Building the Invisible

For this issue’s Building Science feature, Western Home Journal profiles two companies that install products that work behind a home’s walls—doing their jobs in the background. When these systems are functioning at an optimal level, you don’t have to think about the air you breathe and how it is heated, cooled, or purified.

Bozeman-based Premier Air offers the latest HVAC products and trained technicians with customer-focused service. Altitude Control Technologies is a world leader in altitude simulation and offers homeowners and their guests a relief from altitude sickness. The success of these companies is best measured by how well their products and work goes unnoticed. They build the invisible.


premier air

home comfort from the ground up

By Heather Mooney

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“We talk about experiencing the ‘Premier Difference.’It’s about how having our people in your home
makes you feel. It’s about being comfortable, feeling safe, and knowing someone cares.”
–Michelle Dammen, Co-owner, CFO, Business Manager, Premier Air

Core to Premier Air Heating and Cooling’s mission of offering comfort to their clients is providing an exceptional work environment for their crew members, the trained professionals you interact with at your home or business. “We focus on creating a company that feels more like a family. If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your clients,” explains Michelle Dammen, Co-owner, CFO, and Business Manager of Premier Air. While Premier Air delivers high-quality heating and cooling services, that is only part of what they bring to the industry. “We talk about experiencing the ‘Premier Difference.’ It’s more about the experience than the products. It’s about how having our people in your home makes you feel. It’s about being comfortable, feeling safe, and knowing someone cares,” adds Michelle.

Premier Air has boldly built a career-focused business in an industry often known for its rough edges. “We want to prove that you can have a business in this industry that people want to work for. We want to change the stereotype of this career and do what people say can’t be done,” states Michelle. Premier Air makes monthly team building events a priority, provides a minimum of 80 hours of paid training per employee per year, and uses a 4/10 work schedule in the summer so staff members can enjoy three-day weekends.

In addition to providing opportunities for professional advancement, they focus on supporting personal growth too. “We provide good benefits and good pay, and we also offer workshops on things like goal-setting and personal budgeting, to support daily life outside of work,” adds Michelle. In Montana, where there are no certification requirements or even trade school educational opportunities in the HVAC business, this level of integrity in their operations and commitment to skill development gives employees a step up and pays dividends to the projects they undertake.

Premier Air maintains this growth mindset in their application of new technology. “We don’t just do things the way we’ve always done them. We make sure we do at least one thing better today than yesterday,” explains Michelle. Her husband and a co-owner of Premier Air, Chad, shares that forward-thinking outlook. They frequently attend trade shows, participate in a national HVAC mastermind group, and take advantage of manufacturer training sessions to stay on top of the latest practices and technologies.

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“We focus on creating a company that feels more like a family. If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your clients.”
–Michelle Dammen, Co-owner, CFO, Business Manager, Premier Air

They’re also committed to only installing systems and features that they’ve personally tested. Premier Air has equipment installed at their Four Corners shop to provide a first-hand experience to their clients. With a background in education, Michelle loves the part of helping clients understand their options. “We educate our clients on what the options are and help them in the decision-making process, knowing that it’s ultimately not our money to spend. We take care of the expert sizing and professional installation while leaving the product selection and budget up to them,” Michelle continues.

Premier Air is proud to work on any size project, bringing the same level of detail and care to each. Chad studied architecture as an undergraduate at MSU and this knowledge proves invaluable in sizing systems for their customers. “With his architecture background, he knows what’s load-bearing and is able to visualize the finished product in his head. He looks holistically at the project with all the other trades considered,” notes Michelle with pride about her husband’s contributions to the business.

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One feature they’re particularly excited about right now is a system that allows the user to adjust airflow directly at the thermostat, rather than at the furnace. This allows for more frequent and smaller amounts of air flow, providing better air quality. They also offer a smart technology that learns as it goes to improve comfort and save money. “Our big claim to fame is our Comfort Sync System. It has adaptive recovery, essentially a learning technology that learns how long it takes to heat up to certain temperatures. For example, if you want your home at 70 degrees when you wake up at 6:00am, it learns over the first 90 days how long it takes to do that, and then builds that in automatically. This saves money and energy and also makes the home more comfortable,” shares Michelle.

Premier Air also has the only Hypervac duct cleaning truck in Montana. It vacuums by pulling 13,000 cubic feet of air per minute, offering a thorough clean that alternative brush options cannot achieve. “Other options basically move the dust around, and then you have a big puff of dust come into your home when you turn your system back on. With our system everything is sealed off and under negative pressure, and the entire space gets cleaned out safely,” Michelle explains.

When asked what inspires them most about their work, Michelle emphasizes that it’s all about making people’s lives better. “People spend so much time in their homes. How you feel and interact in your home is the part that really inspires me about what we do. It’s not a sexy industry; you don’t get to see 90% of it, but everything we can do behind the wall makes how you experience the space so much more impactful,” exudes Michelle.

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Motivated by improving the lives of their employees, clients, and community, Chad and Michelle have built a business that delivers high-quality services to support this mission of helping people feel comfortable. “I believe in karma; it all comes full circle. Helping people is the biggest part of the equation,” says Michelle. By working with Premier Air, your heating and cooling needs are supported by a company that makes it their business to pay it forward; your home becomes an investment itself in good karma.

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Altitude Control Technologies

Not Sleeping At Altitude

By Ann Zimmerman

LARRY KUTT HAS HEARD THIS STORY MORE THAN ONCE:“I worked my whole life and saved money to build my dream home on a mountain near a ski area. When I’m at my new home, I have headaches and can’t sleep.”

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As a mountaineer, Larry Kutt has a long-standing interest in the effects of altitude on the body. “You really can’t ignore these effects as a mountaineer or as a rescuer,” says Kutt. “Altitude sickness is a very real thing, and it disrupts sleep at high altitudes.” His interest inspired him to seek out a community of physiologists, physicians, and experts in altitude physiology to share their understanding of the effects of altitude and ways to ameliorate them. As an entrepreneur and professor of entrepreneurship in Colorado, Kutt saw glimmers of opportunity to bring this knowledge into practical use.

The first outcome was to develop highly technical simulated altitude environments and oxygen control systems for academic research, military pilot training, and sports conditioning. As a measure of success, in 20 years, there are now 3,000 ACT simulated altitude environments located around the world, including at Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the entire wing of one hospital.

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Kutt and Altitude Control Technologies turned to another
problem. This one presented itself as an often-heard story similar to this: “I worked my whole life and saved money to build my dream home on a mountain near a ski area. When I’m at my new home,
I have headaches and can’t sleep.”

“We are only just beginning to recognize the importance of oxygenated sleeping environments.”
–Larry Kutt, CEO, ACT

“It is classic altitude sickness,” states Kutt. “By going from near sea level to 9,000 feet, the majority of people develop altitude-related insomnia. Oxygen levels at most ski areas are about 30 percent lower than at sea level. Some of the other common effects of altitude sickness are headaches, digestive upset, and fatigue.” The challenge Kutt saw was to reproduce sea level conditions in homes located high in the mountains.

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“We brought in experts from our medical board of advisors,” Kutt recalls. “The solution is not as simple as just adding oxygen to the sleeping area environment. To be safe and effective, oxygen must be measured and controlled relative to barometric pressure, and of course barometric pressure is constantly changing. Also, oxygen has the potential to increase fire risk if not handled properly. For that reason, we incorporated the National Fire Protection Association standards for safe oxygen use in our algorithms. This sophisticated technology addresses all of these issues, but it is extremely easy to use. Basically you turn it on and feel good.”

ACT’s Altitude Control System has three components. First is an oxygen extractor, about the size of a carry-on suitcase with a digital screen, a gauge, and an on/off switch. Within the box are circuit boards. Essentially, it is a molecular sieve that separates the nitrogen and oxygen molecules in ordinary air and uses the oxygen while venting the nitrogen outside the house.

The second component is a color touch-screen control system. Sensors (the third component) register oxygen levels, barometric pressure, and air quality and transmit this data to the controller. The programming will maximize oxygen levels but not exceed fire protection standards based on the conditions it monitors with the sensors. The result is an atmosphere with an effective altitude that is 7,000 feet lower.

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“The majority of people sleep poorly at altitude, and 100 percent say their sleep improves with an ACT system,” reports Kutt. He goes on to explain that most of the systems ACT installs are in bedrooms, and that ACT systems are engineered to run very quietly. “People who sleep in an oxygenated environment get fully oxygenated at night. It’s sufficient to prevent altitude sickness and allows them to fully enjoy daytime activities like skiing, hiking, and biking.”

“People who sleep in an oxygenated environment get fully oxygenated at night. It’s sufficient to prevent altitude
sickness and allows them to fully enjoy daytime activities like skiing, hiking, and biking.”
–Larry Kutt, CEO, ACT

“We are only just beginning to recognize the importance of oxygenated sleeping environments,” Kutt says. “We have learned from real estate professionals that problems adjusting to altitude are the principal reasons behind property turnovers at high altitudes.”

Asked about installation, Kutt explains that they install in both existing homes and in new homes, but almost all the projects they work on are at least at an altitude of 7,000 feet. What’s involved? “After the initial call, we analyze the rooms for air volumes and oxygen retention. We run a computer simulation using fluid dynamics.” The result is some sophisticated engineering. Most installations take two days. “Right now, about 70 percent of our projects are existing homes and 30 percent are new construction.”

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The system and the controller can operate on a stand-alone basis or be integrated with home automation systems. With an app on the phone, homeowners can turn on systems during travel so that upon arrival the space is fully oxygenated. Will this catch on? “I truly believe that oxygenation systems will become as accepted and expected as radiant heat is today,” says Kutt. However, he warns that there are wrong ways of doing it with serious consequences, pointing to an event at one of the Smithsonian Museums. “An improper oxygenation system from an unqualified company led to a fire. ACT provided a replacement system that has been working perfectly for years.”

Larry Kutt has a passion for technology, products, and the steps required to make good ideas a reality. He co-founded the School of Entrepreneurship at Metro State University in Denver with the intention of inspiring others to follow their passions, as well.