The water treatment industry is booming, and more plumbers are getting involved.



Who could've guessed that someday water would have a brand name? Call it "liquid snobbery," but today's homeowners can taste the difference between EvianR, Ice MountainR or Poland SpringR bottled water as if they were taking the PepsiR Challenge. Americans aren't taking their water quality for granted anymore. Whether spending their hard-earned dollars on bottled water or whole-house systems, homeowners understand the importance of water quality and its relationship to their well being.

The 1999 National Consumer Water Quality Survey by the Water Quality Association (WQA) polled 1,003 adults about their household water supply and purchase activity in the home water treatment industry. One in five were found to be dissatisfied with the quality of his or her household water supply, and 46 percent wished to know more about their home's water quality.

What this means for the plumbing service and repair industry is that there is a new market out there ready to be grabbed. Right now, the WQA says it's a $12 billion business that's dominated by no one. And it has no "off" season. The business you are in already puts you in a prime position to point out water quality concerns to homeowners. More and more contractors are getting the lead out and jumping at the chance to be a success in the water treatment market.

Ed Wolfe and his Newburgh, N.Y., company decided to invest their time and effort to this new segment of the plumbing industry, and they have seen nothing but clean success. The company, Wolfe Plumbing/Heating/Air Conditioning Inc., is a 24-hour, full-service plumbing and heating company that's been around since 1977. It is a service company first and foremost.

The company has always done water treatment as a sideline, but in the past year and a half, efforts have been stepped up to address this lucrative part of its business. And though manpower is split into thirds to handle the different divisions of the company, Wolfe and his team have made a point to train almost all 32 field employees in the fundamentals of water treatment.

"We know this is a rapidly expanding area of customer interest," says Wolfe, a master plumber and Contractors 2000 member since March of 1994. "It's the 'low fruit,' so to speak, of any area of supplementary business for us to venture into. We have a large customer base, and it makes sense to have other avenues of business to fill the voids when plumbing and heating are at their natural seasonal lows."

The company's growing water treatment division has not only increased sales, but it has increased sales when the company needs them. It has become a strategic initiative that gives the company more flexibility.

How Does It Work?

A fact not well known: There is as much water on Earth today as there ever was or ever will be. Water, the most common substance on the planet, covers 75 percent of the world, but still there are potable water shortages and challenges facing people every day.

Contaminants enter a home's water supply through several channels: Landfills, industrial waste, leaking pipes, agricultural practices and deteriorating underground storage tanks. If a home is serviced by a municipal system, there may not be too much of a health concern. But water can pass inspection by a state's EPA and still be considered "unappetizing" by a homeowner.

"Aesthetic," or nonhealth-related, water concerns include unusual color, odor or taste. This usually prompts a person to purchase bottle after bottle of pre-ozonated and micro-filtered water, no matter the cost. Or perhaps he'll purchase a point-of-use (POU) filter for a single faucet to get the "pure" drink he seeks, while still suffering from green or red slime in the tub and toilet.

Aesthetic concerns can be easily tested on-site by Wolfe's team. The results are usually shocking to homeowners, and the sale is halfway complete. Wolfe Plumbing has eight water-testing kits, which cost about $350 each and can detect almost every contaminant. The company trains its technicians in on-site evaluation, and also performs water quality testing at its office facilities with no charge to the customer.

Talking to clients about their water's taste, color and odor gives plumbing professionals clues as to how to treat harmless contaminants, such as chlorine, sulfur, iron and manganese, which can be relatively easily removed through point-of-entry (POE) systems.

However, if a client uses a private well or lives near a landfill, golf course, forest preserve or gas station, health concerns should be addressed. A home's water sample would then be sent to a certified laboratory to test for the following water supply contaminants:

  • Lead: It's been removed from pipes and even pencils, but lead continues to find its way into the water supply. You can't see, taste or smell it, but drinking small amounts of lead has been found to cause learning disabilities in young children and hypertension in adults.

  • Biological Pathogens: These are waterborne organisms that can cause human diseases. It includes cysts, like cryptosporidium and giardia, and bacteria, like typhus, cholera and influenza. Early breakthroughs in the plumbing industry were made to eliminate these types of viruses from potable water.

  • Nitrates: Nitrogen compounds can be found in rural areas' ground and surface water. Mostly caused by fertilizer runoffs from farms, golf courses and forest preserves.

  • Heavy Metals: Metals like mercury, zinc, copper and cadmium can enter the water supply as industrial waste.

"We've made the commitment to fix water problems, whatever they may be, so we'll tackle just about anything," says Wolfe. "One of the things that was a surprise to me when we got into this business was how much we can do to correct problem water."

Water filters and treatment systems are sold door-to-door to people who often are unaware of their need for such a device. Plumbing professionals, through their training, already have the skills, tools and techniques to educate their clients about water quality. And they can turn a client's dilemma into increased sales.

Using techniques such as reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light, chlorination and sediment-removal systems, Wolfe's company knows it has a lot to offer clients in the way of higher water quality.

"It's my opinion that, with proper training, there are few master plumbers who wouldn't rapidly be better technically than their water service counterparts. The question is whether they are willing to make the investment in time and effort to be better as marketers than we've typically seen from our trade."

Wolfe says that joining C-2000 has made a big difference in how his company markets its water treatment business. Though it's been an uphill battle at times bucking the conventional wisdom of being the low bidder to gain market share, the company has pledged to professionalism and a fundamental philosophy to business profitability.

The water treatment market has grown into a huge potential for plumbing contractors, but it does require more marketing and sales skills than a typical service and repair business. Companies can train technicians to look for household clues when on a service call. Is there a home delivery water unit in the kitchen? Empty water bottles in the recycle bin? Is there green or red slime under a toilet tank, or corroded fixtures and faucets? These are observational signals that could lead to a sale in a water treatment system.

"Our cross-marketing opportunities have increased," Wolfe admits. "This is one of the most exciting areas of this venture for us. Once we have one system of any type in a client's house, we know it's highly likely he'll call us again when he has a problem. And he'll be receptive to our solicitation even when he doesn't."

After the initial sale and installation of a system, all home water treatment systems need periodic maintenance and replacement filters, membranes or other media. This translates to 70 percent to 90 percent repeat business, and clients have just found the one company to come to their home for all their plumbing, heating and water needs. How's that for convenience?

Whole-house water treatment systems eliminate bad tastes, color and odor from drinking water and anything else made from water - tea, juice, coffee and soup. It can reduce nearly 99 percent of harmful water contaminants and still preserve beneficial minerals like calcium, magnesium and fluoride. Contractors can anticipate a family's needs 10 years down the road and have the chance to create a client for life.

What's not to love about this market?

"I can say it's rare to find a home that could not benefit from at least minimal water treatment equipment. This observation is supported by the size of the bottled water market," Wolfe states. "Usually once we test a client's water and share the results, they want to know how they can solve the problems. Many of our customers are spending far more on bottled water when you consider the annual cost."

A water supply problem is almost always fixable, and it's almost always fixable with a system that is within a reasonable investment range for the average homeowner.

So what are you waiting for? Get the lead out!