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The man from extremes

M Rajkumar, CEO and Director Engineering of BESTPRO & AHRGLOBAL, has clocked 37 years of HVAC experience across geographical extremes – from Moscow to the Middle East – with a stint in the United States. A firm believer in sustainability, he talks of wanting to contribute to the region through cutting-edge technologies.

| | Mar 8, 2014 | 10:32 am
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M Rajkumar, CEO and Director Engineering of BESTPRO & AHRGLOBAL, has clocked 37 years of HVAC experience across geographical extremes – from Moscow to the Middle East – with a stint in the United States. A firm believer in sustainability, he talks of wanting to contribute to the region through cutting-edge technologies.

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Education

I earned a degree in Chemical Engineering from Anna University, Chennai, India, and worked for a German chemical technology company, which manufactured highly specialised and synthetic resins.

Warming to HVACR

I wanted to move into the field of Mechanical Engineering as a Chemical Engineer. In terms of career opportunities, I was looking at several countries, with the oil sector in mind. As a student of Chemical Engineering, I had studied mass transfer and heat transfer, as major subjects. Heat transfer involves the heating and the cooling of vessels to make sure chemical processes are done the right way. Air conditioning was also one of the subjects we had to study. So, I thought that if not the oil industry, the air conditioning industry would be the obvious choice.

Playing a stellar role

I joined Blue Star Ltd in March 1981, as Manager – AC&R Projects. I received my appointment from S Sankaran, a senior member of ASHRAE and now a Fellow member of ASHRAE USA. He placed me under K R Sankaran, whom many people in the Middle East know, owing to his days spent here with Carrier and JCI. My annual target was six million Indian Rupees (to put things in perspective, in 1981, it was 8.68 Indian Rupees to a US Dollar), but I did four million in the first six months.

Voltas, Blue Star and Batliboi were top companies in India, then. Blue Star was No. 2, because Voltas was in a tie-up with Carrier. So it required greater effort to sell Blue Star products. I must add that Blue Star eventually reached the No. 1 spot within four to five years.

Blue Star gave me plenty of opportunities to handle design-and-build projects. During my tenure there, I worked in the team of HVAC design for the ASLV (Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle) project, in 1984. The project involved a Class 100,000 Clean Room.

Also, there were a number of very specialised works with the nuclear reactor project in Kalpakkam (near the southern Indian city of Chennai, in the state of Tamil Nadu). Owing to the radiation, the HVAC design was highly specialised.

The Blue Star experience, with a number of challenging system engineering and design works, enriched me in applied psychrometry. In 1985, I worked on yet another Government project as an employee of Blue Star. This was with the Tamil Nadu Explosives factory, where we had to control the temperature and the relative humidity (RH) – the requirement was 24oC and 65% RH, given the place had very dry climate throughout the year. They were manufacturing explosives there.

There are pharmaceutical applications that require either low RH at low temperatures, or RH with very close tolerances like +/- two per cent, which is not easy to achieve with simple systems. However, a production facility for explosives and electronic items will require higher levels of controlled RH to avoid the build-up of static electricity. In that context, it was a privilege to work on the explosives factory project – the variety of design experience helped me to understand applied psychrometry in a thorough manner.

In 1986, Carrier snapped ties with Voltas in a bid to go it alone. In 1989, Carrier Air Con came to India. They picked me to handle the southern region. The work involved setting up the business for them in the South and, subsequently, in the Western Region. At the time, the concept of distributors for central air conditioning systems did not exist. It was Carrier that introduced the concept, through selecting dealers, training them and effectively making dealers into contractors. And with that, the Western style of the HVAC business model came to India.

While at Carrier, I got intensive management training in Australia on Distribution Management. The training programme involved Carrier employees from 28 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The training was conducted through management simulation games and was very powerful and intensive – it helped me in establishing such systems in India and, in later years, in the CIS countries.

After two years in southern India, I moved to Mumbai (in western India), where Carrier was facing some technical issues. This was in 1989-1990. I ran the Mumbai operations for a year to clear the issues.

Sunny side up

During my Mumbai days, I saw the sun set into the Arabian Sea and wanted to see the sun rise, so I moved to the other side of the sea, to Muscat, Oman, in January 1992 and joined the Bahwan Group.

At Bahwan, I was one of the first engineers from a Blue Star background. Bahwan Engineering Company is known for its meticulous approach to design as well as to execution. It has a reputation for giving its engineers very intensive training. The folks at Bahwan do not compromise. They have the highest integrity and the highest standards in engineering and contracting.

While in Oman, in the 1990s, I heard of the Burj Al Arab project. It sounded exciting. I called up Martin Walis at W S Atkins, and he interviewed me for 45 minutes; at the end of the call, he pulled me over to Dubai. That was in January 1996.

Working on the Burj Al Arab project as a member of the engineering team was a grand experience for me. Today, as I reflect, I feel proud to have been associated with such a prestigious project.

Frigid Moscow

After the Atkins experience, which was a little over two years, in 1998, I joined AHI Carrier as Senior Manager. And among my early assignments was a stint in Moscow.

I arrived in the Russian capital in February with a colloquial knowledge of the language and with the winds howling and chilly at -25oC. In addition, there was the old frigid mindset among the management in the office. They did not seem overly concerned about how to market a product, which obviously is a necessity in a capitalist economy. Anyway, we succeeded in turning things around – we raised the business in the CIS countries by 20 times within a span of four to five years.

Carrier looked at the success of AHI Carrier in the CIS countries and added territories by giving AHI 15 countries in Africa.

At the time, Africa was the lowest-performing region, with business to the tune of USD 500,000. Within two years, though, we managed to achieve USD 2 million.

The American sojourn

In 2003, Blue Star Infotech got an order for USD 5-6 million from York. (It was called York, then; it was only in November 2005 that JCI acquired York.)

Roy S Hubbard of York, who is a large-tonnage chiller expert, a technical genius and the brain behind York’s energy simulation program with chillers, called Blue Star Infotech and said, “Find out somebody to help me with calculations and with low-side (AHUs)… somebody conversant with HVAC systems in some major regions outside of the USA.”

In response, Blue Star looked around and saw that I had experience in hot-ambient conditions in the Middle East and in cold conditions, like Russia. I was familiar with engineering terminology and the flow sequence of software. I was familiar with global technical terminology and how the software should communicate in selecting the equipment. That’s a complex part to select, plus design for high-ambients. And so they chose me and asked me to join. I accepted and settled down in York, Pennsylvania for three years.

I went there as an employee of Blue Star Infotech. My role was to assist the American HVAC engineers in making the energy simulation software. It involved starting with updating and the calculation of 8,760 hourly loads for any building with the most modern method of Radiant Time Series, up to letting the owner compare various brands of the same type of equipment or compare various equipment types within the same brand. The point of the exercise was that the software would tell the owner the annual utility cost and the lifecycle costs, simultaneously reporting the impact on environment (in terms of NOx, SOx). It would also tell the payback period to the owner. The program was tailored with North America in focus. In 2006, I completed 99% of the project and came to the Middle East.

Back to Dubai – going it alone

Dubai was going through a boom period, then. I started BESTPRO, along with my partner, Venkatesh Rajan, and ever since, have been running it independently.

BESTPRO is the culmination of my career, which covered almost the entire spectrum of roles in the HVAC industry. Since I had touched every aspect of HVAC and had a passion for HVAC, with every one of my past employers being leadership companies, I wanted to do justice to the field and, specifically, to give the right equipment to support the cause of energy and environment.

This last mission – working for the cause of energy and environment – was most profound while with the team of York specialists. I had had the opportunity to go deep into software programming and simulation. The entire experience was an eye-opener. To be able to arrive at the right equipment and connect them most harmoniously was a great feeling. It was system engineering in the most harmonious way, to benefit from the standpoint of energy and environment. During those three years, I had to read a lot of books on concurrent topics. Many thanks to Roy Hubbard, my guru.

My business philosophy

In BESTPRO, I decided to take equipment from suppliers with strong R&D and look for futuristic products. That became my philosophy to doing business. Evapco was the first major brand that I set out to represent in the region. At that point in time, Evapco was not doing well in the market – their offerings were in a couple of projects here and there. And there was also the perception that they were expensive. But people were missing the point. Every product of Evapco’s is CTI-certified. As Evapco puts it, ‘Only few people play the game by its rules, ie, the rules set by CTI, the only North American independent body certifying the performance of cooling towers.’ Evapco has been carrying the maximum number of patents in evaporative cooling in the last 10 years. These patents – scientific breakthroughs – involved reducing water losses, improved thermal efficiencies and the design (sloped drain pan, to name one, to reduce risk of legionella).

How I wish to contribute to the region

BESTPRO represents the route for me to contribute to the region. I want to contribute through cutting-edge technologies and those that will make a substantial difference in terms of sustainability. For instance, I wish to promote ice-thermal storage in the UAE. The country can definitely benefit from it. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are fully into ice-thermal storage. For instance, the King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia is one of the largest ice-thermal storage projects in the region.

Ice-thermal storage has several virtues. If you were to have a 1,000 TR plant, for example, you have to use 800 kW. With ice-thermal storage, a 1,000 TR plant in peak conditions can be brought to 600 TR and to a power consumption of 500 kW. Through this way, the entire power generation activity can become manageable. Besides, the space taken by chiller plants or chilled water storage tanks can be released for commercial purposes, as rentable space, say. So, I strongly feel that ice-thermal storage should catch up in the UAE.

In the case of ice-thermal storage, the coils can be buried in the sand, and so there are no space issues, no footprint issues. There are fantastic global examples of ice-thermal storage that do not intrude on valuable real estate footprint. In the US, for example, a school wanted to increase its air conditioning capacity, and so it installed ice thermal storage beneath the basketball court.

Ice is better than chilled water storage, because ice has very high latent capacity – ice in small volume can have high cooling effect – stored refrigeration effect.

Overall, we are trying to promote ice-thermal storage to optimise power generation and space usage in the UAE. Also, the installed capacity of cooling equipment can be reduced.

If we have the thermal load profile, we can downsize the plant by peak shaving of the cooling demand, which can be served by melting ice. The thermal load profile changes from application to application, building to building. That’s why it’s a challenge to arrive at the data. I would imagine a body like DEWA would be most happy to get its hands on the data. I feel the government could sponsor the initiative.

To put things into further perspective, the Dubai International Airport has a cooling capacity of 110,000 TR. They can bring peak demand down by 30% and even release some of the plant room space for DCA’s use. They are facing a challenge with the demand. So, ice-thermal solution is the best solution in cramped spaces. Even the cooling tower size becomes smaller, owing to the downsizing of chiller plants, when supplemented with ice-thermal storage.

I wish to contribute to the region also through promoting the LDAC (Liquid Desiccant Air Conditioner) technology equipment. The system uses liquid desiccant and gives out cool and dry air. It also removes 91% of all viruses in the air stream, so it is also an IAQ product.

I believe it is the first system to remove moisture and simultaneously cool the air. This can be commercially viable for public buildings as well as for any level of stringent humidity conditions, be it in food or pharma. For example, they use the technology in the pharma and food processing industries all over the world. The system we promote increases the COP of any air conditioning system and kills 91% of the viruses in the air, contributing to the indoor environmental quality (IEQ).

Speaking of IEQ, I also want to encourage the use of fabric ducting in the region through the product I represent, which is Durkeesox. Fabric ducting is cleanable and washable on a weekly basis. Of course, one must not forget that the ducting material should have fire-retarding capacity. Anything that is fire-retardant-coated loses its coating and is dangerous – without the coating, the fabric rapidly spreads the fire. The product we promote blends the fire-retardant component in the raw material of the yarn, and then the yarn is produced. That way, the fire-retarding property does not go off after washing. I can say this with absolute conviction, because the testing at our end was done after 50 washes, and the property was intact. That is why we are able to give a 15-year product warranty.

Traditionally, there has been a limitation with fabric ducting in that they have to be installed below the false ceiling, owing to the risk of condensation. Now they are coming up with thermal insulation, though, which probably can allow it to get into the false ceiling.

I do firmly believe that fabric ducting has widespread applications in the food industry, in the high-end warehouses.

Since we at BESTPRO are a full-fledged systems-engineering company, and since every one of our mechanical equipment are rated/certified by CTI, ASTM, AHRI and BS, we have the capability to put the ducting properly in place, as if we were consultants. Unlike typical trading companies, we have an in-house team of engineers with expertise in optimising the entire HVAC system through simple simulations or energy modelling.

Mentors in life

I think I was lucky to work with leadership companies. When it comes to mentors, Roy Hubbard of York (JCI) comes to mind immediately. His hard work and passion for engineering clearly stood out, and his presence was a source of inspiration. S Sankaran – with his simple lifestyle, tenacity and strong engineering skills – was another mentor. K R Sankaran also had a major influence in my life. His energy and memory for details were astounding; little wonder, then, that he had a distinguished career. Ramesh Sarin of Carrier India was another phenomenal personality. He was incredibly forward thinking and a blue-chip manager. Way back in 1989, he said he wanted to see computers on all tables. He used the Internet as early as 1989 through CMC’s Indonet, the first-ever e-mail service in India offered to the private sector.

My family, my interests

My family consists of my wife and son. My wife is a chemistry graduate but has made her mark in graphic design. Her work came in for much appreciation during her stint in the United States. My son has got a bachelor’s degree in Computer Hardware Engineering. After a stint with Akamai in the US, he is now working towards an HEC MBA in Paris.

At one time, my interests revolved around flying. I was a private pilot during my college days in India. I don’t fly anymore. I’m more grounded today and content with practising yoga.


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One comment on “The man from extremes”

  1. swamy says:

    Good crisp biography.

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