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Bainbridge tech company caters to building energy management

Kite & Lightning owner Bill Hickner, right, talks with Scott Houmes at Silver City Brewery in Silverdale while checking the restaurant's energy control panel. (Rodika Tollefson Photo)When staff at Silver City Brewery in Silverdale arrive to work in the morning, no one has to worry about going around the building to turn on lights or regulate the thermostat. Nor do they need to worry about adjusting controls or turning on air conditioning as the outside air temperature changes. All those functions, along with others related to the kitchen and refrigeration systems, are performed automatically — thanks to an energy management system developed and installed by Bainbridge Island tech company Kite & Lightning.

The cloud-based system, called UNITY, can dim lights, adjust air ventilation and send alerts via email or text messages when something malfunctions. It monitors energy use in the building 24/7, automatically controlling systems based on set parameters, and allowing users to control functions both on-site and remotely. The on-site system uses a touchscreen monitor and a Mac mini processor (hidden behind the panel.) A chip is used for wireless communication and if the internet goes down, the modules run themselves and the switches become manual.

The system has helped Silver City Brewery save on energy use since it was installed about two years ago, because everything is optimized. It also helps monitor equipment and determine when things are not running properly.

“Having all the (monitoring) information is valuable. Up until now we had no idea if the building was balanced,” said Silver City owner Scott Houmes.

Another major advantage is that the system won’t cost the business any money. A grant from Puget Sound Energy paid for 70 percent of the UNITY cost, and the balance of $5,500 will be recovered through the energy savings over about three years. Kite & Lightning guaranteed that the company will save at least that much — and if it doesn’t, it will only have to pay the amount it had actually saved.

The UNITY energy management system Silver City Brewery can be controlled both from an on-site touchscreen and remotely via the internet. (Rodika Tollefson Photo)Once the system is paid off, Silver City will simply save money on electricity.

“The key is to be automated to the point it runs itself so you don’t have to worry about it,” Kite & Lightning managing partner Bill Hickner said. “You can manage energy costs and equipment maintenance because the system lets you know when something is in the process of breaking.”

UNITY is designed to optimize energy use for the space by adjusting controls in real time based on what it learned from the previous cycle. Functions can also be programmed based on parameters such as temperature. For example, vents will automatically open overnight during the summer to help the building cool off and delay the use of air conditioning.

“It produces savings over what a thermostat does,” Hickner said.

UNITY also regulates the air balance and pressure to make the building more comfortable. “You don’t smell the kitchen and the air is fresh,” he said.

An Innovative Idea

Hickner became interested in energy management when he worked as a facilities manager for Peninsula McDonalds, in charge of 24 buildings spread out through the county. He recalls standing in line for the Edmonds ferry one day and thinking if he could “see” inside those buildings remotely, he could do better maintenance of the facilities and equipment.

He began looking for a system that controlled everything — lights, refrigeration, HVAC — and when he couldn’t find it, he made one by combining others available on the market. The first one was installed at the Poulsbo McDonald’s, and Hickner said the site saved $900 the first month. Building on that success story, he approached PSE with the idea of writing a grant to cover the costs of the system if he could prove energy savings over time, and the utility agreed.

He eventually left McDonald’s to start his own business. That original system was firmware-based and had limited programming capabilities. But it just happened that Hickner’s sons, Ryan and Jason, are computer programmers and developers. So he hired them in 2006 to write a custom program, making the second iteration of the system partially wireless. Kite & Lightning (kiteandlightning.com) manufactured it in Mukilteo, where it was based at the time, and installed it in about 700 restaurants.

UNITY is the system’s third evolution, developed in 2010. It’s completely wireless and uses open-source architecture. Instead of manufacturing the hardware, the company uses over-the-counter products from several manufacturers.

“The advantage is scalability and serviceability so you’re not locked into one manufacturer’s part. And if we were to expand to Canada or Mexico — and it’s likely that we’ll do it — we can source the equipment there. Most of the product line is internationally available,” Hickner said.

His sons are now partners in the company, in addition to running their own, which offers software design for interactive kiosks and displays in places such as the Space Needle in Seattle. Hickner said Kite & Lightning is still essentially a startup, even though UNITY has been installed in numerous restaurants as well as offices, athletic clubs and other buildings, and has clients as far as the East Coast. He said what they do is unique because no one offers a comprehensive system like Kite & Lightning’s.

“The initial 70 buildings have been our incubator (for UNITY),” he said. “We’re moving into our initial marketing phase.”

The name of the company is a tribute by Hickner, a history buff, to Benjamin Franklin and his famous (and dangerous) kite experiment. He said part of what drives his business is curiosity about what can be done with electrical power, and another part is his belief in conservation.

“I’m a firm believer we waste at least half of our energy. One of the huge ways to produce is to conserve,” he said. “We have a long ways to go — even in our buildings — to conserve energy… We’re constantly looking for ways to improve our system.”

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