If you think “smart building” technology is a product of the 21st century, well … you would be wrong. Dial back your assumptions to the early 1980s, when a young, American-educated immigrant settled in Columbia with a novel idea for radically adjusting energy efficiency in some of our most inefficient structures through automation. His company, Electenergy Technologies Inc., has been quietly changing the way businesses power their buildings ever since. Its signature product, a power conditioning system dubbed ElectroFlow, is in use in hundreds of industrial and commercial facilities on six continents, with a customer list that reads like a veritable Who’s Who of the world’s largest multinational corporations. The quiet little engineering business is now a multimillion-dollar company with a presence in 112 countries.
“When we started, I had zero sense of its commercial value,” says ETI’s president, Mike Mehrdad. “ElectroFlow was just a solution to a problem. I didn’t see the monetary value.”
MEHRDAD LIKES TO CALL his ETI crew “energy doctors.” He draws an analogy between electrical circuitry and the human body’s circulatory system.
“We start out with a free checkup for the system,” Mehrdad says. “We have a device that can perform diagnostics on a building’s power system. We diagnose the weaknesses and inefficiencies, issue a report, and prescribe a solution.”
ETI also produces the Harmonitor 3000, a diagnostic tool that analyzes various elements of a building’s power system — sort of an EKG for the building, if you will. The handheld device is equipped with a microprocessor that downloads the data to a computer and exports it via the Internet to ETI in Columbia.
“Analysis is in two seconds,” Mehrdad says. “Just like that, we generate a 30-page report on a power system’s problems — glitches, waste, inefficiencies. The checkup is free — no strings.”
For those who choose to let ETI solve their power woes, the company will sell them an ElectroFlow system, customized to the business’ specific needs. The modular units are unique in the world and can perform up to 11 functions — five of which are exclusive to ElectroFlow — that monitor electrical use and stabilize a system to reduce power consumption, Mehrdad says. The first six functions are standard in every unit:
- Voltage improvement and stability, which minimizes heat generation, and increases longevity of equipment
- Three-phase balancing of the load currents to equalize demand
- Surge suppression to shield equipment against surges, transients and power spikes by storing and recycling voltage on an even keel
- Harmonics mitigation to protect against the harmful side effects of sophisticated energy use by capturing broadband frequencies and recycling the voltage in a steady state
- Power factor improvement without loss of capacity and energy in the distribution system
- Reduced energy loss, freeing capacity to increase available supply
Optional features tailor the ElectroFlow units to a facility’s needs. ETI installs additional modules to provide brownout protection, intermittent failure protection, large-scale industrial harmonics mitigation and a fail-safe option for phase-loss synthesis to prevent outages triggered by overloads. ElectroFlow’s newest feature, added six months ago at the behest of Nestlé engineers, offers remote monitoring and control to track power usage, quality and potential problems.
“The standard features protect equipment and increase productivity,” Mehrdad says. “The options customize the units. Intermittent failures, for example, can be just a blink in voltage. It can happen many times in a day. But that blink causes a glitch that could ruin an MRI at a hospital, offset the seam in a plastic bag, or cut the wrong size PVC pipe. On the Ford assembly line, robots do a lot of the precision work. An intermittent failure ‘glitch’ could put a part off by one two-thousandth of an inch. And that part will be rejected.”
Ford Motor Co. is an ETI customer, along with a host of other industrial clients — General Motors, Cargill, Nestlé, Heinz, Del Monte, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Intel, Alcoa, General Electric, Siemens, Panasonic, DHL, UPS and others. Commercial clients include hotels, hospitals, banks and office buildings. The company sells about 300 to 350 systems a year, in varying sizes. Prices for individual ElectroFlow units range from $3,000 to $50,000 per transformer load, Mehrdad says. Large factories usually have more than one transformer, he notes, adding that automotive plants typically have about 50 transformers.
BORN IN IRAN, MEHRDAD arrived in the United States in the early ‘70s as a 17-year-old college freshman. His father, a transportation official in Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s government, moved his family to Missouri as part of an executive exchange program with Burlington Northern Railway. Young Mehrdad headed for Rolla, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Missouri campus there. He moved to Columbia for an EE master’s degree at MU and started his Ph.D. work in electrical engineering with an emphasis on electromagnetics and power systems, eventually transferring to the University of Kansas to finish his doctorate.
Mehrdad returned to Columbia in 1981 and created ETI from his father Mohsen’s consulting firm.
“When I started with the company, ElectroFlow could do three things,” he says. “We just kept adding features.”
He sold his first ElectroFlow unit in 1982 to Central States Diversified in St. Louis.
Success came first in international markets, where until about three years ago 95 percent of ETI’s sales took place. “We have made extra efforts to increase our domestic sales lately,” Mehrdad says. “Sales growth has been ranging 5 to 10 percent better than the previous year. We are bullish this year and project our sales to exceed 30 percent over that of last year.”
Now with 18 employees in Columbia and multiple licensees in other countries, the company has grown to global proportions through word-of-mouth and referrals from satisfied clients, Mehrdad says.
“Results are 100 percent guaranteed,” he says. “I tell our clients that we do it Show-Me State style here — if you don’t save on energy costs, you owe us nothing.”
With the company’s reputation on the line, “I can’t afford to make one mistake,” he says. ETI’s Columbia employees design and assemble products under strict quality control in three facilities here for the company’s domestic market. Products bound for international markets are created here but assembled and installed overseas by workers trained in Columbia. “We have control over every unit designed, assembled and installed,” Mehrdad says. “We still have to answer for our product.”
ETI promises ElectroFlow will pay for itself in energy savings within two years of installation. Mehrdad backs it up with a performance bond. “If you don’t get the energy savings we promise, we make up the difference.”
And, he adds, “We’ve never been sued and we’ve never had to pay out.”
ETI’S LOCAL FOOTPRINT is deepening this year. The company counts Boone Hospital Center, DeLong’s steel fabricators, Von Hoffman Press, Extrusion Technologies and Lincoln University among its mid-Missouri customers, yet it has operated under the radar in its hometown for more than three decades.
That all changed this spring when ETI burst into the social media sphere and won the 2015 Battle of the Brands competition. Sponsored by SourceLink, Battle of the Brands is an annual bracket-style competition powered by social media. More than 40 companies entered the contest this year, advancing through each bracket as voted by their fans on social media. During the course of the competition, more than 7,000 people viewed ETI’s company name. Mehrdad’s prize included a pair of boxing gloves.
The company’s higher profile caught the eye of Columbia City Council Representative Laura Nauser. After a meeting she arranged with city officials, Mehrdad says he has hopes of working with the city on some future projects.
In early 2016, ETI will launch a residential version of ElectroFlow. “We will have two models,” Mehrdad says. “A single appliance application — for those who know nothing about electricity — and a whole-house ElectroFlow.”
Mehrdad plans to offer the same guarantee and deliver the same energy savings with his residential product that his commercial customers enjoy. “People like to save money,” he says, and he has a pile of letters to “Dr. Mike” and shelves full of awards testifying to that. “General Motors would have been happy with a 2 percent energy savings. We gave them more. We promised Cargill an 11 percent savings and they got 18. People get promoted when things work out like that.”