By Donna Kreutz
One challenge when running a business is ironing out problems. For Dan Wandel, the problem is iron itself. “The only reason we’re in business is iron. Without a doubt, it makes up at least 75 percent of our customer base.” The intense amount of iron in the well water in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula stains fixtures, clothing and hair. “We even get calls from women at times because their normally blonde hair has turned bright orange due to increased iron levels. By far, iron is the number-one issue we resolve.”
Wandel and his wife, Sarah, own and operate Wandels’ WaterCare, a multi-generational business with offices in Bruce Crossing and Negaunee (across Lake Superior from Canada), which are both areas of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Sarah’s father, Richard Kaat, founded the business in 2001 as R.G. Kaat Enterprises, providing much-needed solutions for the extreme problem water in the area. He had previously owned and operated a water conditioning dealership in Wisconsin.) Sarah’s sister, Elisabeth, manages the two offices and her father (now retired) still enjoys handling some residential sales. Many other family members also work in the water treatment industry.
“I got involved with the industry after meeting Sarah and decided that I needed to change careers,” said Wandel. “I previously did commercial and industrial service work for Panasonic in the robotic welding sector with a territory that covered all of North America. I was living out of a hotel four or five nights a week; along with all the travel, I eventually realized a change was in order for my own well being. So it was time to make a change.” Luckily, Wandel was a quick study.
Both Wandel and the Kaat family moved to far-north Michigan from Wisconsin. Wandel moved there because he “wanted a real winter”and the area averages over 200-plus inches of snow per year. They chose to live there year round, unlike many who only have summer homes in the region and leave for winter. “I moved here 10 years ago after I’d been coming up for 10 years before that to visit the area. My wife’s family moved here about 15 years ago,” Wandel said.
Now featuring products ‘Made in America’
“We deal with high levels of iron in many forms—up to total values of 30+ ppm. We have a lot of iron mines in our eastern coverage area. It’s the geological makeup of the area. We also have a lot of tannins that make some water look like apple juice and very, very fine clay sediment that just hangs in the water and makes it cloudy.
“We address the iron issue with both our salt-based product line and our ever-growing, air-based product offerings. We can custom-format all our valves to customer needs by using our water-efficient technology (W.E.T.), which allows us to cycle the units as many times as needed, yet only use salt and/or water proportionally based on the customer’s actual water usage, not just a fixed value. The new generation of ozone generators for our air-based systems is a great addition to eradicate nuisance iron bacteria and odors.” The company’s customer base covers 12 of the 15 Upper Peninsula counties, offering residential water treatment along with commercial and industrial services for medical facilities, laundromats, car washes and boiler feeds.
When the Wandels took over in November 2012, they changed both the company name and the brand of products being sold. “One of our challenges was finding an equipment supplier with products ‘Made in America.’ This is important to us. The fact that we can deal face-to-face with company owners and management is huge. We switched to as many American-made products as we could, including many of our cartridge filters. All of our filters are made in America now.
“We found our supplier in WaterCare,” a subsidiary of Water-Right in Appleton, WI. “A large percentage of the WaterCare product line is manufactured in Wisconsin and what isn’t made there is final-assembled there. We know where everything comes from. We like having a direct connection. It’s nice to walk through the front door and talk to the owners of the place. We can actually have an influence on the manufacturers, to make changes if needed. That does not happen when you are dealing with someone on the other side of the globe. The chain of command is much shorter. I can just pick up the phone or send an email to Mike Speicher, our regional Sales Manager, or Luke Java, the Director of Sales and Marketing. They have a very good understanding of our area and our business.”
Products and knowledge for extreme problem water
“We have remained in the business because there is legitimate need for treating some extreme problem water in our service area. We have the products and knowledge both internally and with WaterCare that make treating this water possible with a high level of accuracy and success. A lot of our success comes as a direct result of employee knowledge and capability to properly apply products and resolve existing equipment concerns. We offer in-house training and also continue to use factory training and seminars to grow our employees’ knowledge. We are a member in good standing with the WQA, have attended the big conventions and some corporate conferences as well.”
New technologies continue to improve the water treatment industry. “The efficiency that can be obtained with salt and water usage on problem waters has advanced greatly. The changes from just five years ago are remarkable.” Yet on the other hand, “the Internet is now taking dealers out of the process for applying equipment on problem water. More and more, we’re seeing customers being sold excessive misapplied equipment from sources on the Internet instead of contacting professionals and getting the treatment done properly the first time. It rarely pays off for them. A lot of online products are marketed as cleaning up everything, but they don’t. This is not one-size-fits-all. Each area of the country has its own specific challenges and ways to deal with water. You need to have a professional come out who knows what’s going on locally.”