Vending Industry Experts Review Pure-Water Service Methods And Market Growth

Posted On: 5/2/2017

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TAGS: water as a service, vending, refreshment service, Atlantic Coast Exposition, Jonathan Childress, Canteen Vending, Thomas Radford, Alpine Coolers, Barbara Russell, Holiday House Distributing, Michael Raycher, Follett LLC, office coffee service

MYRTLE BEACH, SC -- The growing popularity of water as a beverage in its own right and the widely recognized importance of high-quality water in preparing hot and cold beverages have fueled the steady growth of the pure-water business. As office coffee service operators began adding automatic brewers and other plumbed-in equipment, they turned to the water filtration systems originally developed for beverage vending machines. When public concern over the quality of drinking water began to grow, some alert OCS companies saw the opportunity to install larger filters to provide excellent drinking water in addition to protecting the brewer and assuring the coffee quality. The result was a point-of-use water treatment system that could be leased to the account -- so the expense of the filter was replaced by a new profit center.

The importance of water in today's total refreshment service mix was explored by experts at the Atlantic Coast Exposition in Myrtle Beach, SC. Jonathan Childress, Canteen Vending (Summerfield, NC), hosted panelists Thomas Radford, Alpine Coolers; Barbara Russell, Holiday House Distributing; and Michael Raycher, Follett LLC. They shared their expertise in an seminar titled "Waterworld."

Jonathan Childress, Thomas Radford, Barbara Russell, Michael Raycher
PHOTO: From left to right Jonathan Childress, Thomas Radford, Barbara Russell and Michael Raycher.

Pure-water service can be provided in several ways: water treatment at the point of use, typically accomplished by a filtration system leased by the location from the operator and connected to the municipal potable-water line; bulk bottled water, generally sold to the location and delivered on a route for dispensing through a leased cooler; and small-package bottled water, which is handled in the same way as other single-serving packaged cold drinks.

The pure-water industry estimates that there presently are 5.5 million bulk bottled-water dispensers in the marketplace, in workplaces and in residences. Plumbed-in point-of-use water treatment systems are gaining ground rapidly against bottle dispensers in workplaces, and soon may have an impact on the home market, too, according to Radford of Alpine, which offers both point-of-use systems and bulk bottled-water dispensers.

In general, point-of-use water treatment service is provided under a three- to five-year lease. Over the past five years, the number of POU installations in the United States has nearly tripled to a present total estimated at 1.5 million units. The enduring value of the bottled-water dispenser, though, is that it can be installed in locations without convenient access to a potable-water line.

Radford explained that today's point-of-use water treatment systems are grouped into five categories. "High-end" dispensers deliver hot, cold and ambient-temperature water ("tri-temp") and feature electronic controls and a pump. "Mid-level" models incorporate a float system and lever faucets. "Economical" dispensers are built into durable blow-molded cabinets, and some models can be upgraded. The fourth and fifth categories are dispensers equipped for reverse osmosis demineralizing treatment, and dispensers with carbonators able to deliver sparkling, as well as still water. While all POU treatment systems have been enjoying volume increases, sparkling-water dispensers have enjoyed the fastest growth.

Water Filtration

All POU dispensers are built around filters, and there are several types. The basic filtration systems for pure-water dispensing are a carbon filter to capture the chemicals that impart off-tastes and odors to water, and a particle filter to remove sediment and microorganisms. Common types are carbon block and granular activated carbon for chemical taste and odor removal, and "submicron" particle filters that mechanically trap everything from visible turbidity down to microorganisms.

Carbon filters work by adsorption of chemicals dissolved in water by the carbon surface. KDF (kinetic degradation fluxion) filters remove additional chemicals, like hydrogen sulfide, as well as metals including iron, lead and mercury. KDF and carbon filtration media often are combined in a single filter.

Submicron particle filters mechanically trap suspended solids that measure less than a micron -- a millionth of a meter, or about 0.00004". Many pathogens associated with waterborne illness are 3 microns to 8 microns in size, and submicron filters with pore sizes smaller than that will remove them.

To those two filtration stages, some POU systems add a third stage that neutralizes dissolved minerals so they will not precipitate out on water-contact surfaces. High mineral content also can impede flavor extraction when brewing coffee.

Radford said that areas with really bad water may require ultrafiltration, which involves the rigorous application of chemical, particle and ion removal methods to the design of a three- or four-stage filter. Typically, the first stage is a 5-micron sediment filter to trap particulate matter like rust and silt. This is followed by a carbon "prefilter" to remove tastes and odors, including chlorine.

The third stage is the ultrafiltration membrane itself. This can remove nearly all colloidal particles, including pathogenic microorganisms, even when encysted, as with giardia and cryptosporidium. It also reduces such contaminants as chromium, arsenic, cadmium and lead, nitrates and nitrites. It does not affect total dissolved solids. An advantage to this system is that it does not require a drain.

The alternative in dealing with bad water that exhibits a very high concentration of dissolved solids is reverse osmosis. This technique involves driving water through a membrane that leaves the mineral ions on its upstream side and delivers the demineralized water to the downstream consumer. Combined with filters to remove off-tastes and odors, pathogens and particles that could clog the membrane, RO equipment is effective at treating water, but it's costly -- and it does require a drain, to dispose of the mineral-laden waste water on the upstream side of the membrane.

Radford pointed out, too, that a certain amount of dissolved-mineral content is important to the flavor of drinking water, as well as of beverages prepared with it. Water demineralized by an RO treatment system is tasteless ("flat"), like distilled water. There are systems for restoring optimum mineral content after filtration, but they further increase the cost.

RO may be necessary in regions with contaminated aquifers, Radford said. "And people do ask for it. But be sure they really need it," he recommended. "Often, ultrafiltration is a satisfactory solution."

Holiday House's Russell reviewed the approximate costs and operating considerations of the various filtration systems. Her firm distributes a broad line of water treatment and dispensing equipment, accessories, fittings and supplies, and Russell reported that the cost of a common inline carbon filter is about $18, and an inline microparticle filter can be had for approximately $30. Reverse osmosis equipment requires pre- and post-filtration, to protect the costly osmotic membrane and to ensure the purity of the demineralized water after the chlorine has been removed. And a remineralization filter restores some minerals to the treated water to improve its flavor. The filters needed to support an RO system can cost from $150 to $200. An ultrafiltration system delivering water to two or three "heads" connected in series may cost $300.

Russell observed that operators seeking to meet the growing demand for RO water treatment should keep in mind that the pure water delivered by the process will attack brass fittings; removing all dissolved solids lowers the pH of the water. It therefore is necessary to use plastic fittings in RO-based systems.

Ice dispensers have been perennial office appliance favorites in some regions for decades, and the growing popularity of water and chilled coffee along with advances in icemaker technology continue to broaden their appeal. Follett's Michael Raycher observed that water filtration usually is required for best results with an ice dispenser. It's desirable to reduce the dissolved solids and eliminate suspended particles in order to produce good ice.

"We recommend at least a 0.5-micron particle filter," he said. "But we need at least eight to 10 parts per million of dissolved solids so the water remains electrically conductive enough to use in controlling the system." This should be kept in mind if an RO system is required. Icemakers require periodic cleaning, as do any appliances with water reservoirs. As a rule of thumb, Raycher said, the equipment should be cleaned at least every six months; depending on the water quality, more frequent cleaning may be needed. Some machines have meters that keep track of the water passing through them.

Gaining favor in water treatment systems is ultraviolet irradiation. This involves exposing the water to ultraviolet light to kill pathogenic microorganisms. The panelists observed that carbon filters remove chlorine from the water entering the system from the municipal supply and, in its absence, pathogens can grow in water tanks. Ultraviolet light can destroy them. Water is sent past a UV lamp after filtration; any turbidity caused by suspended solids impairs the irradiation process.

Finding application in periodic sanitation of water tanks is ozone (O3). This is a powerful oxidizing agent, toxic to most waterborne organisms. It is an effective method to inactivate harmful protozoans that form cysts, and it works well against almost all other pathogens.

New Sanitation Tools

Raycher noted that ultraviolet irradiation and ozone treatment are relatively new to the ice-machine industry, which traditionally has used antimicrobials for sanitation. "If you're dispensing ice and water, too, you need this," he said.

Radford explained that a water-treatment system incorporating an ultraviolet light source should use stainless-steel components; UV radiation will degrade plastics. Ultraviolet disinfects rapidly, he said, deactivating bacteria and viruses in water. He advised operators to change the UV tube annually.

Raycher pointed out that adding ice to the breakroom offerings can give the service provider a bigger role in supporting location meetings and conferences. Ice is growing in popularity, and Follett has supported this service expansion by introducing several small "drainless" models for the office refreshments market. "Drains are expensive to install," he pointed out.

Ice is a good add-on to contemporary beverage service, given the popularity of iced tea and the growing interest in chilled coffee beverages. The smallest icemakers are designed to fit on breakroom countertops and can be filled manually; in general, their icemaking capacity is around 600 lbs. in 24 hours. "In professional offices that have outgrown the domestic refrigerator with an icemaker in the door, something like this is the answer," the Follet executive suggested.

"If you need a drain, you can run a line to the drain of a sink that's up to 20 feet away," Raycher explained. "And if you go 'drainless,' you should be aware of the concentration of total dissolved solids in the water. Because the machine isn't flushed as often, more of the meltwater is converted back to ice."

Follett has experienced growth of over 11% in icemaker sales to the office refreshments market, Raycher reported; this has been attained simply by concentrating on that segment. "It has a lot of potential," he said.

An ACE seminar audience member wanted to know more about the growth in demand for sparkling water. Alpine's Radford said it is a growing category that started on the West Coast, and is moving east.

In looking for sparkling-water dispensers, the kind with a "chiller" integrated with the carbonator has advantages over the "reservoir" type, Radford explained. A reservoir can be exhausted temporarily during periods of peak demand.

"And you'll need a CO2 tank," he added. "The requirements will be different for a location with 25 employees and another with 250."

Holiday House's Russell urged caution before getting involved with sparkling products. She said that operators planning to offer sparkling water should become familiar with regulations governing the transportation and handling of compressed-gas cylinders. She also pointed out that gas cylinders are heavy, and likely to require a larger truck.

Holiday House Distributing
SOME LIKE IT COLD: Scott Wechsler (r.), QualityExpress Coffee & Vending Service (Tullytown, PA), learns about Holiday House Distributing cold-brew coffee preparation and dispensing system from HHD's Barbara Russell, HHD and Gellman & Associates' Dave Gellman at NAMA Coffee, Tea and Water conference. System uses filter packs and holds 3-5 gals.