Bill Harrison, CEO of Harrison Energy Partners of Little Rock, sees air conditioning as one of the revolutionary advances of his lifetime, and he’s proud of the hand he’s played in an innovation that opened the South to economic development.
“People throw rocks at air conditioning because we use so much energy; it’s true we do,” he told Arkansas Business. “But air conditioning really allowed the American South to have productive buildings, industrial plants, banks and offices. It’s one of the most outstanding developments of the 20th century, enabling people wherever they live to have healthy, productive and safe buildings.”
Now he wants to “think deeper” on recyclable sourcing and systems that promote a healthy environment.
Harrison has the experience to take all that on. He’s been an innovator in the industry for 57 years, and the company he started in Little Rock is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2023.
Today’s builders pay much more attention to making buildings tight, he says, and Harrison’s aim these days is “missioning systems so that when we turn a building over to the owner, the amount of ventilation air that we’re treating and cleaning keeps the building healthy by creating positive pressure. The air exfiltrates through any leaks, rather than untreated air infiltrating in.”
He spent 17 early years of his career in Louisiana before returning to his native state in 1983 to start HEP, then known as William A. Harrison Inc. He’s been an industry leader almost as long as air conditioning has dominated Southern summers, starting when he got his University of Arkansas engineering degree in 1966.
“Back when I started, the question was: Can you air-condition this building?” Harrison said. “We always said yes, but we didn’t always know how.”
Later, the question shifted to costs, and after the energy crisis of the 1970s, it moved to reducing the amount of energy that the air-conditioning systems consume. “In the 2000s we really got into the conversation about sustainable buildings,” Harrison said.
“That was a very positive move, in my opinion.”
In the wake of COVID, healthy buildings top his priority list. “We have to have buildings that are healthy for the people who work in them. They also have to be productive buildings, and efficient buildings.”
HEP has operations in Little Rock, Springdale, Fort Smith, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, employing more than 180 workers, including 35 engineers and nearly 100 technicians. The company installs new HVAC systems and equipment, offers controls to manage heating and air, and does repairs and maintenance. It serves mechanical contracting and consulting engineering firms, public schools, colleges and manufacturers, banks and hospitals, even property management firms.
Harrison is also proud that the company has been named one of the best places to work in Arkansas eight times, and that alumni have gone on to build remarkable careers. His secret to success? Letting employees “be free to be as good as they can be.”
Harrison doesn’t linger on personal achievements, maybe because it would take too long to list them all. He served as international president of ASHRAE, the former American Society of Heating, Refrigerating & Air-Conditioning Engineers, and was named a distinguished alumnus of the UA College of Engineering.
He has led the Arkansas Academy of Industrial Engineering and the Mechanical Contractors Association and chaired the Arkansas Construction Industry Coalition. Oh, and let’s not forget his membership in the Arkansas Association for Healthcare Engineering and the United States Green Building Council. His nonprofit, Harrison House, offers low-cost housing to kidney and heart transplant patients and their families.
But during an hourlong interview, Harrison plainly stated his business. “First, we work in the new construction market, supplying air-conditioning products to mechanical contractors. We have a building automation group that does control and automation systems that make buildings function well, and we have a large service company. We have a lot of commercial service people running around, taking care of the businesses we serve.”
HEP also has a parts supply operation that handles sourcing of parts and “things like refrigerant, filters and other components you need to make all these systems work.
“We’ve grown from eight associates to about 181 associates today, 45 in Oklahoma and the rest spread out around Arkansas,” Harrison said. “We have about 40 employees in sales and marketing, 96 people out in the field in both service and control automation.” About 37 others are support workers.
It’s a large organization for an engineer who started small.
“I’ve lived through a lot, starting in the air-conditioning business when I got out of the university, and I’ve been pursuing what’s next ever since,” said Harrison, a Sylvan Hills High School graduate. “I have an industrial engineering degree, but I’ve been a practicing mechanical engineer for all those 57 years.”
Most older buildings were drafty, and sealing them became a key factor in cooling, Harrison said. “Then people started noticing that buildings could have an adverse impact on the occupants, and you would hear that this was because the buildings were sealed up so tight they had become unhealthy. Actually, that wasn’t the truth. The truth was that some of those buildings were so loose the wind could blow through them. When that happens in Arkansas, it’s high humidity air coming inside. A treatment system takes the humidity out, but when air is coming in through cracks in the walls, condensation is forming inside wall structures, which is conducive to mold and all sorts of bad things.”
COVID made air filtration more important, Harrison said. “When I was privileged to lead ASHRAE, I traveled all over the world talking about how to make buildings better. We found that many times the buildings are designed and built very well, but the people that operate them don’t always know how to keep them healthy. I’m talking about regular cleaning of filters and that sort of thing.”
Radical new treatment processes, many using ultraviolet technology and ionization, were deployed against airborne germs. “We also started to pay a lot more attention to where air streams inside buildings might be carrying any pathogens that were present.”
The idea, he said, was to avoid an intake of air from places where a lot of people would be temporarily gathered, like the entrance to a theater.
“We don’t want to capture the emissions from all those people and circulate them through the building,” Harrison said.
He recalled HEP’s installation of new air filtration technology in a Tulsa veterinary clinic. “The doctor said he didn’t know if it was really helping with the pandemic, but his place smelled better than ever before.”