New Castle News

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June 17, 2014

Berner works to meet industry challenges

NEW CASTLE — A local company that has made energy saving products since the 1950s is fighting to survive in a “green” age.

Berner International Corp., at 111 Progress Drive, in Shenango Industrial Park, has been manufacturing “air curtains” in New Castle since 1956 when it was founded by the late Swedish entrepreneur Erling Berner. Today, his daughter-in-law, Georgia Berner, 71, runs the business.

Air curtains are currents of air blowing down at the entrance to a building, designed to prevent energy loss and keep out insects. The “curtains,” which are contained in rectangular shaped metal boxes of various sizes, cost between $600 to $25,000 depending on size, voltage, whether heat is added, what type of heat and other factors. They range from the smallest, which are used for restaurant drive-through windows, to those that cover enormous industrial doors.

But manufacturers of this longtime method of conservation have recently had to scramble to have their products included in the critical regulatory codes that drive the construction industry.

The air curtain industry faced potential disaster several years ago when the formulators of the International Energy Conservation Code unexpectedly ruled that “vestibules” were more energy efficient than air curtains. Such an energy efficiency rating is crucial in meeting federal and state building codes.

Vestibules are double sets of doors at some business entrances that are designed to save energy. They are the air curtain industry’s biggest competitor.

Berner said the industry responded by gathering research and presenting it to the international code body to demonstrate the energy efficiency of air curtains. And the efforts paid off when air curtains were included in the new code, she noted, adding they now also are listed as a vestibule alternative in the International Green Construction Code.

But the industry, which dates back to 1904 in the United States, has become keenly aware of the need to protect the viability of the air curtain industry on other fronts, Berner said. The industry is working with other manufacturers to make sure that the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers, the standard setter for the heating, ventilation, air conditioning industry, knows the facts on air curtains when it does its regular revision of standards. This involves running tests and establishing independent research “to demonstrate that air curtains perform equal or better” than vestibules in saving energy.

Berner Industries is an active participant in this effort. Studies from Berner and industry-sponsored third party verification analyzed energy savings of air curtains versus vestibules using computer computational fluid dynamics modeling and physical lab studies. As it turned out, the air curtains were slightly better than a vestibule in warmer climates and much better in cold climates.

“As a result of this research we have been able to get air curtains added as an alternative to vestibules to energy conservation and building codes,” Berner said.

Berner’s father-in-law originally located the company in New Castle because a Pittsburgh banker told him the city’s workers had a good work ethic.

The company’s location in New Castle has many other advantages, Berner said, including proximity to Youngstown, which is “an industrial hub,” and easy access to Interstates 80 and 79, as well as Lawrence County’s location between Pennsylvania’s Northwest and Southwest economic development regions.

This helps with marketing nationally and internationally, for the company’s independent sales agents “all over the western hemisphere,” she said.

Dealing with such industrial problems was a bit of a stretch for someone with Berner’s background. The mother of four who had taught English literature in Japan, Berner stepped into the company’s chief executive officer shoes when her husband died unexpectedly in 1984. Her four children have found their own places in various parts of the business world.

And at an age when many of her peers, including her second husband, James Farber, no longer have day jobs, Berner is unfazed by the industry’s daily challenges and says she has no plans to retire.

(Email: grzebieniak@ncnewsonline.com)

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