Water purification is a natural business for plumbing contractors. Why aren't more of them going for it, asks Jim Olsztynski in this month's Editorial Opinion.

The total market for residential and commercial water treatment equipment is pegged at approaching a whopping $2.5 billion a year. It has been growing at a compounded annual rate of between 6 percent and 7 percent throughout the 1990s, according to the Frost & Sullivan market research firm.

Yet, at present, only about 38 percent of U.S. households have some kind of water treatment system, according to the Water Quality Association (WQA). This means the market has plenty of room for further growth, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

The WQA reported a survey last year showing that nearly three out of four Americans have concerns about their household water supply, and almost half are fearful about possible health-related contaminants. In addition to the 38 percent of adults with household water treatment devices, another 24 percent say they use bottled water.

Think about that. Almost a quarter of the population pays extra for bottled drinking water, in addition to the taxes they shell out to municipal water suppliers. In many cases, there's a short payback period for an installed treatment unit capable of supplying all of a home's fresh water requirements and then some. Home water treatment systems are not a hard sell.

That's why so many people are doing it. Go to any home center and gaze at all the shelves stocked with water treatment units. Multi-level marketers have found this business to be fertile ground, and some of the major faucet companies have come out with products containing built-in filters, which I hear are selling quite well. When opportunity knocks, plenty of people are quick to answer. Except É

Where Are The Plumbers?

A miniscule portion of those water treatment devices get sold by plumbing contractors. That's a shame, both for contractors and the public, because nobody is better positioned to go after this business than you folks. It's a field riddled with snake oil peddlers, and the public could benefit from buying from professionals who are identified with water quality and installation ability. It's as natural a fit as a baseball bat in Mark McGwire's hands. Of the dozens of contractors I've met over the years who participate in this business, I can't recall a single one who was unhappy with the results.

What's not to like about it? Water treatment has a sizeable, receptive audience and requires a degree of technical expertise that matches your professional training. It offers aftermarket opportunities for replacement filters and servicing that help you lock in customers, and is tailor-made for cross-marketing other types of plumbing and related services.

So why are there not more plumbing contractors in this business? The answer is at the same time complex and simple. Complexity comes from the fact that the water treatment business has crazy-quilt channels of distribution, of which traditional plumbing wholesalers play a relatively minor role. Moreover, the technology befuddles some with its vast array of technologies and applications. Plumbing contractors on the whole want to do right by their customers, and many find it hard to distinguish truth from fiction in sorting out the claims of treatment equipment vendors.

This complex explanation boils down to a much simpler excuse for not going after this natural extension of a plumbing business. It simply isn't in the industry's tradition. Many plumbing contractors feel that if a vendor or supply house doesn't stock it, train them and offer marketing assistance, it's too much trouble for them to pursue. If daddy or grandpappy who started the business decades ago didn't mess with it, why should you?

Those are the complex and simple reasons. Now let's all put on our thinking caps and try to figure out a single good reason for not pursing the water treatment business.