch the wind and turn the shaft, according to Gill. Digital has also bought the rights to manufacture and sell the as-yet unnamed wind generator.

"We'll have the first two prototypes done" by the end of this week, predicted Gill, which will then be studied by his company's engineers. He said the wind generator is designed for urban use, because it will function constantly, even in the turbulent air currents around buildings. Conventional propeller-driven generators must be located high above buildings.

With the innovative wind diverter attached, the generator Digital plans to make will be 40 percent more efficient than a comparable-sized propeller generator, according to Gill. He said it would probably be rated at about 1.5 kilowatts, similar in output to the small generator now being assembled and sold by Cascade Engineering.

Gill said the company hopes to be able to sell the generator in the $4,000 range.

"I'm not sure we can pull it off," he said, but the goal at Digital is to produce renewable energy equipment that pays back its purchase price more quickly than existing products.

"It's just still too long on a lot of these products," he said.

The federal tax credit now available to American taxpayers may help spur sales of renewable energy equipment. Congress recently provided a tax credit equal to 30 percent of the cost of wind and solar equipment, geothermal heat pumps and fuel cells bought for home use and installed between Jan. 1, 2009, and the end of 2016. There is no dollar maximum on the tax credit for wind, solar and geothermal devices, and any excess credit can be carried forward to following tax years.

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