RALEIGH, NC (October 2007) — Water is one of the foundations on which full-line vending and office coffee service were built. The need for effective water treatment to prepare the beverages dispensed by coffee and postmix cold-drink vending machines offered an important incentive to the development of modern in-line water filtration and demineralizing technology, and the outcome was today’s reliable cartridge-based systems.
While operators long regarded water treatment as a necessary expense to assure beverage quality and protect equipment, the rise in concern over municipal water quality that began locally almost four decades ago inspired a few pioneering operators to recognize the market value of their water purification equipment. In the Washington, DC, market, the early 1970s were marked by newspaper publicity about asbestos fibers in the Potomac River. That led several of those operators to offer their locations in-line filters on a rental basis, often using the newspaper clippings as the basis for their sales materials.
Over the ensuing decades, negative publicity about cryptosporidium and giardia cysts contaminating municipal water supplies in the Midwest offered similar opportunities for alert operators to solve a problem for customers while creating a new profit center, increasing coffee consumption and reducing their equipment maintenance costs.
Public concern over the nation’s apparently declining supplies of potable water also prompted the swift growth of small-package bottled water as a cold-drink option, which continues today.
Although most vending and coffee service operators were content to leave the water business to specialist distributors of bulk bottled water, some of those bottler/distributors had been among the first route service organizations to offer coffee service. In view of this overlap, it was logical for some coffee service operations to expand into bottled-water distribution.
As enthusiasm for higher-quality drinking water continued to grow and the economics of route distribution began to change, “point-of-use” water treatment emerged as a distinct workplace service. Customers eager to single-source their professional breaktime management began to move vending, coffee service and pure water toward “total refreshment service.”
This trend was accelerated by the decline in heavy-industrial locations that became pronounced as the last century drew to a close. Locations staffed by well-compensated workforces and requiring round-the-clock service proliferated, but their populations were small by traditional full-line vending standards. Operating companies increasingly began to offer combinations of OCS, vending and water service – increasingly, point-of-use treatment systems rather than 3-, 5- or 6-gallon bottles – in order to maximize revenue and streamline equipment expense.
THE OPPORTUNITY STRIKES
One operator who has participated in this historic development is Jerry Allen of Carolina Vending, a full-line vending, coffee service and pure-water company serving North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham “Triangle” market since 1979.
Allen got his start with a bottled-water operation a decade ago. Employed as a salesman for a chemical company, he found that the onset of arthritis made it difficult for him to carry the heavy sample-cases on sales calls. He thus set out to find a sales position that did not require heavy lifting. Water seemed to be a growing product in an underserved market, so he took a position with a firm whose primary business was the rental of coolers and sale of 5-gallon bottled water.
“The company advertised that we had point-of-use treatment systems as an option, but all salespeople were told not to put any emphasis on that part of the business,” Allen recalled. “There were two reasons for that. Obviously, bottled-water companies make much more money on 5-gallon bottle sales, and we didn’t have anybody who had much experience installing the point-of-use equipment.
“I took note of the fact that we were losing accounts to POU companies, and it didn’t seem to generate any concern,” he said. “So I made a decision to investigate the point-of-use systems.” This led him to join an enterprise whose only business was placing point-of-use water treatment systems. Recognizing the greater potential of selling water as one component of a full-spectrum workplace service program, Allen joined Carolina Vending three years ago.
This was a good move, he reported. “Vending companies, especially those that have already seen the benefit of adding OCS, are in the absolutely perfect position to capitalize on the demand for point-of-use water treatment,” the water sales expert said.
For operators who recognize the logic of adding point-of-use water treatment to their service menu, choosing the equipment is a good place to start. What’s wanted is a reliable line that meets the established standards for commercial water purification. The two requirements here are Underwriters Laboratories listing (indicated by the familiar “UL” symbol) and NSF (formerly National Sanitation Foundation) certification of the filtration media, he said.
Beyond those essentials, he recommends that dispensers containing both hot and cold tanks be fitted with a separate switch for each, and that all the water tanks be made of stainless steel.
When speaking with manufacturers, sales personnel about a point-of-use treatment system, it’s important to get as much information as possible, Allen told VT. “If they mention equipment tested and certified by some university, ask for the data, and when the testing was performed. If they can’t provide you with that information on the spot, you’re talking to the wrong people.”
Existing accounts are obvious prospects for the new add-on service, especially the ones that already have bottled-water systems. “Because 5-gallon coolers have been out there for decades, they are – literally – not even noticed, most of the time,” the industry veteran pointed out. For that reason, he suggests that vending and coffee service route delivery and service personnel be instructed to report the presence of a bottled water dispenser in any location they’re serving and, if possible, the number of bottles stacked nearby. These reports can be used to compile a list of prospects.
The next step is to instruct a sales representative in the benefits of point-of-use water treatment, both as a source of higher-quality water for drinking and for preparing beverages and as a more convenient, efficient, economical and sanitary alternative to 5-gallon bottles. Once instructed, this individual can work down the prospect list and make the necessary sales calls.
It also is a good idea to publicize the availability of point-of-use water treatment systems by including notices in monthly bills. “This won’t be seen as junk mail, and will probably generate more business than you might think,” Allen added.
MAKE THEM DRINK
When developing the skills required to sell point-of-use water treatment systems, he said, it is a very good idea to give the salesperson or team a thorough grounding in water purification, as well as its virtues in comparison to bottled water.
This is important because competition is growing rapidly, the Carolina Vending executive reported. “The POU business is just beginning to flourish as a separate entity,” he said. “There are companies that lease POU equipment as their only source of income, so their salespeople have tremendous pressure to produce – usually resulting in a large turnover of employees.
“This is to our advantage,” Allen emphasized. “Most of us have been servicing clients for years, and they already know and trust us. If the other POU person gets to the decision-maker first, however, he will go with them – simply because he doesn’t know that you offer this kind of system, and hasn’t been educated properly.”
Even if this has happened, all is not lost if the operator is prepared to provide better information. “There are POU companies out there that love to promote ultraviolet irradiation as the only way to properly treat your drinking water,” the industry veteran instanced. “They will present literature claiming that, because of UV, there will be no HPC (heterotrophic plate count) bacteria; that it will eliminate virtually every virus known to man; and that it does away with the risk of cyst contamination.”
In fact, while there’s certainly no reason not to provide an ultraviolet treatment stage if the client really wants one, it is seldom necessary for purifying water from municipal mains. Viruses and heterotrophic bacteria that may be found in municipal water almost always are harmless – they occur in the air we breathe – and effective particle filtration not only removes cysts, but also screens out suspended solids (turbidity) that affect the appearance, and often the taste, of the water.
“There is no risk of cyst contamination with a 1-micron or smaller particle filter,” Allen said. “We use 5-micron filtration at entry and carbon 0.5-micron filtration as the final stage before tank storage.” The carbon absorbs chlorine, which municipalities add to water to kill pathogens (like viruses and heterotrophic bacteria). It does a very effective job, but imparts an unpleasant taste and odor, which the carbon filter removes. Ultraviolet irradiation does nothing whatever to chemicals like chlorine, and nothing to particles except kill any that happen to be alive.
Dangerous microorganisms that form cysts include the protozoans giardia lamblia, whose cysts are seven microns or more in diameter, and cryptosporidium, which forms “oocysts” that typically are at least four microns in diameter. These are the two most-common pathogenic organisms that, when encysted, can resist the toxic effect of chlorine. Both are removed by a microparticle filter with pores one micron in diameter or smaller.
Allen added that a hot-water tank holding its contents at 175°F. or higher also will kill just about any pathogen that survives municipal chlorination, sedimentation and filtration as well as the microparticle filter. Commercial equipment typically maintains a hot-water temperature around 185°F.
“I’ve seen equipment out there that really promotes ‘in-tank sanitation’ (ITS),” he observed. “Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t figure out how you can sanitize something that your filtration media have already eliminated.”
Carolina Vending offers multifiltration systems, and can provide both floor (console) and countertop units. “We do offer in-line ultraviolet treatment, for those people who already have been contacted by POU-only companies that really push the UV component of their systems,” Allen summed up. “That’s fairly standard with any business that’s serious about providing clients with as many options as possible.”
Carolina Vending plans to establish separate vending and office coffee/POU water treatment divisions in the foreseeable future. Allen believes that this approach will give rise to greater diversity in installation and service, and thus generate more volume. “And that’s what business should be about, in my opinion,” he concluded.