How This Family Built a $15 Million Business Around Melting Ice
by Leigh Buchanan
Mark MacCracken’s family business has run hot and cold over the years. Cold has more staying power.
MacCracken is, broadly speaking, in the ice business. Rockefeller Center is one prominent client of Calmac, his $15 million company, based in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Walk inside 30 Rock on a steamy summer day and enjoy the cool that comes courtesy of ice generated overnight and stored in thermal tanks to power the facility’s air conditioning. In winter, strap on your blades and slice across the site’s iconic skating rink, which is, in fact, a portable ice mat. Both the cooling system and the rink are products of Calmac.
MacCracken’s father, Calvin, who founded the company in 1947, was among the more prolific inventors of last century. He developed 250 products and held 80 patents, including one for the Hot Dog Roll-a-Grill, that hypnotic wiener-rotation device ubiquitous in ballparks and convenience stores. Calvin died in 1999, but Calmac soldiers on selling two of his innovations: skating rinks and, principally, thermal storage tanks, which cool more than 4,500 buildings worldwide, including the corporate headquarters of JC Penney, Marriott, and Google.
Clients such as TIAA-CREF, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley reside just 20 miles away in Manhattan. Besides Fair Lawn’s proximity to New York City, its main draw for manufacturers is a multitude of transport options. “We have residential on one side and railroad tracks on the other,” says Mark MacCracken. “We are near Port Newark.” The company’s products were designed to load into a shipping container with a half-inch to spare on each side.
Calmac’s tanks are set up in large buildings, often in the basement. During the night, when electricity prices are low, they make ice. During the day, when electricity prices are high, the ice melts and the resulting cold liquid–a water-and-glycol solution–circulates through the building via pipes to cool the air.
“If you are having a party, you would not think it’s a good idea to start making ice cubes when people start walking in the door,” says MacCracken. But that, essentially, is how traditional air conditioning systems work. In the morning, someone flips a switch and chillers start drawing electricity to cool the water that cools the air. That approach “is double or triple the price, and it strains our electric grid on hot summer days,” says MacCracken. “At nighttime, you could be making [and storing energy in the form of] ice for a lot less money and be prepared for the people coming in the next day.
“We are kind of like a battery,” says MacCracken, “only we are storing cooling rather than electrons.”
Blades of glory
Calvin MacCracken grew up on the campus of Vassar College, where his father was president for more than 30 years. After graduating from Princeton at age 20 with a bachelor’s degree in astronomy and then from MIT at 21 with a bachelor’s in engineering, Calvin took a job with General Electric. There he worked in secret to design the combustion chamber and throttle for the world’s first jet engine, which was used in World War II.
In 1947, Calvin launched his own creative engineering company, called Jet-Heet, in Englewood, New Jersey. Jet-Heet developed products for clients like Whirlpool and Westinghouse, as well as Calvin’s own brainstorms, which it also manufactured.
Many of Calvin’s inventions involved heat. The most successful included a pad that keeps hospital patients warm or cool and a super-efficient furnace that for years was Jet-Heet’s chief revenue source. Typically, the company would manufacture such products for a while before selling the intellectual property. Then it was on to the next thing. (When Calvin sold his furnace patents, the name Jet-Heet went with them and Calmac was born.)
In the 1960s, that next thing was skating. Most ice rinks back then were made of steel pipes laid in concrete through which cold liquid ran. But metal under those conditions rusts and eventually fails. Calvin solved the problem by embedding plastic tubes in mats that could be spread on the ground like a carpet.
Today there are about 800 Calmac rinks around the world, including the one at 30 Rock. “When we get to Rock Center in the fall, we roll these mats out and connect the pipes to a chiller in the building,” says Mark MacCracken. “They circulate liquid through, and you just spray water and build up a layer of ice. By October 15th, Katie Couric is out there skating on the Today show.”
Fire and ice
A flickering flame appears on the screen, ghostly in black and white, like an image from a David Lynch movie. This is an episode of 2000 AD, a 1950s TV program about life in the future. Calvin MacCracken is a guest. “What is needed in the solar energy field,” he tells the moderator, “is the Henry Ford who can come along and mass-produce at low cost these vast areas of solar collectors that are required to make [solar energy] possible.”
Twenty years later, Calvin was making his own solar energy collectors, encouraged by new interest in renewables. But public enthusiasm for solar flagged in the ’80s, and the business–now with Mark MacCracken aboard–became embroiled in an expensive lawsuit when a competitor violated one of its solar patents. And in 1980, two days before Christmas, Calmac burned to the ground.
Underinsured and short on cash, the MacCrackens chose to simultaneously raise funds and end litigation by selling to their competitor the solar patent and exiting that business. Instead they would make thermal storage units, which Calvin had begun developing in 1977. The cooling mechanism was not entirely novel. “In theaters in New York City, they used to have big blocks of ice in the basement,” says Mark MacCracken. “When people came in at night, they would blow air over the ice to cool them down.”
Depending on the size of the facility, a customer will buy anywhere from one to several hundred of Calmac’s plastic tanks, in which ice is made and stored. The smallest customer might be a church or school. The largest is the University of Arizona, which uses 250 tanks to cool 11 million square feet of classrooms and offices in heat that may reach the triple digits.
“Our Tucson electric provider charges us more for the energy we use between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., so we use our ice machines and chillers at night,” says Mark St. Onge, the university’s assistant director of facilities management. That allows the university to reduce its electrical consumption by about 4 megawatts at peak hours, for an annual savings of $360,000. “It’s good for the utility,” says St. Onge, “and it’s good for the environment.”
A green legacy
Sustainability has been a Calmac watchword since its earliest days, when Calvin MacCracken was predicting the future of solar on television. Its storage systems reduce energy usage by roughly 35 percent, says Mark MacCracken. They also reduce the need for carbon-emitting “peaker plants”–power plants that kick in when there is high demand for electricity.
The family’s green reputation is acknowledged by, among others, Al Gore, who quotes Mark MacCracken in his book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis. MacCracken’s older brother, Michael, is a climate change expert and scientific adviser to Gore.
“Thirty-five years ago, my brother was telling me about sea-level change and storms getting more intense and disease spreading north from the tropics,” says Mark MacCracken. “All the stuff that is going on was predicted, and it is going to continue. We have to get back to a more sustainable existence for this planet. Energy storage is part of that.”