A tiny factory and distribution center on the edge of Northeast El Paso is helping people who live off the grid keep food and drinks cold.
The nondescript, 4,000 square-foot metal facility is a key part of a Tucson-based company that each year sells thousands of small, energy-efficient refrigerators, that run on batteries or solar power, to people and medical clinics in places without electricity or unreliable electricity in North America, Africa, and other areas of the world.
SunDanzer Refrigeration Inc., dominates the North American market for the special household refrigerators, which look like box freezers, a company official said. And it’s seeing sales rapidly increase in Africa. That’s where most of its special, vaccine-storage refrigerators go, and where it recently started a project to supply special refrigerators for Kenya dairy farmers to store milk.
“Ninety-nine percent of our customers live off the grid,” said Billy Amos, 56, general manager of SunDanzer’s El Paso facility, located in a small industrial park at 11135 Dyer, a few miles from the New Mexico border.
Amos, who worked as a manager at two El Paso food factories for 14 years, was hired about 10 years ago to open and manage SunDanzer’s El Paso facility, which installs refrigeration components and serves as the company’s shipping hub.
The El Paso facility supplies SunDanzer’s household refrigerators to customers ranging from African village stores to NASCAR racing teams.
“The NASCAR sales came about after I sold a refrigerator to one of the caterers” serving NASCAR teams, and then teams themselves bought them, Amos said.
Mennonite communities in Mexico, Amish communities in the United States, and vacation-home owners in North America are some of its other customers.
The refrigerators sell retail for almost $700 for a 2-cubic-foot unit up to $1,549 for a 14-cubic-foot unit, Amos reported. That does not include solar panels or batteries.
Three of the five workers at the El Paso facility install components in refrigerator cabinets made for the company by an Electrolux factory in Europe.
The El Paso facility ships about 4,000 of the retrofitted refrigerators a year, including about 2,500 household refrigerators and about 1,500 vaccine-storage refrigerators, Amos said. The vaccine-storage refrigerators get special freezing material installed in Tucson before being shipped mostly to clinics in Africa.
The 15-year-old company’s sales are expected to double this year to about 10,000 units, with most of the increase due to a contract the company has to sell 5,000 solar-powered refrigerators this year in Morocco, said David Bergeron, SunDanzer’s founder and president.
David Bergeron, SunDanzer Refrigeration founder and president, stands next to a vaccine-storage refrigerator at the company’s Tucson headquarters. Photo: SunDanzer
Components for the Morocco refrigerators are being done at an Electrolux factory in Europe instead of in El Paso to lower shipping costs, Bergeron said.
Bergeron, 55, a former NASA engineer, started the company in his Houston garage in 1999. In 2003, his family moved to Tucson, where the company is now headquartered and employs about 20 people.
Bergeron helped develop a special freezing method while at NASA, which he now has a NASA license to sell.
The initial idea was to sell refrigerators with a special freezing material so clinics without electricity connections could store vaccines, Bergeron said during a phone interview last week.
But he found the demand was from people who wanted small refrigerators that could run on batteries or solar power for vacation homes and other places located off the electric grid, he said.
“Another U.S. company was selling them when we got into the business, but their cost was too high and (shipping) lead times too long. Our price was lower and we delivered them much faster. We’ve now captured about 90 percent of the U.S. market.”
Lincoln Dahl, owner of African Energy, an Arizona company selling solar components to solar system installers and others in Africa has been selling SunDanzer refrigerators in Africa for about 10 years.
“It sells a very reliable product, and kind of sells itself,” Dahl said. For example, there’s a little town in Africa, near Angola, where every home now has solar panels, he said. One house got a SunDanzer refrigerator through a solar installer, and then other households wanted one, he said. They bought them through the solar installer with loans, he said.
SunDanzer has one competitor in the U.S., and nine companies in other countries, Bergeron said. Seven of those competitors from other countries sell in the medical-clinic market, he said.
In 2011, SunDanzer returned to selling its special vaccine-storage refrigerators to mostly not-for-profit organizations for use in medical clinics in Africa and other areas of the world, he said. The refrigerators run on solar power and contain a special liquid, which freezes, and remains frozen at night and on cloudy days when the solar power is not running, he said.
“The medical (market) sales are a growth area,” Bergeron said. “UNICEF said donations for vaccination projects are increasing and it plans to buy more refrigerators in the next few years,” he said.
In late 2013, SunDanzer received a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to develop a refrigerator for dairy farmers in Kenya to store milk. The company modified its vaccine-storage refrigerators so an aluminum milk container fits inside.
About 40 of the milk-storage refrigerators have been deployed so far, and about 100 more will go out under the grant-funded project, Bergeron said.
The Kenya farmers have been selling the milk warm, but can get more money for their milk if it’s cold, and the milk lasts longer, he said.
The idea is to get farmers in Kenya and other areas of Africa to buy the refrigerators with the extra money they will get by selling cold milk, Bergeron said.
Even though SunDanzer’s refrigerators have helped improve lives, Bergeron said he doesn’t see his company as a social do-gooder.
It’s largest customers are people who have a vacation home, or a ranch, or a store in an African village and can afford to buy one of the company’s refrigerators, he noted.
“We are dependent on making a profit so we can stay in business,” he said. “We have made a profit every year except for the company’s first three or four years of existence,” he said. But he declined to divulge specific financial numbers.