Making the invisible visible

Expansion of Madison-based Aprilaire highlights the renewed need for cleaner indoor air that the COVID-19 pandemic made clear.

Among the things the COVID-19 pandemic shed light on, indoor air quality nears the top of the list. While COVID-19 has been detrimental to a number of industries, one local company that has actually grown as a result of the pandemic is Aprilaire.

Aprilaire has manufactured systems and equipment to improve indoor air quality at its Poynette facility and Madison headquarters since 1954, but when the pandemic struck, portable room air purifiers were sold out almost as soon as they were stocked, and demand for whole-house systems and solutions like filters increased exponentially. As a result, Aprilaire has doubled its employee head count to about 800 and added 170,000 square feet to its existing facilities.

The company’s new 110,000-square-foot distribution and shipping center in Poynette is now open at 90% functionality as it comes online. A second, 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, also in Poynette, is close behind but needs additional workers to staff the demand for indoor air systems.

According to Dale Philippi, president and CEO of Research Products Corp. and Aprilaire, much of that growth actually started prior to 2020 — COVID-19 just accelerated it. However, the pandemic created some very specific challenges for the growing company.

“Connection,” explains Philippi. “Our people-first culture was the most difficult to maintain. We have taken employee communication and connection very seriously. Weekly trainings, virtual ‘Good Neighbor’ events, thank-you incentives, holiday bonuses, and quarterly updates” were all tactics Aprilaire utilized to weather the COVID-19 storm even as the company was busy scaling up.

But while Aprilaire has gotten bigger, Philippi says its making the invisible visible that’s really provided the most growth for the company.

“Indoor air is five times more polluted than the air outside,” notes Philippi. “That’s because homes are being built tighter than ever, making it hard for your home to inhale and exhale.”

Philippi points to three important numbers: 79, 70, and 50.

“The average person lives to be 79 years old,” says Philippi. “Of those 79 years, 70 of them are spent indoors. Of those 70 years indoors, 50 of them are spent in your own home. [You should be able to] breathe healthy air in your own home.”

There’s one other number that Philippi wants to highlight: 30 million, as in the number of pollutants that can be found in just one cubic foot of air, including dust, mold spores, allergens, and more. These irritants can trigger asthma and allergy symptoms.

Philippi says there are eight basic benefits of healthy air:

  1. Reduce illness;
  2. Eliminate pests;
  3. Alleviate allergies;
  4. Pet-friendly;
  5. Sleep better;
  6. Energy efficiency;
  7. Increase property value; and
  8. Lower stress levels.

Those health benefits extend to the workplace too, which are often sealed even tighter than homes because many office spaces feature windows that don’t open.

There have been indoor air quality or “IAQ” studies galore, many of them done in conjunction with government agencies like the EPA and groups like the World Health Organization. A 2015 joint Harvard-State University of New York study titled, “Economic, Environmental, and Health Implications of Enhanced Ventilation in Office Buildings,” explored the link between improved ventilation and stronger workforce productivity. It found that that doubling the ventilation rate in typical office buildings can be reached at an annual energy cost ranging between $14 and $40 per person, with the return on investment being as much as a $6,500 equivalent in improved productivity per person per year.

The study, done by the same research team that has also found a strong link between green building practices and improved cognitive function, was supported by United Technologies Corp. and its UTC Climate, Controls & Security business, a provider of heating, ventilating, air conditioning systems, and building controls and automation. This study is consistent with research that finds a workplace productivity benefit to investing in better indoor air quality, especially improved ventilation and better maintenance of ventilation systems. Some of these same studies put the nationwide economic cost of poor IAQ in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

At a time when many workers have been displaced due to the economic effects of COVID-19, Aprilaire’s growth also creates new employment opportunities with family-supporting jobs. Philippi says Aprilaire is currently hiring at all skill levels, from entry to senior level, with a pay/salary range of $18 to $25-plus per hour for production roles, based on piece rate. “We have made investments in engineering, product, marketing, sales, and operations and we are planning to add another 100 positions before the end of the 2021.”

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