Phoenix has some of the worst water in the country. The aggressive water coming from the Colorado River and other sources is heavily mineralized and loaded with calcium carbonates — so much so that the water becomes conductive. Electric current, like water, finds the easiest path. In homes, that frequently takes it on a course through copper pipe, into the water and back out the pipe again, causing pinholing and leakage.
Calcium carbonate deposited on plumbing fixtures can ruin the finish so that it turns black. It also can destroy the inner workings of plumbing and heating equipment.
Whether it’s called water softening, water treatment or water filtration, Phoenix building owners and home-owners realize the need for this plumbing service. And Ward Gilbert, owner of Mesa, Ariz.-based Gilbert Plumbing, has been at the forefront of this issue — educating local municipalities about the aggressive water issues and training his service plumbers to recognize water quality problems at customers’ homes.
“At first, I didn’t understand why we were seeing pinholes in copper pipe, why the finishes on tub and shower valves were turning black,” he says. “I started doing research and when I figured out what was happening, that the water was getting more aggressive, I started meeting with the various cities in the valley and working on code amendments to allow PEX pipe to be installed in plumbing systems.
“No one here uses copper anymore because it can’t withstand the aggressive water.”
Fifty years ago, the Phoenix area didn’t have this water problem. The population was much smaller and the city’s water treatment facilities were able to select the best water sources that required little treatment, Gilbert explains. But as the population grew, the water departments had to use lesser-quality sources of water.
Different sources of water are available at different times of year, so the water is mixed and then treated, but that process gets more difficult as water departments tap into those lesser-quality water sources.
“Today, to get the area water to be less aggressive would cost so much money that no one would be able to buy the water,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert Plumbing employs 40 professionals serving the Phoenix metro area. About 75% of Gilbert Plumbing’s business is new residential construction for national and large regional home-building firms such as Pulte, Heritage Homes, Tool Brothers, Camelot Homes and T.W. Lewis Homes by David Weekly. Service work, solar hot water installations, remodeling and water treatment round out the company’s offerings.
Gilbert’s wife, Janet, is a real estate agent and co-owner of Gilbert Plumbing. Her connections to owners of large home-building companies, other real estate agents and trade associations have helped build the company. Their daughter, Lexie Gilbert, who also works in the family business, has a kitchen and bath design degree.
Gilbert says that a “confluence of events” over the last five or six years has allowed Gilbert Plumbing to make a success of its water treatment business. And part of that is the contracting firm’s relationship with area builders.
“In the early days, home builders put in soft water loops and after homeowners moved in, they would buy a water softener and have it installed,” Gilbert explains. “Many times it was not a high-quality unit and was not installed by a licensed contractor. If the water softener units weren’t installed to code, water would start blowing into the walls during the recycle process at night. The homeowners didn’t realize this was going on until they started seeing black mold on their walls, which resulted in expensive remediation for these new houses.”
Homeowners took the issue to the builder and the plumbing contractor, thinking it was a construction defect. The builders did their research and finally determined that these were water softener installation problems and not related to the construction of the homes.
“Area builders finally decided to have their plumbing subcontractors install water softening and water treatment equipment to solve these expensive problems,” Gilbert says.
Arizona requires licensing for contractors through the Arizona Register of Contractors. Gilbert Plumbing has an “upper-tier” license in Arizona, which allows it to to do commercial and residential plumbing, solar water heating and water treatment.
Unlicensed contractors performing construction, plumbing, water treatment and other work is a problem in Arizona, as it is around the country. Licensing requirements make sure that contractors have up-to-date knowledge and skills to perform work safely and correctly.
Arizona’s problem increased during the recession as people out of work turned to plumbing and water treatment installations to make money, even though they aren’t licensed to do the work, Gilbert says. They advertise on Craigslist or work as a handyman.
“On the other end you have big retail organizations that do mass advertising on the radio but their installers are not plumbers and sometimes they’re not licensed,” he adds.
The Arizona Register of Contractors has started a big push for licensing enforcement. It also is requiring criminal background checks for anyone applying for a contractor’s license.
California regulations on water softening equipment also has affected water treatment installations in Arizona.
“The California regs requires water treatment equipment to be more efficient and more green,” Gilbert notes. “This had pushed manufacturers to not only have better product, but to require qualified, licensed plumbers to install their systems. Plumbers carry the responsibility for the plumbing system and doing it right for the health and safety of their communities.”
Because awareness of the aggressive water issue has increased, so has the demand for water treatment systems. People are asking for reverse-osmosis water treatment units, water softeners and whole-house water treatment systems to be built into their homes.
“When we trim the house at final, we’re installing this water treatment equipment,” Gilbert says. “Over the last few years, this has become part of the construction of the home. It’s cheaper to buy water softening or water treatment equipment than to be constantly replacing faucets and other fixtures.”
Eco-conscious customers want water treatment in their homes but they don’t want a system that uses salt, as the salt goes through the drainage system and into the environment, he adds. For these customers, Gilbert Plumbing installs Watts OneFlow, a template-assisted crystallization system that is used for scale-reduction. The technology affects the minerals in the water and prevents grains of calcium carbonite from forming.
Gilbert Plumbing’s service techs are trained when they go on a call to see if the homeowners are having other problems. Sometimes customers don’t understand what’s happening with their water, so Gilbert’s service plumbers have the knowledge to diagnose the problem and offer solutions. They have hardness test kits in their trucks to test customers’ water. They also have leak-detection equipment to locate pinhole leaks in copper piping.
“We’re still repiping with PEX in subdivisions where the homes are only four to five years old, probably the last batch of houses that were plumbed with copper,” Gilbert explains.
One phenomenon that Gilbert believes will increase water quality awareness and have an impact on the water treatment business is the comet ISON, which will be close to Earth in early January 2014.
“We’re going to go through the tail of comet ISON, which is loaded with very fine dust,” he explains. “Normally this dust burns up in the upper atmosphere and we get a meteor shower. In this case, the relative speeds of Earth and the dust are such that we are not going to have a meteor shower; the dust is going to come into the upper atmosphere at 50 miles high all the way around Earth.”
According to NASA, the dust will act as seeds, collecting water molecules into droplets, which will form high, neon-blue clouds — called noctilucent clouds.
What does this have to do with water treatment? In the 1990s, NASA researchers discovered that most comets and their dust have hydrogen cyanide in them, which is extremely poisonous. ISON’s dust will eventually land on the ground and in the water.
And sales of water filtration systems may skyrocket.