“Slow” and “modest” are words used to describe the turnaround in the nation’s economy.
When it comes to the topic of water treatment, cautious optimism exits stage left in favor of reports of increased sales and burgeoning profit margins - especially from plumbing contractors.
While still in its relatively nascent stages in terms of market share, more and more plumbing contractors are adding water treatment to their service repertoires, ratcheting their customer service to even higher levels while creating an additional revenue stream in tight economic times.
“It’s become a very lucrative revenue stream for us,” says Jessica Burden, the sales manager at Spring, Texas-based Milton Frank Plumbing, a member of the Quality Service Contractors group of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association. “Water testing is part of every service call we do. Every work order lists the water-quality numbers for that home. We consider it a perk.”
Not Getting Any BetterEric Brockmire, the director of national accounts and education services for Pro Systems Water Treatment Products (a division of Aquion), knows a thing or two about water quality. A staunch proponent of water treatment and an even bigger believer in plumbing contractors installing water treatment equipment, Brockmire is never at a loss when it comes to water-quality statistics. His findings paint a clear picture why the water treatment industry continues to flourish.
“The engineering community has given American infrastructures a D-minus,” he states. “Water main breaks continue to increase in this country. Every five seconds in America, a water main breaks. Water municipalities do the best they can with the dollars they are given. How they get us the water is what is in question. The challenges they have to meet are great.”
Burden notes the Houston area changed its water table from ground to surface water, which necessitated the use of more chemicals to treat the water.
“They started treating the water with chloramine,” she says. “The first question we ask a customer is if they drink the tap water. They usually say no and tell us they drink bottled water. The chlorine amounts being put in the water here, you actually are inhaling more chlorine when you take a shower than you would ever consume out of the faucet.”
Paul Stefano, the general manager at Ben Franklin Plumbing in Charlotte, N.C., also deals with the chlorine factor. “We live in a soft water area and chlorine is a big thing,” he states. “It will dissolve toilet tank and faucet parts.”
Up in Green Bay, Wis., Lake Michigan is the main water source and presents a different sort of water-quality challenge.
“Because our area is tapped into Lake Michigan, people don’t think they need water softeners, but they still get scale buildups. They don’t like that silky feeling they get from the softened water,” notes Rick Kummers, owner of Vern Kummers Plumbing in Green Bay. “Consumers are tired of all the labor of carrying salt down the stairs and softeners not working all the time, and not knowing who to call or who should work on the water softeners when they break.”
Plumbers To The RescueWhether it’s an issue with chemicals in the water or how the water feels when it comes out of the faucet, the need for water treatment continues to rise. Chris Adams, president and CEO of Smart Plumber Solutions - a distributor of the Flow-Tech Home InLine Water Treatment solution - sees water treatment and plumbers as a natural fit.
“Water quality plays the biggest part in things going bad in the home, especially with something like a water heater,” he says. “For the most part, everything a plumber touches and fixes is the result of water quality. Age of equipment is one thing, but water quality makes up about 90 percent of the plumbing problems in the home. Hard water and scale buildup will beat up appliances. The plumbing techs are already there in the house for a problem. It’s just a matter of bridging that gap.”
The most common service call Charlotte Ben Franklin receives is for a toilet not flushing properly.
“There are three main reasons why a toilet fails: water quality, water pressure and an aging system,” Stefano explains. “It’s almost always one of those first two. You get to the house and the flapper has dissolved or warped and turned colors or the gasket under the toilet bowl has dissolved and there is a leak. That is because of water quality. People understand if you are looking at between $300 and $500 on average for plumbing repairs per year that water treatment will pay off by stopping their system from being broken down from something like chlorine. We’re right there and can fix that problem.”
Burden adds: “Customers already trust us to take care of their home and health. We should be the ones taking care of their total water system and not a water treatment company.”
Brockmire takes things a step further. He feels plumbing contractors have a direct responsibility to address water-quality issues and treatment options with their customers.
“In order for plumbers to do the proper diagnostics, they must offer water treatment,” he states. “If you are not addressing water quality, you are not addressing your customers’ care properly. Plumbing contractors have been doing a very poor job of selling what they have been servicing the last 59 years, but that is changing. Every day a plumbing company sits on the sidelines with water treatment is an opportunity it is missing. Water treatment is a complete repair.”
Educating The Plumbing ContractorStefano cites lack of education as the chief reason plumbers do not get involved in water treatment. “A lot of plumbers think water filtration and softeners are for things like wells,” he says. “That’s not what it is about. Next to plumbing repairs, water quality can have a profound effect on people’s health. Down here, the amount of chlorine in a drinking system is equal to that in pool water. That’s a good reason to get involved.”
Largo, Fla.-based Clearwater Enviro Technologies has been offering water treatment solutions since 1988, including its Scale Blaster electronic descaling system. Bill Glass, the company’s vice president of sales, has heard the water treatment pushback from plumbers throughout the years.
“A lot of plumbers are nonbelievers. They think it’s some magic box hocus-pocus,” he says. “Once we show them how it works and how easy it is to install, they change their minds. It’s something they can offer their customers.”
Barbara Pace, a plumber for St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Johnny Jones Plumbing, notes the company saw one of Clearwater Enviro Technologies’ presentations and was initially skeptical.
“And then several of our employees had water softeners at home that started going kaput,” she says. “The owner of our company decided to take the company up on a trial offer and was very pleased with it.”
Johnny Jones Plumbing continues to offer the green water treatment alternative as part of its service. In fact, Pace's brother-in-law, who works for Pinellas County Schools, attended a Pinellas Association of Plumbing, Heating & Cooling Contractors meeting and became interested in the technology for possible future school projects.
Kummers, who has been in the water treatment business in varying capacities since 1991 and sold a water treatment dealership in 1999, recently began working with the Flow-Tech line. He also is a firm believer in the value of education.
“All you have to do is learn a little more about water treatment and find out what products work well in your area,” he says. “Why leave it up to a water treatment company? Why should a plumber give up that type of business? Don’t give that piece of the pie away because it’s a pretty big piece.”
Brockmire, who trains plumbing contractors across the country on water treatment, emphasizes it’s not only a right but a responsibility for plumbers to offer water treatment solutions.
“Plumbing contractors are the professionals in the customers’ homes,” he says. “Let’s provide customers a solution. It’s our job to protect the health and safety of the nation. It’s what plumbers stand for. We contain water, so we should be charged with the responsibility to help keep it cleaner.
“Replacing a toilet flapper is water quality. Too much chlorine in the toilet is a water treatment situation. If you talk to customers about how water treatment can save their investment, they will want it.”
Stefano’s technicians educate their customers with third-party articles, props and photos, as well as physical water testing to demonstrate the benefits of water treatment.
“We have 20 techs trained on water treatment,” he says. “Every one of them knows the product up one side and down the other. Everybody knows it’s the right thing to do. It’s not a gimmick. Chlorine is not good for a plumbing system due to its oxidizing effects and byproducts. What does this mean for our health? We’re hitting it at the point of entry. We’re doing what is good for the plumbing system and the health of our customers.”
Positive ResultsKummers started working with Adams and Flow-Tech in July. In that first month, his company sold six Flow-Tech devices.
“It’s been huge to Rick’s bottom line,” says Adams, who also is proactive in plumbing contractor training. “There is nothing but upside for plumbing contractors. Traditionally, water treatment has been sold through branded networks or through retail. You still need someone to install it and take care of it. The plumber is a perfect fit.”
Glass reports Clearwater Enviro Technologies enjoyed record sales in 2010 and has already surpassed those figures this year. Charlotte Ben Franklin added $500,000 in gross revenue from water treatment in 2010 - the first year it started offering the service.
“It didn’t come easy,” Stefano says. “We had to educate 20 service techs. Our H2O Harmony water filtration training is so intense a technician usually calls in to have one delivered his first week in a truck. We’ve already surpassed last year’s gross revenue on it. We will generate at least $1 million in gross revenue on water treatment in our second year involved, if not more.”
Burden sees the water treatment business headed in one direction - straight up.
“It’s going to get even bigger and even more robust than it is now,” she says. “We used to do one whole-house re-pipe a quarter. Now we are doing three or four of them a week. Chemicals are eating at the pipes. If they are eating at the pipes, what are they doing to the body? Water treatment is no longer a luxury item.”
Brockmire adds: “The water treatment market size is so big. There is a lot of room in the sandbox for players. Plumbers should be the leaders of the sandbox.”