Jeff Johnson finds power in unusual places

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by IBR Contributor Published: November 17th, 2008

You would be greatly mistaken if you thought “custom refrigeration equipment” meant Jeff Johnson is making refrigerators.

“It’s refrigeration, not refrigerators. We build cooling systems, not what goes in your kitchen,” Johnson said.

Not that he probably wouldn’t be able to build a refrigerator. At Johnson Thermal Systems in Caldwell, there is a slew of equipment Johnson builds. He does manufacturing and contracting work for various companies. Some common jobs for Johnson include designing and building cooling equipment for breweries and dairies, chillers for magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) and even alternative energy systems.

One of Johnson’s larger projects deals specifically with methane gas. “Poop power,” he called it. The equipment he builds sucks the methane out of a human waste digester at waste water treatment plants and converts it into fuel. “Most plants just have to burn the excess methane,” said Johnson, “but our equipment converts it into energy.”

His equipment takes the methane gas and purifies it of sulfur and acids, at which point the gas has been heated to about 140 degrees; it then needs to be cooled, Johnson said. Depending on certain specifications, the fuel can then be used for equipment like small turbines or engines, he said. Johnson used to only build the refrigeration part of the equipment but now builds the entire machine. For this, he primarily works with a company in California called Stewart Engineered Equipment Co., which sells his methane gas converters to places like the ESC Co. in Redmond, Wash. He also builds equipment to convert excess gases into energy for the company Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in California, and he is collaborating with General Electric on new MRI equipment.

Johnson said he has equipment shipped to places such as California, Wisconsin and even Toronto, Canada. His favorite part of the job is problem solving with all of this different equipment. “I like working with a group of people to solve problems,” Johnson said, adding, “and I rarely build the same thing twice.”
Johnson originally began his company in 2004 and moved to Caldwell from San Diego in 2005. He recently opened “an actual shop,” he said, after working out of his home for several years. The new shop is located at 1614 Industrial Way, Ste. 104, in Caldwell.
After moving from California, he was still working primarily with California vendors for his material, but now said he is finding the Treasure Valley has more to offer than he realized. “I’ve been trying to put more focus on local vendors and buy local,” he said.
And as far as all the people he needs to build all of this equipment? “We have five employees, two that are new, and we might have three more people in the next year,” he said.

Johnson expects to continue expanding on manufacturing and contracting work. “I would be disappointed if by 2009 we haven’t made $2 million in sales,” he said.
But with the increasing jobs and opportunities Johnson has been given, he still keeps it in perspective. “I try not to be too ‘pie in the sky,’” he said.

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