Unclogging the filtration business

BY ROBERT P. MADER Of CONTRACTORs staff Click here to download a printable .pdf version of this article. Water filtration is an odd market. On one hand, national surveys show Americans are increasingly concerned about the quality and purity of their tap water. Sears hired Harris Interactive to conduct a survey for it, mostly to help promote sales of its water purification products. The survey, conducted

BY ROBERT P. MADER

Of CONTRACTOR’s staff

Click here to download a printable .pdf version of this article.

Water filtration is an odd market. On one hand, national surveys show Americans are increasingly concerned about the quality and purity of their tap water.

Sears hired Harris Interactive to conduct a survey for it, mostly to help promote sales of its water purification products. The survey, conducted in May, found 47% of respondents indicate their concerns are about health-related contaminants, such as arsenic, lead, pesticides, bacteria and cysts such as cryptosporidium. In New York City, 61% have the same concerns; 48% indicate they are concerned with the taste and odor of their water, particularly chlorine.

Yet, at the same time, Americans don’t seem to have a good grasp of what types of products are available to them, says Bob Maisner, vice president/sales for Watts Premier, Water Systems.

And the economics of the market defy logic.

Contractor Danny Richardson of Richardson Plumbing in Elverton, Ga., says customers will have such iron-rich water that their plumbing fixtures are stained, but they’ll buy scouring powder and bottled water from the grocery store, rather than buy filters from him.

“It’s a human nature thing,” says David Francis of David G. Francis Plumbing & Heating in Norwich, N.Y., a small town about 50 miles east of Syracuse. “A person who enjoys a cup of coffee or cooking a great meal has no problem spending money on this kind of equipment. But others who don’t enjoy a good meal or cup of coffee are absolutely resistant.”

Francis says many of his customers call him because they’re forced to. If their well opens up a new vein and sediment pours into the pipes, they call him. And his local banks require a potability test before the closing on the sale of a house.

Cash flow

The amount of money Americans spend on water is staggering.

The bottled water market is approaching $5 billion a year, Maisner says, for both delivered bottled water and water off the retail shelf, although the delivered bottled water market is in decline.

“When Coke and Pepsi devote vending machines to bottled water, you know there’s a market,” Maisner notes. Both Coke’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aquafina are produced by reverse osmosis.

Bottled water companies deliver RO-purified water at $1.50 to $1.85 per gal. A homeowner, however, could have a plumbing contractor install a $200 under-sink RO system and get the same water for 4 cents to 6 cents per gal.

“It frustrates us as a manufacturer to see people walking around with little plastic bottles of water and they paid more for that water than they pay for gasoline,” says David Krupinski, manager of residential products for Kinetico.

Kinetico is trying to overcome consumers’ lack of awareness with a toll-free advice line and non-commercial educational literature about water treatment options.

What contractors can sell

Plumbing contractors have a variety of products they can offer.

Water softeners are still the biggest selling water treatment product. A softener doesn’t address consumers’ concerns about contaminants or taste and odor problems. It exchanges calcium and magnesium ions for sodium chloride ions.

A sediment filter removes suspended particles, dirt and rust.

Granular activated carbon, or GAC, is an absorber. It reduces some volatile organic chemicals such as chlorine and pesticides, but its primary use is for chlorine, bad taste and odors. It’s used in everything from ice-maker filters to whole-house carbon tanks.

A carbon block is GAC compressed into block form. It functions much the same way as a regular carbon filter but with more absorption and it also reduces particulate matter. Carbon blocks can be made to filter down to a little less than 0.5 micron, which also reduces cysts such as cryptosporidium and giardia. It may be blended with other media to reduce contaminants such as lead.

Reverse osmosis is considered the state-of-the-art in filtration. Using a thin film composite membrane to reduce particles down to the molecular range, RO is the best system to remove almost all contaminants. Carbon filters are used as pre-treatment to RO systems. This is the process used by major water bottling companies as well as Coke and Pepsi.

Ultraviolet light can be used in conjunction with filtration. Many of Francis’ customers in Upstate New York get their water from springs, which he often purifies with UV.

“It’s just a hole in the ground, often 150 to 200 years old,” Francis says. “It’s often been lined with stone block or even concrete.”

A submersible pump feeds the water to a shallow well pump in the basement and a pressure tank. He installs a sediment filter before the pressure tank and the UV after the tank. If he doesn’t use UV to purify the spring water, Francis will sometimes chlorinate it and then install a backwash filter in the basement to remove the chlorine.

Major worries for homeowners seem to be arsenic, chromium 6, nitrates, mercury and the gasoline additive MTBE, but those concerns often vary in different parts of the country, Maisner says.

Water tastes good in the Northeast but customers are concerned about chemical contamination from manufacturing, making carbon filtration popular. Water in places such as Arizona, Nevada or Texas can have high total dissolved solids. The Midwest can have severe hard water, calling for water softeners and iron filters. Some areas in the Southwest have high levels of arsenic. In the Plains States, nitrates from fertilizer runoff may contaminate water.

Contractors should advise their customers to look for filtration products certified by NSF. The not-for-profit company tests and certifies products to make sure they remove what they claim, do not add anything into the water and are structurally sound. More information is available at its Web site, www.nsf.org.