Case Studies

Sentry Heating, Air Conditioning, Plumbing & Generators

Birmingham's HVAC leader

Sentry Heating Air Conditioning Plumbing & Generators (Sentry) has been serving Birmingham, Alabama, and the surrounding community since 1987. Sentry offers excellent service, repairs and replacement for its residential, commercial and industrial clients, as well as design-build commercial and replacement work.

Charlie Conklin, founder and president, has always had a knack as a craftsman. In 1971 Charlie began his career in the construction industry, but when the home construction market hit a downturn in the summer of 1974, he was introduced to an opportunity to perform electrical maintenance work at a new high-rise building in the area.

While getting his feet wet in the electrical service industry, Charlie went back to school and eventually opened what now — nearly 40 years later — is one of the leading heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) and plumbing companies in central Alabama.

In 1992, Sentry added generators to its list of services provided. “Due to several ice storms during the winter and severe weather in the spring and late summer, the area is always subjected to, we added generators,” Charlie says. “Generators are now common for homes and businesses in this area.”

Michael Tortomase, vice president and general manager, joined the Sentry team in 2003, bringing 28 years in the plumbing business. Sentry’s plumbing service offers the same award-winning expertise and reliability that Birmingham homeowners have come to trust from Sentry.

Charlie attributes the company’s continued success to its dedication to quality service and rigorous training of its employees. Sentry now employs 43 people, as well as Charlie’s daughter, who manages service contract agreements and the information systems of the business.

Sentry Heating, Air Conditioning, Plumbing & GeneratorsQuality care and service

Sentry offers a wide array of services to the industrial, residential and commercial markets and its clients span the gamut—from automotive retailers to non-profit organizations. The company has a history of providing quality service and its logo, the royal blue shield emblazoned with Comfort Guard, is a symbol and reminder of Sentry’s commitment to customer satisfaction.

“Our goal is to always provide our clients with the most efficient system and services possible and to make sure it is completed on time and within budget,” says Charlie. “No matter what the task, we always take the time to do every job right the first time, ensuring that our customers are happy for years to come.”

As a service and design-build contractor, Sentry is equipped to design any type of energy-efficient indoor comfort system, whether for new construction or an existing building that has outgrown its capacity or just needs updating. When it comes to installing and servicing heating and cooling systems, Sentry uses only top of the line products and ensures quality work by continually educating its team in HVAC techniques and products.

“We’re dedicated to taking green initiatives like Variable Refrigerant Flow Systems [VRF],” says Charlie. “There are so many new technologies to take advantage of that will help us provide energy efficient and economical solutions to our clients while also preserving the environment. It’s an important step for everyone in this industry, and across the board, to take.”

Sentry also specializes in indoor air quality. With new vehicles running on compressed natural gas (CNG) versus traditional automotive fuels, Sentry has entered a relatively new niche of work for the automotive industry: ventilation and IAQ for CNG.

The company began work at a CNG branch facility for national material hauler company Evergreen, located in Calera, Alabama, in spring 2014. At the facility, Sentry installed ventilation and heating systems designed specifically for CNG, which is lighter than air, and installed methane sensors that were programmed to start fans and alert employees that CNG within the facility is beginning to reach a dangerous level.

“Natural gas is very environmentally friendly and cost efficient, but it also has the potential to be very dangerous if there is not sufficient ventilation within the facility,” says Charlie. “This is a new wave of technology for the automotive industry and we want to be there to be on guard for our clients from unseen dangers and to provide good air quality in the work environment.”

Sentry has also designed ventilation and heating systems for an international automotive light manufacturing company with a 400,000-square-foot-plus facility in Alexander City, Alabama. At this facility, Sentry designed and installed make up air systems that improved indoor air quality, increased productivity and provided a more consistent product.

“Before we began upgrading the facility’s ventilation system, employees were forced to open doors for fresh air, which made the interior temperature very cold or hot and contaminated the product with dust and dirt,” explains Charlie. “They didn’t have any makeup air – so we installed a heated and filtered ventilation system that allowed people inside the facility to work comfortably and safely and provide a much superior product, as well.”

While the company typically self-performs many aspects of the projects it takes on, it does subcontract out for jobs that require specialty equipment, such as structural steel to support rooftop heating and air equipment, cranes or helicopters to lift air conditioning units and hires engineers to assure design-build plans are compliant with code and regulations.

Sentry’s commitment to customer satisfaction has not gone unnoticed, as it has received several industry awards over the past decade. Most recently, the company was awarded the 2013 Angie’s List Super Service Award, which is given exclusively to the top five percent of service companies who have achieved and maintained a superior service rating on Angie’s List throughout the year. Sentry is Alabama’s only three-time Carrier President’s Award winner, and has taken home the Nate Quality Circle Contractor Award, as well.

“Receiving the President’s Award from Carrier is a great honor,” says Charlie. “It’s a true testament to our commitment to our business and clients. Our number one priority is making sure everyone is taken care of and it’s humbling that out of the thousands of HVAC companies across the nation we are recognized for that.”

Industry involvement

In order to stay abreast of industry trends and regulations, Sentry is a member of the Alabama Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors (ALPHCC) – one of the nation’s most progressive associations for plumbing, heating and cooling (PHC) professionals. The organization provides well-respected training programs, such as ALPHCC’s online apprentice program, supplies up-to-date information on building codes and offers services that help PHC companies reduce costs, increase profits and enhance efficiency.

“The association not only connects us with new clients looking for licensed, local contractors, but it also connects us with other industry leaders,” says Charlie. “Networking and talking with other contractors around the state allows us all to grow—to learn how they are bettering themselves and what issues they are facing. A little friendly competition helps us stay at the forefront of our business.”

In addition to opening the airwaves between competing companies, ALPHCC also protects the livelihood of PHC contractors by serving as the industry voice before local and state governments on issues that affect its members.

“Being an active member of ALPHCC gives us the opportunity to have a say in legislative issues,” says Charlie. “I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years and this association has our back. Contractors’ prosperity is always its number one priority.”

Dedicated to sustainable building practices, Sentry is also a member of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), an organization comprised of 2,800 member organizations and 193,000 LEED professionals that believe in and actively participate in the green building movement.

Furthermore, Sentry is also an active member of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Planning for the future

Sentry has faced many industry challenges throughout its 30 years in business, but as higher education has taken priority over technical schools in the past decade, one issue has become more prevalent: finding qualified artisans. The trend, which started nearly 10 years ago, is now coming to a head and the pool of qualified, trained and educated individuals to fill trade positions is dwindling.

“It’s tough to get quality people who are truly invested and interested in the trade,” says Charlie. “Many young people feel pressured to attend a traditional four year college and aren’t aware of the opportunities that are available in the HVAC and plumbing industries. In reality, HVAC service techs and plumbers typically make just as much, and have as many benefits and spend a lot less on education, than their office-bound counterparts—but they don’t teach you that in schools. Education is important, but what is more important is enjoying what you do.”

As a solution, Charlie suggests companies and related associations work in tandem with local high school guidance counselors to educate students on technical related career paths. Charlie not only believes in this idea, but leads by example by offering local students, who show promise and interest in pursuing HVAC, plumbing and electrical careers, scholarships under the caveat that school is attended, maintain a B average and work for Sentry on a full or part time basis.

“The service industry is suffering, so if we can find students who are really interested in becoming indoor comfort system specialists, electricians, gas fitters and plumbers, they are golden,” says Charlie. “By putting the effort in and recruiting employees right out of high school, we can have a hand in ensuring they receive the proper training to do the kind of quality work Sentry and our customers expect from our team members.”

With very little employee turnover, repeat clientele and an outlook for sustainable growth, Sentry Heating Air Conditioning Plumbing & Generators will remain a family-owned leader in the Alabama HVAC, generator and plumbing marketplace for years to come.

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Spring 2018



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