Gauging the market

Posted Feb. 06, 2009, at 9:01 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:47 a.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — More than 30 years ago, a local company got its start in the weather instrument business by developing a way to measure rainfall without having to stick a ruler in a bucket, then dump the water out.

RainWise Inc. has grown since then, but not drastically. It employs 16 people and still occupies the same four-story, downtown Bar Harbor building that it constructed and moved into in 1986.

But the firm is about to break out of the traditional weather-monitoring business. It will continue making rain gauges, wind sensors, thermometers and barometers, but it is hoping it can become a market leader in measuring something else entirely.

It is teaming with PowerHouse Dynamics, a small firm in Blue Hill, to provide homeowners with a way to chart how much electricity flows through each circuit in their homes.

Other companies are working to get similar products to market, according to Wayne Burnett, RainWise’s software engineer.

“We’re up against some stiff competition,” Burnett said during a recent interview at the company’s Federal Street location, where it develops, manufactures and ships all of its products. “There’s no one that has tied it all together the way we have.”

The new device, called eMonitor, measures the energy usage of individual circuits in a house. Through an Internet interface, users can keep track of how much energy each circuit uses at any given time.

The way RainWise has “tied it all together,” as Burnett put it, is by coming up with a system that monitors a home’s energy usage and its outdoor weather all at once. Home energy usage often is closely linked with weather, Burnett said, and any system that bundles such information not only will satisfy weather buffs but will en-able them to break down their energy usage and link it to weather the way power company meters cannot.

Burnett has one circuit at his house that serves as a good example of how his electricity usage fluctuates.

With a prototype monitor, he can keep track of when the heater in his outdoor hot tub switches on and off. Just by seeing the red spike of that circuit’s activity on his work computer monitor, he said, he was inspired to put a secondary Styrofoam lid under the larger, factory-produced cover that came with the hot tub.

The additional Styrofoam has helped him save a little bit on his electrical usage, he said, but not much. Still, it’s an example of how eMonitor users can chart and adjust their electricity consumption. Simply by monitoring their energy usage and making minor changes to their everyday behavior, Burnett said, eMonitor users should be able to reduce their electric bills by 10 percent.

Lonnie White, RainWise’s sales and marketing vice president, said a “bare bones” version of the product is expected to retail for about $600, which can be recovered by customers who use the system to help reduce their energy bills. RainWise and PowerHouse plan to roll out several hundred units in May as they bring the prod-uct to market, he said.

Mounting interest in energy efficiency also has prompted the company to come out with a more traditional weather-monitoring product. RainWise’s Windlog is a wind data recorder that is designed to determine whether wind speeds and consistency at a specific location are adequate for powering a turbine.

This is something wind resource maps, which tend to be accurate over wide areas, usually cannot do, according to White. Windlog can record at intervals between one minute and one hour and can log up to two months of data. RainWise developed it because the company was getting frequent requests for that kind of device.

“It’s for feasibility to see if [a wind turbine] would work or not,” White said.

Windlog is expected to hit the market later this month, he said.

White declined to say how much RainWise makes in annual revenue, but described it as “a multimillion-dollar company.” Most of its sales are in the United States, including to government contractors and agencies, he said, but it has shipped products to some 70 countries.

White said that though it started out making consumer products only, about 70 percent of RainWise’s sales now are to commercial users such as emergency response agencies that may have to deal with hazardous waste spills or to industrial machinery operators who want to monitor atmospheric data around their equipment.

RainWise sells 200 to 250 consumer units each month, White said. The niche of the company, he added, is its ability to customize orders and products for its clients.

The new electricity and wind-monitoring products, though they may help the firm’s bottom line, are not expected to have an immediate effect on RainWise’s focus or scope, according to White. The company’s Federal Street building may be more cramped than a typical production facility, he said, but the firm has no plans to ex-pand or relocate.

RainWise still makes the self-emptying black bucketlike gauges that measure rainfall, which is the product that essentially launched the company. Many of the company’s products now are wireless, which not only makes them more mobile but has greatly reduced the potential of damage from nearby lightning strikes, White said.

RainWise offers two-year warranties for its consumer products and five-year warranties for its industrial products, according to White. Most weather instrumentation firms guarantee their products for only one year, he said.

John Baer, the company’s founder, started RainWise in 1974 in Pennsylvania, but moved it to Bar Harbor in 1981. In 2004, he considered selling the firm to a buyer who would have moved it to China, but he ended up selling it to the company’s employees instead, according to White. RainWise now has eight owners, each of whom works for the company and has a vested interest in keeping it in Maine.

“It’s now 100 percent employee-owned,” White said. “Certainly, we’d all be doing something different these days” if the company had moved overseas.

White said that, to ensure its long-term viability, RainWise will continue to explore new products such as eMonitor and Windlog.

“You’ve got to keep up with the Joneses,” he said.

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