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Atwater: Making chilly 'AIR' is hot business in Atwater

Jim Andrie, executive vice president at AIR, stands next to a component of a refrigerant unit manufactured at the Atwater facility. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange1 / 3
The exterior of a nearly completed refrigerant unit manufactured at AIR in Atwater is shown. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange2 / 3
One of the components of a refrigerant unit manufactured at AIR in Atwater is shown in this submitted photo.3 / 3

Given the fact that Minnesotans know a little bit about being cold, it seems rather appropriate that a Minnesota company would make equipment that does things like "blast freezing" and "spiral cooling."

American Industrial Refrigeration's manufacturing facility and field education and service headquarters, located along U.S. Highway 12 in Atwater, has been making large, self-contained refrigeration units and refrigeration piping since 1980. They are used in the food industry around the world.

Their uniquely-engineered units are used to keep dairy, meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables properly chilled for processing, transportation and storage.

American Industrial Refrigeration, known as AIR, started in 1978 with three men, including John Larson, who was a steamfitter for an Atwater plumbing and heating business. Manufacturing initially took place in California -- close to produce fields -- but moved to Atwater 32 years ago. The engineering and world-wide sales headquarters is located in Plymouth.

The company engineers, builds, installs and services a variety of cooling systems and piping, including immense free-standing mechanical refrigeration units that are as much as 65-feet long and weigh 92,000 pounds. "It literally looks like a mobile home," said John Collins, director of engineering.

These packaged systems house the entire mechanical system and are placed outside of the processing facility. "It's the complete package," said Collins.

Despite the recent recession and a change in ownership 2½ years ago when the company merged with the Corval Group of St. Paul, AIR has strong sales, with $22 million in sales anticipated for 2012.

"People are surprised with the business we do," said Jim Andrie, vice-president of construction at AIR.

AIR builds systems that are specifically designed for individual business needs -- some with as much as 1,100 tons of refrigeration capacity. (The typical home air-conditioning unit has 3 tons of refrigeration capacity.)

"You can't buy them off the shelf," said Collins. "We could cool a small town with one unit."

Part of the steady growth is because of a decision early-on to use naturally-occurring ammonia as the refrigerant.

"Our company was founded on ammonia refrigeration," said Andrie.

Ammonia was used heavily for industrial refrigeration in the early 1900s in the U.S. but faded out because of issues with odor and the development of halocarbon alternatives -- such as the trademark product name Freon.

In the 1970s some thought ammonia had out-lived its usefulness as a refrigerant, said Andrie.

But then studies began showing the harm chemically-based refrigerants were causing to the atmosphere's ozone.

Ammonia is less harmful environmentally than other refrigerants, said Andrie. It's also less expensive. The old-style refrigerants cost $13 to $14 a pound. Ammonia costs about $1 a pound.

The odor issue is actually an advantage because leaks can be detected immediately, whereas other harmful refrigerants are odorless, he said.

The food industry's transition to systems that use ammonia has meant increased business for AIR as companies upgrade equipment for doing things like cooling milk, freezing ice cream, post-harvest cooling of fruits and vegetables, cooling of meat, poultry and fish and refrigeration of beverages.

"Practically all fruits, vegetables, produce and meats, as well as many beverages and juices, pass through at least one facility that uses an ammonia refrigeration system before reaching our homes," according to information on the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration website.

One of AIR's local customers is Jennie-O, which uses cooling systems in their turkey-processing facilities.

Dairy processors, which need to get the core temperature of ice-cream to minus 20 below, are also big customers.

Speed is the issue when it comes to cooling tender produce as it comes out of the fields.

When it's 85 degrees outside, fruit and vegetables break down quickly, said Andrie. The shelf-life is increased the faster the produce is chilled.

Along with promoting the more environmentally and economically sound ammonia, AIR also works with companies to address other energy resources used in production.

Leaving a smaller "carbon footprint" is an issue that's now part of the discussion, said Andrie.

There are still challenges in the industry, including finding qualified workers, such as engineers, certified welders and pipe-fitters, as experienced ones retire.

He said there are very good employment opportunities at businesses like AIR for skilled craftsmen and engineers. Andrie said there are 3,500 licensed pipe-fitters in Minnesota and the industry needs about 20 percent more.

He said the lack of vocational training in Minnesota's high schools has resulted in a shortage of skilled workers needed for good-paying manufacturing jobs. "I think the schools are missing the boat here," said Andrie.

AIR has been doing an increasing amount of business with food industry plants located in the U.S. that are now owned by international companies. But he said the "up-tick" in the U.S. economy means American-owned companies are also stepping up production.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750