DON HARTSELL's idea may be full of hot air, but demand for it is rising. Two years ago, when firefighters doused a Dallas power-plant fire, their water hoses shorted out 890 megawatts of power equipment, costing the power company an estimated $80,000 an hour in lost revenue. Mr. Hartsell and his equipment were on the scene within hours to turn the five-story structure into a self-contained drying chamber.
Creating plastic walls attached to conduits and gigantic dehumidifiers, the entire structure was dried out in five days, removing 7,000 pounds of water from the inside air per day. Estimated savings: 120 days of ``down'' time, nearly $240 million in revenue.
And water was only part of the problem. Burning woods, plastics, and other materials had deposited volatile chlorides and sulfates on machinery. With the aid of humidity, the chemicals would have corroded the delicate electrical panels and computer outlets into total disuse in less than five days. Without Hartsell's special brand of high-efficiency refrigerant - cool, nonchemical, dehumidified air - hundreds of thousands of dollars of machinery would be lost.
Since 1985, Hartsell has converted hospitals, hotels, office buildings, and factories into similar drying chambers, saving an estimated $40 million in lost revenue in 18 projects. His rapid disaster-recovery techniques are especially applicable to drying documents and books (see companion story). By pioneering and testing portable, industrial-strength dehumidifiers for more rugged demands of industrial applications, Hartsell is carving out a new market niche.
``The technology for this has been around for years, primarily in use for drying grain elevators and holds of ships,'' says Kenneth Greenough, president of Restoration Technologies Inc., a company specializing in the prolongation of scientific equipment through protection from corrosion. ``The application of new methods such as this cool refrigerant, mobilized quickly in the aftermath of disaster, is wide open, and [Hartsell] is moving in where action is really needed.''
``There's no secret art to what we do,'' says Hartsell, who named his ``emergency dehumidification'' company Solex Technologies. ``You just have to have the equipment and be able to respond.''
He and a law school buddy got the idea after watching a TV report on a disaster at the Houston Library and approached officials with their concept. The only innovation he claims credit for is taking an ever-growing array of drying conduits and dehumidifiers to the scene of water disasters.
``People used to just bite the bullet and call the insurance company. Now we can bring them in well under the deductible,'' he says. The company has grown steadily since 1986. A Swedish-based company, Munters Incentives Groupen, has also developed emergency drying services with a different type of dehumidifier, which uses desiccants that rely on heat. According to Dr. Greenough, both services work well in most conditions, but the Solex system is more versatile in varying climatic conditions.
Beyond the obvious recovery of building fixtures, dry wall, hardwood floors, furniture, and draperies on site, the process has successfully restored and dried business records, computers and electronic components, and other precision machinery susceptible to the ravages of water.
``We faced a situation that could have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, loss of rents, tenant relocations, and interruption of business,'' says Marsha Peil, property manager of a five-story industrial complex drenched by torrential rain. ``When we called [for a] survey of our situation, this building was watersoaked. Four days later, the building was totally dry, we did not lose one computer station, one typewriter, or one calculator, and the entire building smells fresher and cleaner than it did prior to the water penetration.''
Nearly bankrupt after a year of research and development in 1985, Hartsell garnered a $5,000 paycheck for his first job, drying out the Houston Library. His latest project, the Los Angeles Public Library, brought a contract of $250,000. The number of employees has grown from four to 30. He says a whole new field is opening up in the area of drying ship holds, nuclear and other power plants, and pipelines, as well as chemical refinery storage tanks - all of which are susceptible to water-aided corrosion.
One such project has already been awarded. A permanent dehumidification unit has been donated to the battleship USS Texas to prolong the life of an on-board museum.
``In the past, this area [of the ship] suffered severe wastage due to the corrosive effects of standing water and heavy condensation,'' says Wilson E. Dolman, project manager on the restoration. ``The dehumidification unit has stabilized the area to the point where corrosion appears to be stopped.''