Making the Leap

Sept. 24, 2018

How to transition residential water treatment skills to the commercial water sector

About the author:

Gary Bauer is manager of CustomCare, a commercial division of Water-Right. Bauer can be reached at 920.739.9401.

You are a trusted water treatment expert in your region and your dealership is known throughout the community for quality work as you and your team fix problem water for homeowners. But what about all the businesses in your area? What is keeping you from applying your knowledge of water quality to commercial projects?

There is a tremendous opportunity for local water treatment dealers to expand their reach into other markets because water quality is just as important to many businesses as it is in the residential space. Yet, many seasoned professionals are hesitant to make that transition. The familiar is comfortable and change can be intimidating. That is understandable. However, moving into commercial water treatment could be a much easier leap than you think. You already have the knowledge, experience and customer connections. Those are all the table stakes you need to get into the game.

Residential vs. Commercial

In many ways, a commercial unit is just a residential water softener that is “grown up.” For most manufacturers, it has the same controls, and all the parts and pieces essentially are identical to the units you would install in a home, just larger.

It was a different story 30 years ago when residential and commercial water treatment systems utilized dissimilar controls and mechanisms. In the last decade, however, light commercial and industrial water treatment has become simplified. In fact, there are patented water treatment technologies that use the exact same parts and pieces on ¾-in. units up to 2-in. units. 

If you understand how to fix a residential system, then you will be able to find your way around commercial equipment. The approach to evaluating the needs of a commercial project will be familiar to residential water treatment dealers, as well. The three basic steps are:

  1. Conduct a water analysis. Test for the usual water quality parameters, including hardness, iron, total dissolved solids and pH levels of the water you are treating.
  2. Determine peak flow. You will need to know the maximum gallons per minute required for the project.
  3. Determine gallons per day. You will need an understanding of daily water usage.

Access to this information will help you and the equipment manufacturer establish the right size piping and the appropriate system specifications. Accuracy is important in commercial water treatment. Because you have done many residential installations and analyses, you may be able to improvise a little when setting up a system for a homeowner, but you will need accurate numbers and more precision for high-end commercial work.

Luckily, information, such as peak flow rate and gallons per day, often is readily available for commercial projects because those measurements are taken regularly. So, it actually is easier to be precise, as opposed to estimating a residential household’s daily water needs.

After you have a clear picture of the water quality you are working with, you will need to plan your next steps. Non-residential applications are more diverse than treating water for the consumer. That is simply because water is used for a wider variety of purposes in non-residential applications. There will be different considerations for treating irrigated water for agriculture, at a food processing plant, a coffee shop, or a power plant. This is where commercial water treatment splits off into two levels of complexity.

Getting Your Feet Wet

A good way to make a smooth transition into commercial work is to start by taking on projects that have a lot of similarities to residential water treatment. Apartment complexes, hotels, colleges and universities, healthcare and assisted living facilities have the same water quality needs as the typical homeowner. They need soft water and they may want to improve the quality of their drinking water. However, the size of the equipment, the peak flow rate and gallons required per day will be greater.

Likewise, look for opportunities to help address problem water at bars and restaurants or beauty salons and barbershops. Car washes are businesses that use commercial reverse osmosis (RO) systems to achieve that spot-free rinse. The main difference between a residential and commercial RO unit is a bigger pump and membrane to handle the flow rate.

These options are the low-hanging fruit of commercial work, and they should not present any problems for a residential water treatment professional with essential skills and core competencies. The next level involves jobs that require more attention to detail and a solid partnership with your equipment supplier or manufacturer.

To ease the transition from residential to commercial work, accept projects that have traits similar to residential projects, such as apartment complexes and colleges. 

Next Level

Certain types of industrial projects will require higher-than-normal water quality and purity. For example, boiler feeds, cooling towers and paint booths are applications with specific demands.Boiler feedwater needs to be at a certain alkalinity level to avoid scaling and corrosion. Industrial cooling systems have unique water treatment setups that include chemical treatment, while preventing corrosion, mineral deposits and microbial growth. Paint booths often require both RO and deionization exchange systems. High-purity water still requires pretreatment, so a number of pieces of equipment may be necessary to get the water to the desired quality. These types of jobs are where accurate and detailed information surrounding water quality, peak flow and gallons per day are crucial to identifying the right size and the best solution for the business. If you are working with a reputable manufacturer, you will need to send them as much information as you can obtain. The manufacturer’s in-house engineers will take those details and help specify a customized water treatment solution for you to install.

Many industries are striving to reduce waste and improve efficiencies, and water is a valuable resource that organizations believe is worth conserving through better management and technology. Reduced salt usage, decreased discharge rates and brine reclaim are other ways to help. Water treatment dealers who recommend high-efficiency commercial units can capitalize on this trend.

Of course, if you are just entering the commercial side, it is unlikely that your dealership will be asked to bid on large projects right away. In the spec market, design engineering firms will have detailed specifications for commercial or industrial water treatments systems. As you gain experience, build trust, network and improve relationships with design engineering firms, you will earn a reputation that automatically gets your equipment listed in specifications.

Making Connections

Different parts of the country are home to different industries, and you should do some research into how water quality plays a role in those organizations, but every city in the country has plenty of small businesses with basic water treatment needs that mirror those of your residential customers. Start there.

Once you decide to pursue opportunities in commercial water treatment, the first step is winning that initial job. The foot in the door likely will come from one of your residential customers.The people whose homes you enter have jobs at nearby companies, some of them even own businesses. You might be surprised how casual conversations can lead to talk of water problems. Before you know it, doors are opening to commercial work.

Recommendations and awareness of your dealership flow in the other direction, too. We often hear how dealers gain new residential business after installing units at a college or a hair salon. The school’s faculty and staff start asking questions. Beauticians and their patrons start talking. Things come full circle, and your business will be thriving with both business to commercial and business to business services. 

About the Author

Gary Bauer

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