New innovator: Zephair Pre-Pro

Zephair founder Mark Shirley: he is aware of the difficulties builders face when trying to adhere to airtight regulations

Zephair founder Mark Shirley: he is aware of the difficulties builders face when trying to adhere to airtight regulations


So-called “passive” buildings need very little energy to keep them at a comfortable temperature all year. Demand for such accommodation is increasing across the globe and this presents opportunities for Irish companies able to supply the low-energy construction sector.

Enterprise Ireland has already set up the Irish Low Energy and Passive House Cluster to bring these companies together; Carlow-based start-up Zephair, which has developed a device to identify air leaks in new buildings, is waiting in the wings to join them.

Under new building regulations introduced in 2008, all new domestic dwellings must comply with a range of provisions in areas such as energy conservation. This includes testing buildings for air tightness.

“Builders have been trying to comply but there is no ‘school’ of air tightness and many struggle to understand exactly what is being asked of them,” says Zephair’s founder, Mark Shirley. “The Pre-Pro is designed to be used prior to the arrival of the official tester.

“It will identify where there are cracks and gaps and enable remedial action to be taken before the building is formally assessed. It’s a bit like taking your car for a pre-NCT text.”

Shirley has spent many years as an energy consultant and is aware of the difficulties builders face when trying to adhere to airtight regulations.

“There is testing equipment available but it is cumbersome, expensive and not easy to use,” he says. “What I have designed is the opposite. It is light, about half the price and very easy to operate. It can be set up with minimum fuss and does its job quickly and efficiently with as little disruption as possible.

“Basically the Pre-Pro generates an under-pressurisation level in a building and is typically built into an external window or doorframe. The pressure differential is then clearly displayed on the machine’s onboard dial.”

The initial target market for Pre-Pro is the worldwide construction industry and related suppliers such as timber frame companies and door and window manufacturers. Shirley says the product will eventually be available for home use through equipment hire outlets.

Pre-Pro is the first of a number of products Shirley has designed. The company is current working with Carlow IT on extending the line-up with the support of an innovation voucher from Enterprise Ireland. Having designed the Pre-Pro, Shirley needed to find someone to make it for him.

“We were looking for a company with experience in high valued-added manufacturing and were introduced to AuBren in Portlaoise by Enterprise Ireland,” he says. “As it happened, they had expertise in fan design and, with their help, we further refined the product and they are now making it for us. In particular, we needed a machine that was robust and fitted with a top-quality fan that could stand up to heavy use.”

The Pre-Pro costs €950 including VAT and the company, which plans to distribute through a dealer network, has already shipped units in Ireland and to Britain, France and Bulgaria. “An air leakage test costs around €450 so the machine will pay for itself very quickly,” Shirley says. “It is also light enough to be a one-person lift. Competing products are over twice the weight and sometimes need two people to lift them.”

Shirley received mentoring help from the Carlow Enterprise Board and estimates the costs involved so far at about €50,000, which have been self-funded.

“The Pre-Pro is not a replacement for an independent tester using professional series equipment,” Shirley says, “but it will give a very good guide and if the information is acted on appropriately, it will ultimately save money and time.”