James B. Donaghey Inc. Mechanical Contractors
- Written by: Mike Schoch
- Produced by: Sean Davis
- Estimated reading time: 4 mins
While installing massive refrigeration units known as chillers, for Providence Hospital in Mobile, Alabama, James B. Donaghey Inc. Mechanical Contractors ran into a roadblock.
The firm needed to connect the chillers on one side of a street to the hospital HVAC system on the other—the trouble was, they didn’t want to disrupt traffic and add time and labor to the project by tearing up the pavement.
So instead of going across the road, the firm went under it by subcontracting a company to bore 20-inch wide holes into the pavement and feed hundreds of feet of pipe through them. While James B. Donaghey Inc. Mechanical Contractors had done plenty of work for healthcare, higher education, industrial plants and military bases along the Gulf Coast, this was a first.
Now, the company is considering this approach more often, say Joe Vallee and Bob Clapper, both of whom hold the title vice president and co-owner and have been with the company since the ‘70s.
New Technology, new challenges
The company started out in 1921 doing commercial and residential plumbing and, over the years, added sheet metal fabrication, central air conditioning, and eventually HVAC installation and fabrication.
Throughout that growth, Vallee and Clapper say the company has always done well by adopting technology and tackling diverse markets.
For example, the company was quick to adopt variable refrigerant flow equipment (VRF), to cool and heat facilities at Power South Energy Cooperative in Andalusia, Alabama.
VRF equipment is relatively new and makes it easier to cool and heat a building in zones rather than bringing the entire space to a uniform temperature. These systems use a single cooling unit outside that is connected to many indoor air handling units. The outdoor condenser has a motor that adjusts its speed to match demand, saving electricity. The system also saves power by distributing refrigerant instead of hot water or cold air to control the temperature of a room.
New technology comes with new challenges, however; VRF systems can be more complicated to install because they require a larger network of piping to connect the outdoor condenser to the many indoor units. Routing pipes is a challenge on the construction site because it must be done right the first time. A project like the one at Andalusia can involve miles of piping and tubing and one mistake can eat up man hours and money in repairs.
Though the installation is more complicated, Vallee says VRF can make certain jobs more efficient in buildings where a conventional chilled water system may be too bulky to fit or too energy inefficient.
The company also uses technology to improve its fabrication services. Clapper says where once people cut and fabricated sheet metal to make heating and cooling ducts, the process is now programmed into computerized software that controls automated equipment.
The software controls table-mounted torches that cut the metal to be used for fittings. A computer controlled coil line uses fabrication machines connected by conveyor belts to bend flat sheet metal into rectangular ducts.
Programming and operating the software has created a need for a new skillset and one that both Clapper and Vallee agree can give young people with a knack for computers a leg up in the industry.
Many markets, more opportunity
Technology isn’t the only thing changing in mechanical contracting. The profitability of markets has also shifted.
Twenty years ago, half of Donaghey’s business was with industrial clients in Mobile. As U.S. manufacturing was outsourced, many of those clients left. Though manufacturing in the Gulf Coast is starting to recover, James B. Donaghey Inc. is spreading its work across different sectors.
“You have to work in different markets so that if one area dies, you’re not completely out of work,” says President Judson Sanders.
In addition to the projects at Providence Hospital and the Power South Energy Cooperative, Donaghey also does work for the University of South Alabama, Alabama Retirement System offices and casinos along the Gulf Coast.
The military is another client and Donaghey Mechanical crews have replaced outdated air conditioning equipment with energy efficient alternatives at Fort Rucker in Dothan, Alabama; Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans in Louisiana; and Naval Air Station Meridian in Meridian, Mississippi, among others.
“We try to tailor each job to the strengths of the leader who’s going to run it.”
Sanders says operating in many markets has worked for nearly 100 years. He’s been with the company for 40 years and says most of the company’s senior leadership has been around for decades, as well.
“We try to tailor each job to the strengths of the leader who’s going to run it,” says Judson.
For example, Vallee, who suggested using the boring equipment at Providence Hospital, is excellent at discovering new technology. Pat Mracheck, who oversaw the project at Power South, is excellent at planning projects and managing people. Other members of the leadership team include another co-owner, Bradley Sanders, who runs the operation in Biloxi.
After knowing each other for so long, the owners say they’ve become close friends and friendly rivals. They’ll pretend to boast about the projects they’re overseeing and give each other a hard time when they make mistakes.
But Bob Clapper says it’s all in fun: “We all get along and what we all have in common is that we like to work hard.”
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