Addressing customers' worries about household water quality.

There's a lot more to water than just two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Sometimes, there's also atrazine, lead, nitrates and radon to say nothing of metallic taste and rotten egg odors.

For New Hampshire contractor Don Morin,, "fixing" water goes hand in hand with fixing any other plumbing product. "When a plumber makes a service call to repair a faucet, and he sees that the brass is all deteriorated or there's blueish-green corrosion discoloring the sink," says Morin, Don Morin & Associates, Laconia, N.H., "he'd better talk to the customer about the quality of the water going through that faucet."

For that matter, the plumber better add what that water might be doing as it goes through the consumer, too. If you're a plumber, you know water. Increasingly, more and more Americans want to know just what's in their home's water. Morin is one contractor who's been at the forefront of this growing concern since opening a Culligan dealership in 1974. Today his Water Shed division installs 225-250 units a year that, depending on the need, soften water and filter impurities from drinking water. His service and repair technicians routinely cross-sell with the Culligan crew, and vice versa. A newly inaugurated "Home Care Plan" is designed to audit a homeowner's needs, recommend treatment and offer "value pricing" on any needed repairs. Just a few years ago, Morin even became a wholesaler of sorts, stocking a line of lesser priced water treatment equipment than the premium Culligan line. He hopes to develop a market for other area plumbers to address their customers' concerns, regardless of the size of their pocketbooks.

"Water treatment is a natural for plumbers," he adds. "It's no different from selling a consumer a new water heater."

Morin's many rural customers are prime candidates for water softening. But making hard water "soft" is only one part of addressing a consumer's water treatment concerns. Slowly but surely, Morin's business has also grown to address health issues as well.

Regardless of their address, Americans don't express much confidence in the quality of their water - and these concerns offer plumbers a tremendous opportunity to ply their trade in a multimillion dollar market. In a report issued at the beginning of the year, marketing consulting firm Frost & Sullivan said manufacturers of residential water treatment equipment sold almost $784 million in the United States in 1997. (Replacement parts and replacement filters are not included in this tally.)

Big Concerns

To see what's on the consumer's mind, take a look at just two recent reports. A USA Today/ CNN/Gallup Poll found that

47 percent of respondents won't even drink water straight from the tap. No wonder. A further investigation by the paper conducted last year reported that 40,000 local and municipal water agencies serving almost 60 million consumers violated federal drinking water standards in 1997. Among the impurities flowing from the tap: heavy metals, chlorine-resistant bacteria and, in the environmental irony of the day, dangerous byproducts from the disinfection process itself.

Twenty-five years after the enactment of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the paper's investigation underscored the problem that even national laws aren't working, and are routinely undermined by inadequate funding, inaccurate data, a soft regulatory approach and weak political support. Even the worst violations of drinking water laws have just a 1 in 10 chance of drawing legal action by the government.

Beside federal inaction, 11 states have yet to implement all of the Safe Drinking Water Act's contamination limits. At least 13 states don't meet federal guidelines dictating that they inspect water systems every three to five years. A half dozen have not given their water programs the authority to levy fines.

Another good indication comes from a new survey performed by the Water Quality Association, an international trade group composed of manufacturers, dealers and retailers. This is the third such report the WQA has issued and it reiterates the results of previous surveys showing water quality is a top concern to a majority of Americans.

According to the 1999 National Consumer Water Quality Survey, consumer use of home water treatment systems is at an all-time high, and has even caught up with the use of bottled water. (For more on the bottled water market, see sidebar.) In fact, nearly two-thirds of consumers are using some form of water treatment, bottled water or both.

Here are some of highlights from the 1999 WQA survey:

  • Sixty percent of adults believe the quality of their drinking water affects their health.

  • About three-quarters have some concerns regarding the quality of their household water supply.

  • Almost half are concerned about possible health-related contaminants.

  • One in five is dissatisfied with the quality of his or her household water supply.

  • One in three believes his or her water is not as safe as it should be.

  • Forty-six percent would like to know more about the quality of their household water supply.

The number of adults who reported using a household water treatment device jumped to 38 percent from 32 percent in the 1997 WQA survey, and represents an 11-point, or 28 percent, increase since the first WQA study done in 1995. In the same four-year period, the percentage of consumers who reported using either a home water treatment device or drank bottled water rose to 62 percent from 53 percent.

"As Americans' lifestyles have changed so have their habits as they refuse to take water quality for granted in an era of heightened awareness about the importance of diet, exercise and environment when it comes to their health and sense of well being," said WQA executive director ,Peter Censky.

Censky's health concerns are also identified as one of the "market drivers" in the Frost & Sullivan report: "Fitness is another powerful trend that companies are using to attract new customers. The advertising companies are creating a strong linkage between health and their drinking water. When someone drinks purified water, they feel as if they are drinking 'health.'"

Excellent Position

Plumbers are in an excellent position to make recommendations for water treatment, says ,Larry Johnson, director of sales for CUNO Inc. Meridien, Conn. "The majority of service calls that happen in a home could have been prevented in the past with proper water filtration equipment," Johnson says.

CUNO has spent many years educating plumbers about the water treatment market with its 2-1/2 day "CUNO University" program.

Johnson says the key is for plumbers to see themselves as more than mechanics, but as salesmen selling a much-needed service.

"If a plumber sells a truckload of white, round-front toilets, he won't be successful in the water treatment business," Johnson says. "The plumber who takes the time to sell elongated bowels at a premium color will be. You have to understand the product and the value of the product."

Johnson says the biggest bright spot for the future is in point-of-use equipment. As consumers have became more demanding about ridding their drinking water of impurities, Johnson says the POU equipment has also gotten much more sophisticated.

His point is underscored by the Frost & Sullivan report. Growth is occurring in almost all segments, according to the report, with faucet-mount, under-the-sink and ultraviolet POU equipment experiencing the latest growth.

"The market of POU water treatment equipment reached annual revenues of $235.5 million in 1997," the report states. "Growth in this market is largely driven by increasing awareness of drinking water pollution. This increased awareness is not only attracting customers who never before had a water treatment system, but is also facilitating upgrades from pitchers to counter-top and under-the-sink units."

The report projects sales will increase an average of almost 10 percent each year until the year 2004.

The report breaks the POU market down by the location of the equipment:

  • Under-the-sink units

  • Countertop units

  • Faucet-mount units

The largest segment in the POU market was for under-the-sink equipment, accounting for 55 percent. Frost & Sullivan expects its share of the market to remain steady. Countertop units were the second largest segment, accounting for almost 29 percent of total market revenues. The report forecasts growth over the next few years as consumers move away from filtration pitchers to this type of equipment. However, "as end-users become more educated about drinking water issues, they are expected to require the added treatment offered by under-the-sink and point-of-entry products." Faucet-mount units account for approximately 16 percent of the total

POU market. These products are expected to grow rapidly over the next few years. However, the report predicts growth will taper off as "increasing end-user education" will provide more impetus for under-the-sink equipment.

"Water treatment is a great niche market," Johnson says. "I usually tell plumbing wholesalers that if they can sign up three contractors on the benefits of this market, they'll experience $50,000 in gross sales from just these three customers."