By Carlos David Mogollón, WC&P Executive Editor
A native of the Czech Republic, Augustin Pavel, Sr.—president of RO UltraTec USA—began in water treatment as the operator of a desalination plant for the Caneel Bay Resort in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1974.
Fifteen years later, he launched RO UltraTec USA in Fallbrook, Calif., near Escondido and known as the “avocado capital of the world.”
In between, he worked for Envirogenics and Hydranautics in research and development and designed equipment for other companies such as Applied Membranes, Purification Products, Fastek, Osmotek and the Chevron Research Center.
Pavel’s work has taken him all over the world and he rattles off names, events and innovations in the membrane separation industry as if he’s editor of Who’s Who of Reverse Osmosis. Most of the people, he said, got their start at Fluid Systems—the developer of the Thin Film Composite, or TFC™, membrane which was acquired by Koch Industries in 1998 and renamed Koch Membranes.
He talks about huge desalination projects in the Middle East he’s been involved with, including one that fizzled due to circumstances beyond his control. Before the Gulf War, he was contracted to design a desalination membrane manufacturing plant for Baghdad. The entire system was finished and the last machine about to be shipped, when President George H.W. Bush declared an embargo against Iraq because of its invasion of Kuwait.
“Everything was sealed,” Pavel said. “And I never got paid. Right after that, I decided to go into business for myself.”
That’s not the only challenge he’s faced. In 1998 and 1999, he suffered a ruptured kidney due to a surgical error to remove kidney stones—twice in 15 months. That period was the only time in which RO UltraTec’s business dipped. Otherwise, it’s regularly seen annual 15-17 percent sales jumps.
He’s not so certain the U.S. residential RO market can withstand the next challenge, though—higher quality, lower priced systems emerging from Asia.
“We don’t pursue that,” Pavel said. “Because of what’s happening in Korea, Taiwan and China, that kind of product is going to be slowly taken over by them. We can purchase it for a lot less than we can provide it. It’s hard to compete with Chinese labor, so they’re already taking over slowly that market… I’m not a big fan, but I see what I see.”
The quality is not as good yet, but it’s improving, he added.
As such, his company focuses on making smarter systems and specialty membranes for applications up to 50,000 gallons a day. Fifty percent of its business is in housings, including models such as the popular Champ and new Gladiator stainless steel units. In late 2002, the company also signed a deal to provide Hydranautics with custom-label residential RO systems, which could boost sales by over 10 percent in 2003. Also, it recently introduced a new catalytic filtration system that incorporates KDF media and a spot-free vehicle rinse system.
For more of Pavel’s views on advances in membrane technology, efficiency vs. recovery and other challenges to the water treatment industry, read on past the brief company description below.
- Augustin Pavel, Sr., president
- Henry Avilla, general manager
- LeAnn Howley, marketing manager
Revenues: $2.5-3.7 million with 15-17% growth a year
Operations: Small industrial RO systems, residential RO components, membrane elements and housings, sediment filter cartridges and housings, carbon block cartridges, pumps, emergency water systems and engineering consulting.
And now for the interview:
WC&P: How long have you been in business and how did you get started?
Pavel: I have been in business since 1974. That is 27 years, I believe. I started in the Virgin Islands, where I joined a company by the name of Aquatech. But I operated a desalination plant for a couple of years producing drinking water for an exclusive resort, Caneel Bay Resort. I was producing all the water for the hotel from seawater. The technology then used was called vapor compression units. I had operated these units for five years and I got quite excited about the future of this process, although it was very high in energy cost.
WC&P: Vapor compression is basically flash distillation, yes?
Pavel: Sure, you’re compressing the vapors. You need energy. You need oil, you need steam and that is costly. It’s still used today by many people. Some people think it’s efficient. Others don’t.
WC&P: But membranes seem to be on the rise correct?
Pavel: Yes, most people are now switching. The industry is slowly switching. Saudi Arabia are the large users of reverse osmosis desalination, because the technology is there and it’s definitely the future unless someone invents something better. But, the membranes are single-pass now desalting the water. In the old days, you had to evaporate the seawater and then condense it again and that is costly and time consuming. The scale and corrosion problems were unbelievable.
WC&P: Well, we just heard that California is going to be looking at desalination to meet its water needs since the federal government is now telling it the Colorado River is off limits beyond what the state already is allocated. And we now have the opening of the Tampa Bay desalination plant, which is about to happen and it’s the largest one in the United States.
Pavel: Yes. There are going to be two big desalination plants going in. Hydranautics has the order. They’re going into Florida. Each one has thousands of gallons—and another in Spain—altogether totaling 50,000 reverse osmosis elements, 8-inch × 40-inch long. That is unbelievable quantity. It hasn’t been done before on seawater. So, that’s going to be the pilot plant and after that we’re going to see a lot more. It’s the future. Southern California has no other alternative. What they’re waiting for is the cost for producing what they call an acre-foot, a unit for measuring water, to drop. The price is still $800 to $750. That’s still high. They’re trying to reach $550. Once they get there… So, it’s a matter of energy, it’s a matter of pressure—also, new membranes are going to be developed. Intead of 1,000 psi (pounds per square inch) to 800 psi, which is currently used for seawater, 650 psi is supposedly about to be made available from Japan’s Toray (Industries), which recently announced it. And, if it’s true, that’s a huge savings on energy.
WC&P: Is this a brand new breakthrough?
Pavel: We believe so. We overheard it. I don’t know how accurate it is. But if it’s true, it can be easily calculated—the energy savings. Also, Fluid Systems recently announced surprising news. Fluid Systems is Koch Membranes. It announced recently it went back to the old name, Fluid Systems, rather than Koch Membranes, because everybody knows that and no one knows Koch Membranes. They were the great- grandfather of all. They invented reverse osmosis spiral element. But they announced they have a new element for seawater, 17 inches in diameter by 60 inches in length, which will save another 25 percent in energy vs. the old 8×40 element that Hydranautics is bidding.
WC&P: That’s pretty much the standard, isn’t it?
Pavel: 8×40 is the standard, but Fluid Systems will always advance. They are always trying to invent new products and, if they succeed, the engineers usually go by calculations of the energy cost. A lot of companies lose—and when I was a member of Hydranautics, we lost—because of energy costs. Higher or lower, you win a job on that. Basically, the savings can be substantial. It can be millions of dollars per month. The other thing that’s a factor is the temperature of the water. The Carlsbad power plant is dispensing or disposing warm water—and a membrane hooked to warm water produces more than cold water. So, there’s free energy being dumped in the ocean. There’s going to be a lot of small plants, I am told. Hydranautics without a doubt is going to be awarded because they have a very good relationship with Oceanside government. And they’re right there.
WC&P: Expectations of the coming revolution, so to speak?
Pavel: Yes, yes.
WC&P: I’m familiar with both Koch and Hydranautics, because Randy Truby used to be with Koch Membranes and recently joined Hydranautics.
Pavel: He’s the man in charge.
WC&P: Now, to get back on track a bit, you started in 1974…
Pavel: Yes, I ran a lab for two years. Then, I chose this field to stay in. I had a degree in mechanical and chemical engineering from the Czech Republic—Prague. I decided to stay in this field because I could see a tremendous future. I joined a company called Envirogenics in Almonta—Los Angeles. Fluid Systems was No. 2 company in the business. Filmtec didn’t exist then. What happened was they developed a new membrane called the Thin Film Composite and then Fluid System and they decided to start producing it. They were the only two companies to my knowledge making TFC. That’s the membrane they use today widely. It’s bought by just about anyone in the business.
WC&P: When did Filmtec start?
Pavel: Everyone left Fluid Systems and started a company called Hydranautics by Rick Lesan. He was the one. Another gentleman by the name of Bill White developed Envirogenics. The technology basically all leaked out from that grandfather of all, Fluid Systems. Desal was started by Dombray, who also was an employee. He was the owner of Desal and sold it later to Osmonics. So, basically everyone learned the principles from Fluid Systems. And then they started mushrooming out, other companies. Filmtec did a very good job developing new membranes. We were branched from North Star Laboratories. That’s how Filmtec came up. The name became synonymous with good quality. So, in Europe or in the world, most people rate Filmtec as the best membrane and Hydranautics very close on their shirttails, closing up fast. Hydranautics membrane is very well liked in Asia, Europe, the Mideast. Owned by Nitto Denko, it’s doing a tremendous job.
WC&P: When did you start your company?
Pavel: After I did two years in the Virgin Islands, running the plant, I was with Envirogenics for a few years and then I joined Hydranautics for a couple of years. Then, in 1989, I was asked to single-handedly build a whole plant for Baghdad, Iraq. The factory would produce reverse osmosis membrane, actually the elements, the whole technology package. We won the contract, me and another gentleman did it. Except when we finished, we had already shipped a partial (order) and, when we were ready to ship the last machine, the (Gulf) War started and President Bush put on an embargo. That embargo still holds today. There can be no equipment built and shipped to Iraq. Everything was sealed. And the equipment is now operating in Southern California—Oceanside.
WC&P: So, the equipment never went to Iraq?
Pavel: No. And I never got paid. Right after that, I decided to go into business for myself. I started from the garage and, today, we have about 27 people.
WC&P: What year was this?
Pavel: It was 1989-1990. We started out very small. One of our first customers was Price Club. That was turning point, when we received an order from Price Club for 2,000 membranes a month. That was a tremendous boost. And without that, I don’t know if we would be where we are today. For three and a half years, we worked with Price Club, our membranes. We still specialize in small under-the-sink membranes for what we call residential systems.
WC&P: That’s a big difference going from these massive million-gallon-a-day (mgd) desalination systems to an undercounter RO unit.
Pavel: Right. It is different. I like to develop things and do things I can actually test and research and prove and troubleshoot by hand. The large plants are difficult to imagine. I was in Oman. I was there for Envirogenics running a large plant, a 5-mgd system. It’s very difficult to imagine how the plant operates, the corrosion problems, energy consumptions and other different problems. It’s very different. So, when I was at Envirogenics, I specialized in system design for membranes and I became member of the research group where we did the research on the Thin Film Composite membrane, which is still the bread and butter of this industry today. I was kind of labeled with equipment design as my forté. For quite a few years, I designed quite a few people’s equipment, Applied Membranes, Purification Products and Fastek on the East Coast, Osmotek, Chevron Research Center and Sarnia, a Canadian company… Anyway, I decided to make small membranes and, shortly after that, I was asked to do large membranes. Now, we were not making the film. We purchased the film and we rolled the spirals. Making the film is totally different. It’s a science. It’s definitely intricate, because some could make it better than other people. It’s about the quality and the consistency, about the salt rejection and about the flow of the product. And that varies from manufacturer to manufacturer.
WC&P: Who are your primary suppliers?
Pavel: Some are chlorine sensitive. Some work better than others. That’s what we are basically doing today, but we are manufacturing a lot more today. We do small systems under the sink, not just the membrane. We do larger system up to 50,000 gallons. We roll the larger membranes. We stay away from the 5-inch elements because of the high initial cost.
WC&P: The which elements?
Pavel: Four-inch, 2-1/2 inch and small 2-inch elements, we manufacturer. We stay away from the large elements because the cost of the element is between $400 and $450 each. And there is always the possibility of error. So, if you have two or three elements that are bad, for a small company, that could be a big loss. For a large company who makes the membrane, the loss is not quite as high because they don’t have to purchase—they get the product at cost.
WC&P: Now, what’s new at your company? Tell us a little bit about RO Ultratec?
Pavel: We have quite a bit new. We manufacture the under-the-sink reverse osmosis systems. That’s been for quite some time. We have a U.S. patent on it. The equipment, the product is called Eliminator. Then we manufacture industrial systems and we do quite well. We started four years ago. Today, we produce close to 300 systems per year, ranging from 500 to 50,000 gallons per day. It’s become a significant moneymaker for us. We have importing-exporting into South America, Mexico, some to Europe, some to Pakistan/India, some to Mideast. We’re not the largest manufacturer. We decided to get into this business because we wanted to produce simple machines that are reliable, yet inexpensive. For people in Mexico and down south, the cost is definitely the deciding factor. On each unit, the quality must be there, but the cost of the equipment is important. So, we do that. We have a new machine, spot-free rinse machine. We can rinse cars and windows and boats with that. The need for wiping is eliminated. We can wash car in four minutes and walk away. The car stays clean. The sun does the drying and there’s no need for drying. We have a survival machine that’s a machine that’s (run) by gasoline engine and it’s capable of purifying wells, which have been contaminated. And, on short notice, we can lower hose into well up to 30 feet and start-up the engine. In that unit, we have made about 10 of them. So far, nobody needed it. But, when people needed it, it’s usually too late to buy it. Right?
WC&P: What’s an example of when it would be used?
Pavel: We use for example in a flood, in a hurrican… if there’s a big storm. If the well gets contamination of bacteria and people don’t have equipment to clear it or analyze it, they simply lower the hose into the well and start the engine. It’s capable of producing 500 to 1,000 gallons a day—24 hours. It’s a pump driven by a USA Tecumseh engine, 300 horsepower engine. That’s one of those novelties. We carry a lot of pumps. We carry about five different kinds of pumps.
WC&P: Who are some of your suppliers?
Pavel: One of the suppliers is Procon. It’s a copy of Procon called Fluidotech. Another supplier is Weber. Another supplier is Flynt & Walling. Another one is Goulds. Goulds is a big name in pumps.
WC&P: Yes, it’s connected to ITT Industries.
Pavel: Another one we like a lot is a Danish company, Grunfos. They’re considered No. 1. They are very large, perhaps the largest manufacturer of submersible pumps and high-pressure pumps.
WC&P: So, how much of your business is actually in the United States?
Pavel: I would say 50 percent.
WC&P: In the U.S., does it focus mostly on the West Coast?
Pavel: Yes. We do some business on the East Coast. But, you see, what seems to be the problem is people are not willing to wait seven days to get delivery. And they’re not willing to pay UPS blue or UPS red. Therefore, the transportation is a problem. People don’t like the delay, seven or eight days. We could have had much more business. What seems to be happening are buying them on the East Coast from those that are making them on the East Coast—and the same for the West Coast. We reach as far as Canada; we do ship to the East Coast quite a bit. But, we would have done quite a bit more if the transportation was more reasonable and faster.
WC&P: Is your only office in California?
Pavel: Yes. We have several distributors, but we are manufacturer direct. And that system actually interferes with a distributor system. You have to be very careful. Since we are manufacturer direct, we have to protect our distributors.
WC&P: How many distributors do you have?
Pavel: We have about six big distributors. Some in Italy, some in Switzerland, some in Germany, some in England, some here in the U.S., some in Israel. But, what is happening is a lot of small customers come to us. We basically pick the crumbs that the large boys drop under the table. We get the referrals from large companies who don’t want to bother with small orders or the small specialty orders, which we don’t mind.
WC&P: Your economy of scale is better for that type of a thing, yes?
Pavel: Yes, we don’t mind custom work. Large companies like Hydranautics, they don’t have the manpower, no R&D time, they’re producing very large quantities of these membranes. We are not. We are producing several hundred, but they are producing several thousand per day. They aim at 2,000 a day. Imagine that—2,000 of the large membranes a day. It’s hard to conceive of the volume. Because a large membrane of 8-inches is 360 square feet. So, the amount of fabric and the spacer, core tube, tricot, the membrane, the netting and the tape, fiberglass—it’s just unbelievable. Let me say one thing. When membranes started, people didn’t know which process was gonna be successful. There were four basic processes. There was the spiral wound, that we do now. There was the flat sheet, which has been deserted. There was hollow fiber, which is a known technology. There was a tubular. Those four processes were considered main membrane processes, but what emerged was the spiral and the hollow fiber became the most successful of the four.
WC&P: We should also point out that what’s made them more successful in recent years has been the fact that manufacturing processes have advanced such that it’s enabled the price on these to drop significantly, correct?
Pavel: Yes, prices dropped. The thin film membrane used to be twice as much as the cellulose acetate (CTA). And, today, the cellulose acetate membrane—because they’re making so few—is more. It’s exactly same cost, but—in other words—the thin film composite membrane price has lowered itself all the way down because of the quantity produced. It’s a very popular membrane. It’s chlorine sensitive. That’s the only drawback. Whereas, CTA is chlorine resistant.
WC&P: That declining cost has made RO much more practical as a household water treatment option, too.
Pavel: Yes, a lot of people don’t understand that reverse osmosis is not for every water. Reverse osmosis is for high TDS (total dissolved solids) water where the mineral content is exceeding 500 parts per million (ppm). That’s where people should be using it. People in Europe, where TDS is 70 to 100 or 125, have excellent water. They have no need for it. On the other hand, if you have a contamination, such as arsenic, nitrates, the dangerous stuff, in the water—the only way to remove it is with a tight reverse osmosis membrane.
WC&P: Nitrates are a big concern in rural France. There also was a cyanide poisoning of the Danube a few years ago.
Pavel: Yes, there’s a slight problem, or it’s a difference of opinion. People in Europe, Italy, Spain and southern Europe, would like to have a nanomembrane. Nanomembrane is a special membrane developed about 10 years ago, which removes hardness from the water but leaves most of the other minerals in, 50 or 60 percent. There’s different types of nanomembranes. Some people believes reverse osmosis process makes the water hungry, so hungry water—or very aggressive water—it’s not healthy for human consumption.
WC&P: We should stress that “some” people believe that, but not all. And, it certainly is not the position of the Water Quality Association or WC&P that this is indeed scientifically verifiable.
Pavel: Yes, some people, but not all. There are a lot. I’m one of the people that believes that some minerals should be left in the water, not all, but some. Distilled water is not recommended for human consumption. A lot of people don’t know. You have some doctors…
WC&P: You’ll have some distiller manufacturers and distributors that will argue vociferously with you on that.
Pavel: Yes, there are some distillers that would argue. There are some doctors. But this is basically two camps, two differences of opinion. Some people in Italy and Spain believe the water should have some minerals or some customers in Europe that prefer nanofiltration to reverse osmosis…
WC&P: Now, nanofiltration is something that has emerged in recent years as a broader solution. But I understood that was as a more feasible and cost-effective alternative for whole-house membrane filtration.
Pavel: Yes, it’s being done. It’s still complicated. It’s still needs a pump. It’s not a cheap membrane. But there are people I know. I’m in contact with those who are trying and vigorously working on a complete home system based on nanofiltration. The problem really with any RO system is what do you do with the waste. Once you mention waste, either 1:1, 3:1 or 30 or 20 percent, whatever ratio you’re running—we call it recovery—there’s always some amount of waste. And most people, municipal people don’t want to hear it.
WC&P: Recently, also in that regard, you had a situation in the WQA—even with residential undersink systems—that there be some clarification on how that waste to product ratio should be listed in literature, as well as regarding the testing method for it.
Pavel: Exactly. What happened—to give you a quick rundown—is, in the old days, 20 years ago, we used to make systems six gallons a day and they run 24 hours. It was very healthy for the membranes, but people found out there was a lot of water being wasted. Six gallons was the total production for the system. About 15 years ago, the government decided—I was one of the people who designed it—we had to put an automatic shutoff valve, which only lets the system run as its filling it’s 3.2 gallon tank, then it shuts off automatically. And then, the membrane became 10, 12 and 18 gallons a day. The majority of them were becoming stronger, larger. Today, we have a membrane up to 100 gallons for homes. The recovery of the tank, the refill, happens faster. That’s the only difference. The tank is the same size and a lot of people are using it. There hasn’t been complaint from different people, I know. But different water needs a different approach. That’s a fact. You cannot throw one system for all. It doesn’t work.
WC&P: It’s also somewhat impractical economically. Let me interrupt you if I could because I want to make sure we get through the six basic questions. First, though, I wanted to ask how the company has done growth-wise in recent years.
Pavel: Yes, except for two years when I got ill. A doctor ruptured my right kidney and I was out for a while. Doctors tried to remove kidney stones. There was a mistake and I almost bled to death. So, our curve was slight for 1998 and 1999, but then the curve went up again. We show growth every year. Now, we have a new marketing person, LeAnn Howley, and we have a general manager.
WC&P: That’s nice.
Pavel: We’re bringing on new people. We’re now working with Hydranautics doing their residential membranes. That’s quite an honor to be asked by a company the size of Hydranautics to take over their small membrane manufacturing.
WC&P: When did that happen?
Pavel: That happened about two months ago.
WC&P: That’s great!
Pavel: Yes. We have to gear up and we are making some changes, but we are working with them on it and we like that, because there are a tremendous amount of contacts they are passing on to us.
WC&P: You’re going to make it and private label it as a product for them?
Pavel: Yes, we would manufacture and do packaging, and they would handle distribution. That’s a big challenge still, because our company is not large. Sometimes thinking of handling thousands and thousands of orders, it’s overwhelming.
WC&P: Is there a particular number of systems that you’re anticipating?
Pavel: I wouldn’t want to put any numbers on it. It’s growing. We anticipate it could mean 25 percent or more growth a year. Even people like Culligan are involved. Hydranautics is a supplier to them and Culligan is the No. 1 water treatment company in the U.S., as far a usage of these elements. And we can do their replacement cartridges.
WC&P: Now, what’s the name of the general manager that you’ve hired?
Pavel: The gentleman’s name is Henry Avilla. He comes from the fabric area. He’s been with us five years now. He helps with marketing. His forté is technical service, but he runs the company in my absence and he supervises the manufacturing. We carry a lot of products that other people manufacture just for the convenience. For example, the filter housings, filter cartridges, carbon cartridges, a lot of small components, a lot of pumps, we just buy them to be able to satisfy our needs as well as those of our customers.
WC&P: Who are some of your vendors or suppliers?
Pavel: One of the large suppliers for pumps I already mentioned. The membranes are definitely from Hydranautics, Fluid Systems and Toray from Japan. Precoat, we buy from Hornwood and Guilford Mills. Those are the two major suppliers. The netting, it’s from Naltex, which is now Del Star. Those are large manufacturers of fabrics. The glue, we purchase a special glue from a company called Conap. They changed the name to Cytec recently. It’s a two-part urethane adhesive. What else? We have a machine shop and we manufacture our own plastics. We do a lot of molding outside. People molding for us. I should say maybe 50 percent of our business is membrane housings. We became the manufacturer of a housing called Champ and, recently, we introduced a style or new version called Gladiator. And these housings are almost 50 cent of our business. We didn’t plan on it. It just happened. From the beginning, we were able to produce one of the least expensive housings in the industry, the Champ, and it’s grown quite popular. We export housings all over the world.
WC&P: What sort of revenue growth have you seen in recent years?
Pavel: In the last couple of years, we show 15 to 17 percent per year, because we’re selling more products, we’re selling more systems, we’re selling close to 200 housings a month. That’s a lot of housings for a small company like us. We don’t try to push the small systems in reverse osmosis. Because of what’s happening in Korea, Taiwan and China, that kind of product is going to be slowly taken over by them. We can purchase it for a lot less than we can provide it. So, they’re already taking over slowly that market because it’s hard to compete with Chinese labor. We don’t pursue that. We do specialty membranes. What focus on what we do best. That’s manufacturing small elements and large elements—and the housings, that’s basically our bread and butter.
WC&P: Tell us an interesting story or anecdote about your experience in water treatment?
Pavel: This actually happened. I was approached by a professor from Berkeley, who was a customer from Caneel Bay, St. John. And he asked me to show him our company. He went through this plant. He introduced himself as a guru for water. He said that’s all he knows and he’s the best. He travels the world and gives speeches about water. I don’t remember his name. So, I showed him the plant and he asked what kind of water we were making and I said almost distilled, 1 ppm. He asked what we do with this water and I said we pump it to hotels, I use it in my car in the radiator. Wherever distilled water is needed we use it. And we drink it. Here are a couple of fountains that use water from seawater. He said, “Well, I have news for you. Immediately drain your radiator. It will eat a hole through it. Super pure water is very aggressive. Until it contaminates itself, it’s extremely corrosive.” When we went to measure the water for the hotel, the water in the pipes were so contaminated with growth—algae, dirt, sediment and what have you—that by the water reached the hotel, it was about 300 ppm. The doctor said, “That is perfect. Leave it alone.” I thought I was making 1-ppm water. He said, “No, the water is now balanced. It’s not aggressive. What you’re making is too aggressive.” I’ve come to believe that ultrapure water really shouldn’t be taken internally. I’ll say it again because I believe strongly that it’s true. It will corrode iron, duct material, lining in your intestines and stomach, until it contaminates itself. Then it’s balanced. It stops. That was an interesting experience.
WC&P: It’s also an irony because the systems you’re selling produce, not ultrapure, but higher purity water for domestic consumption.
Pavel: It is a myth. Most people believe fewer contaminants is best. We sell little conductivity meters or water testers. Many installers believe the lower the number, the better the water. Well, if you go to the bottle industry and randomly check the bottles, you’ll find everything from zero to 80. Some excellent natural springs contain 100 to 120 ppm. I measure it. And, so, it’s a difference of opinion on how pure water should be. In Europe, trace minerals are absolutely essential, I was told by many people.
WC&P: Again, there’s a difference of opinion here, particularly in the United States where the perspective of the WQA is 180 degrees from that.
Pavel: Yes, this is true. I have some professors, a guru on water, who totally disagree with what we’re selling here. I’ve heard this argument many, many times.
WC&P: I don’t really want to go any further down, if you don’t mind since I’m sure several prominent studies could be cited to refute that and it also is not the position of this magazine. To get back to the interview, what’s a major challenge that you or your company faced and how did you overcome it?
Pavel: Well, the biggest challenge I see is the imports coming from Asia, where the quality of the imported products is getting better and better day by day. And every year, we see new improvements in the products and the prices are dropping. We’re getting to the point where our membranes are getting… The U.S. still makes membranes the best, and Japan—but the time is not very far where China is producing most reverse osmosis membranes. Basically, we’re losing our labor market. Our company won’t be able to compete. We are exporting technology to China every day. We are teaching them how. With this challenge, can we keep up? Can we stay busy? Can we manufacture product which will still be wanted?
WC&P: How do you overcome that?
Pavel: It’s very difficult. We have to be ingenious. We have to drop the cost, be more productive, make smarter machines, make better products.
WC&P: Provide better service.
Pavel: Service is definitely one area we can improve. Most companies think: “Because we are a manufacturer, we don’t provide service mostly.” But, a lot of customers that buy from us need service. A Costco, Price Club, same thing. You buy a unit with zero service. When you have a problem… So, the smaller companies, a lot of them provide service. And a lot of consumers are worried about this. When you buy something, people leave you, don’t solve your problems. We do work with other people on the phone a lot providing free engineering service.
WC&P: From your perspective in the market, where do you see the industry going?
Pavel: I kind of divide the industry in two in my mind. It’s the industrial portion. That’s strong. It’s going to do well. Then, there’s the residential portion, which is smaller but big in numbers. That I see being completely shut down by the imports. That will be unavailable. What I see are units that are very well built, and very inexpensively packaged and beautifully advertised. The only thing there isn’t is a membrane inside. We have to provide that part. On the industrial side, I see tremendous possibilities. We know how to purify antifreeze for example. We concentrate syrups in Canada.
WC&P: We had an article on that very subject recently.
Pavel: Yes. We are developing selective membranes. So, if we want to remove one item, they are selective. Right now, we are limited. Our membrane removes everything or nothing. But they are working on it and it’s going to be a very exciting field, we feel. Selective membranes, protein concentration, medical and pharmaceutical, I think that’s the future of membranes, definitely.
WC&P: What’s the one hot-button issue facing the water treatment industry or dealers that will have the most impact in the next few years, do you think?
Pavel: One issue is definitely the waste. The reverse osmosis has to waste some portion of the water. That’s why the membrane lasts five to seven years in some locations and don’t have to be replaced, whereas filters only last six to 12 months. That’s one challenge: to provide a system without waste. The other one I see in residential is to eliminate the need for the tank. The tank is another item which is needed because it is practical and Mr. Dombray was the one who bumped into it. But, we have bacteria growth inside. The water begins to develop algae growth and, basically, the tank elimination is already happening in some countries. We have a system that produces water on demand, which makes the water as you need it. Don’t store it. People in Italy, that’s the only way they make it. People in this country, design is still pretty much tank, storage, small membrane, large tank. Other people would rather have large membrane, no tank. And feasibility of that is expensive. It’s not widely practiced.
WC&P: Again, it will depend on the economics as they continue to develop and improve.
Pavel: Yes, one fear we have in this industry is, if any new technology is found which would better than membranes, that is a definite threat. This can happen very fast if someone invents new technology how to desalt water, purify—that would be a big threat.
WC&P: Are you referring to something specific?
Pavel: No, but there is a lot of R&D going on in the world. Someone may be surprised because, especially the Asian people, they don’t stop. They are amazing. They just don’t quit, you know. The Koreans are doing very well. The Taiwanese are doing quite well. And China, surprisingly, are manufacturing some very high quality product. I must say, I’m not a big fan, but I see what I see. And I can’t believe the quality and the price. That’s the big challenge. Can we keep up with the price? Hardly. With the quality, yes. But we cannot compete with certain things. With the labor, here we pay people $11-14 an hour; and, in China, they get paid $20 a week. It’s just impossible to compete.
WC&P: I noticed on your website that one of the things it notes is Fallbrook, Calif., where you’re located is the “Avocado Capital of the World.”
Pavel: Yes, it is.
WC&P: That’s an interesting thing to have on your website.
Pavel: It’s an agricultural, rural area. It requires a lot of water. People don’t even know we exist here, though. We keep a low profile. These days, there is no rain. The mineral deposits in the soil turn the leaves brown. What we need is a heavy rain to wash the minerals down into the earth, and so we can see some growth. We know how to fix it, but then the economy of reverse osmosis is such that you have waste and waste has to go somewhere. That’s been the biggest drawback of the whole industry.
WC&P: Well, particularly in California, because of the high salinity, that’s been the opening that’s happened recently in linking RO and ion exchange for potential water treatment equipment bans. I’m referring to the salinity contribution and expiration of the compromise over Senate Bill 1006 from a few years ago. That bill restricted bans in exchange for promises of greater efficiency of the equipment, etc.
Pavel: I don’t really know. The technology is about 40 years old, what we’re using. Engineers have certainly tried to improve on it and couldn’t very much. It’s a grand design, the spiral wound. But in order to keep it clean so that it lasts five or six years, we have to flush water through it. Then, there are places. I know several people, including myself, who reuse the waste. Sometimes the waste is not too salty and it can be used for irrigation.
WC&P: I reuse mine.
Pavel: Also, a new company, Premier in Arizona, recently announced they’re going to inject the reverse osmosis wastewater back into the hot water heater line, which is doable.
WC&P: We’ve had an article on that subject as well.
Pavel: Yes, the salinity of the water is very low, relatively. A thousand ppm, I tried on the plants, avocados, grass and strawberries—no problem. Plants like it, salt-free water, there’s no question. They prefer it. This is interesting, I had my water plant 15 plants of kidney beans. The first five were watered with tap water. The second five were watered with a new system called catalytic water conditioning, which we manufacture. The third one was reverse osmosis. To my surprise, in about three weeks, the catalytic and RO watered plants were about four inches taller than the tap water plants. So, the hardness and the chlorine were definitely drawbacks to growth. A lot of the growers don’t know this. I wanted to publish this information in the local paper.
WC&P: What does the catalytic system involve?
Pavel: It’s not like the magnets, which are disliked by most people in the industry. It’s copper and zinc components. Some of the products are called KDF. This product has been on the market for 14 years. It’s been used worldwide. KDF is copper and zinc, 50-50, I analyzed it. As water passes through it, it reacts with metals and it definitely neutralizes chlorine. And carbon lasts 10, 12 or 15 times longer. The second thing it does, and most people don’t know this, is work as an antiscalant, to some degree. We make a bar using KDF as a dual pass we put in front of our reverse osmosis system. We saw the benefits so we decided to do it for homes. It’s in about 500 homes. It’s a simple system with prefilter, carbon, KDF without bar. It has no electricity, no backwashing, no waste, no salt. It’s a good replacement for a water softener. In Southern California, it’s been working excellent. In Europe, it worked well. In some cases, on some waters, it doesn’t work so well, but we only get one system returned back in four years.
WC&P: Why don’t we draw this to a close? Is there a final statement you’d like to make?
Pavel: No. Things are changing in the industry. New people are coming in. The old folks are leaving. New people don’t know what happened in the past. Sometimes people hold grudges—they just go away. Fresh minds come in. That’s kind of a good thing.
WC&P: Sounds like we’ll be seeing you for a while, though.
Pavel: Hopefully, we’ll be around.
Next month in this column, read our interview with Jenny Christensen, who is with Innowave Inc., a division of the Mutual of Omaha, in Omaha, Neb.