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Then & Now: Former ‘dumb jock,’ partner have energy-saving idea

Duo develop better way to cool buildings

Rob Young has always considered himself a “dumb jock.”

It’s an affectionate and long-held self assessment that dates back to his college days at the University of Idaho, where he earned the reputation of being an aggressive, hard-to-tackle All-Big Sky Conference running back – and the toughest player Dennis Erickson said he ever saw.

But these days, the 62-year-old Spokane resident and Shadle Park graduate, who has operated his own small construction company, RY Construction Inc., for nearly 35 years, feels more like a dumb jock who has stumbled onto an energy saving invention that could very well end up making him look like a genius – and a wealthy one, at that.

Young and Larry Andrews, another Shadle Park alumnus who owns Andrews Mechanical Inc., have teamed to develop an innovative radiant cooling system they hope will become a staple in homes and businesses throughout the country and, eventually, the world.

They have installed prototypes of their system, which uses water piped directly from the aquifer, in seven different buildings in the Nine Mile Falls area. The first one was put into use in 2000, and about 3½ years ago Young and Andrews formed their own company, RaCool, in order to devote more time and resources to their invention.

They placed their most-recent radiant cooling prototype in a three-story building and, according to Young, have been able to keep the inside temperature at 71 degrees – even on a scorching 101-degree summer day – by simply running water from the city, which comes into homes at about 48 degrees, through pipes in the ceiling and floors.

“We’re outperforming traditional air conditioners, and it’s all passive,” Young explained, adding that several other types of energy efficient measures like increased insulation and air-exchange systems have been employed to assist in the radiant cooling of the prototype buildings.

After running their invention past officials at Avista and being urged to apply for a patent, Young and Andrews did just that. They hired an attorney and went public with their patent late last month.

“It’s not a final patent, yet,” Young explained, “but it’s part of the process. They announced it, and then in about 16 months we’ll have a full patent.”

Young realizes he still has many hurdles – including the raising of some much-needed capital – to clear before bringing his dream to fruition. But he is hoping our country’s increased awareness in the need to conserve energy and develop new alternative energy sources, as well, will help speed up the process.

He points to several studies, including one financed by the Department of Energy, that cite radiant cooling as a potential energy conserving “wave of the future.”

“The Department of Energy has said it would like to have a prototype built by 2010, and that by 2025 they would expect every building in the country to be built according to what you might call our specifications,” Young said. “When we told our patent attorney about our prototype, it just blew him away.

“He told us, ‘You guys are in a poker game right now as far as who gets the edge in developing this technology, and I’d like to be sitting in your position.’ He thinks we’re really on to something significant, and so do we.”

Young estimates he and Andrew have invested a couple of million dollars in their invention.

“It’s not like we went out and invented a new diaper pin, or something,” he said. “We know this is significant, and as the paradigm keeps changing, we’re expecting all hell to break loose.”

Which is an exciting thought for Young, who first established himself as a “typical dumb jock” type and punishing runner during his college days at Idaho. As a senior in 1968, he led the Vandals in rushing, gaining 979 yards, and scoring four touchdowns – one on a pass reception – on a 5-5 team that preferred throwing the football over running it.

For his efforts, Young was named to the All-Big Sky team, an honor he still cherishes, after initially being cut from both his Glover Junior High and Shadle Park High teams as a teenager.

“I was probably misplaced at running back,” admits Young, who was a sturdy 6-foot-1, 215-pounder at the time. “I probably should have been a defensive player, because I really liked contact.

“But running back was actually more fun, because I still got to hit people. And when you were the guy with the full head of steam running over people, it was a lot easier than trying to tackle somebody with that same head of steam.”

Erickson, who went on to establish himself as a legendary college coach with stops at Idaho and Washington State among his many gigs, was a quarterback at Montana State when Young was at UI.

“Dennis told me one time that I was the toughest guy he had ever played against,” Young said, “which I took to be a great compliment. Of course, I could probably say the same thing about him.”

After graduating from Idaho, Young signed a free agent contract with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and was part of a rookie class that included “Mean Joe” Green, Rocky Bleier, Terry Hanratty and L.C. Greenwood.

“It was a nice compliment to be in that kind of company,” Young recalled, “but I wouldn’t want to mislead anybody. I felt like I belonged back then, but I was waived early in camp.”

Young added he didn’t get along very well with Steelers coach Chuck Noll during his short stay in the NFL.

“But then, he was the guy who cut me,” Young explained, “so why would I like him?”

After being waived by the Steelers, Young played some local semi-professional football before spending half a season with the Ottawa Rough Riders in the Canadian Football League. His football career ended, however, in the spring of 1971 when he suffered a serious shoulder injury in Idaho’s annual alumni game.

The stainless steel pin inserted in his shoulder following the injury is still there.

“I couldn’t get through airport security,” Young joked, “so I gave up football.”

After taking nearly six months to rehabilitate his injured shoulder, Young began working construction with a couple friends and eventually formed his own company.

Young married his college sweetheart, Dottie, during his senior year at Idaho, but they divorced 10 years later after having two children – a daughter, Alexa, who lives in Spokane, and a son, Bo, who manages a bar and restaurant in the Seattle area.

Young, who never remarried, ended up with custody of the children, and raised them both while running his construction business.

His idea to invent a better way to cool buildings was hatched while he was visiting his late father in a nursing home and saw him shivering in front of a wall-mounted heating and cooling unit.

“In the summer he was always freezing because the air conditioner was blowing him out,” Young recalled, “and in the winter it would never give him enough heat.

“As a builder and small contractor, I’ve always been interested in building a better mousetrap, and it came to me then that you can probably build a better building, as well. Forced air is not the answer, and it never has been.”

So Young went to Andrews with his dream of building that better building through the use of a variety of different energy efficient design techniques.

Andrews enthusiastically embraced the idea and now the two close are waiting to see where their radiant cooling system might take them.

“It’s kind of like the guy who might have come up with the catalytic converter and thought, ‘OK, this is kind of neat,’ but it didn’t amount to anything until the government decided it was going to be a mandate,” Young said. “This has been a 10-year struggle, and it’s cost us a ton of money.

“We just couldn’t get anybody to believe in us, because it just didn’t click with them. But now, with the government being involved, who knows?”