Nancy S. Copeland entered the building construction industry on the ground floor, but now has her sights set on the ceiling.
Tile, that is, especially those that are stained, warped or otherwise in need of repair or cleaning.
After three years of research and development, Columbia-based Ceiling Seal is trying to establish a niche in the building management market as a company that can help building owners save money and do a good deed for the environment, said Ms. Copeland, the owner and founder.
Ceiling Seal has applied for a patent on a machine that covers dirty ceiling tiles with vinyl or other materials through a vacuum suction and heating process at a rate of 600 square feet an hour. Tiles are removed from a ceiling, sprayed with adhesive, then placed on the machine for processing.
"To the best of our knowledge, no one else is selling this machine in the nation," Ms. Copeland said.
The finished product is a tile that looks like new, minimizes pollution from dust and other particles and has its acoustic and light reflection qualities restored. The protective cover, which comes in various colors, designs and textures, can be cleaned with water, Ms. Copeland said.
The process allows building owners to reuse old tiles rather than discard them at landfills, where they take up space and cost the owner, and ultimately taxpayers, money, she said.
The other options -- cleaning or painting old tiles -- have proved costly and inefficient, said Ms. Copeland.
She performed those functions as the owner of Copeland Construction Services Inc., a South Carolina-based business she disbanded to launch Ceiling Seal.
"The construction slowdown necessitated a change," said Ms. Copeland, a second-degree black belt in karate who has owned three small businesses. "I put everything into this environmental baby."
Howard County government officials have visited Ceiling Seal and expressed interest in recycling tiles to save money for large office and school remodeling projects.
In a letter to School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, County Council Vice Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, said he was "very impressed" with the potential for saving money and landfill space.
Del. Virginia M. Thomas, a Howard Democrat, has written to state construction, health and environment officials asking them to evaluate the merits of restoring and reusing ceiling tiles.
"If this is a good process and leads to recycling, I'm pushing recycling any way I can," said Ms. Thomas, vice chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.
"Anything that doesn't belong in the landfill, we should keep out," she said.
Ms. Copeland, 37, started her construction industry career as a do-it-all assistant to a "major developer" in South Carolina, then embarked on her own business as a cleaning services contractor in 1981. Four years later she launched her construction services business, which employed 90 people to do whatever was necessary in finishing work to complete major commercial projects all over the East Coast.
Although Ms. Copeland said she has stronger "political" ties in the South -- "I don't talk funny down there," she says of her Southern accent -- she moved to Columbia two years ago because of the large amount of commercial and government building space in the Baltimore-Washington region.
Ms. Copeland has tested her tile process with clients such as Marriott Corp. with which she worked in her construction services business.
Ellicott City resident Doug Doudt, who has owned several local businesses, joined Ms. Copeland about a year ago to market the machine to building owners, who could have maintenance crews handle in-house work.
They also are planning a national marketing effort and developing a licensing plan under which Ceiling Seal could sell or lease the machine to contractors, who would perform work for building owners, Ms. Copeland said. Under the plan, Ceiling Seal would retain a 5 percent residual, and reserve the right to protect the market, including prices and quality, she said.
Ms. Copeland would not say how much Ceiling Seal has invested in research and development, except to say she had "grossly underestimated" costs. She would not say how much the machines will cost to buy or lease.