Twenty five years ago, Robert Zitting and his wife Melanie were persuaded to purchase a water vending system and install it at a friend’s grocery store. That changed the course of their lives. “It all started when a friend wanted a water system in his store that he had seen at a trade show and convinced my wife and me to buy it as an investment to put in his store,” said Zitting. “We did, and we started getting calls from other stores and kept placing systems. We were putting them in as fast as we could afford to buy the machines. Those systems we purchased are still in use today. With good preventative maintenance, they will last for years to come.”
Today the couple sells high-speed water vending systems in 450+ grocery stores in 25 states and the business is growing approximately 25 percent a year. Along the way, Zitting perfected (and now manufactures) water purification systems and invented a portable, solar-powered RO filter water purification system that can quickly purify almost any source of water, especially during natural disasters. All this is managed from a single location with 13 employees in Salt Lake City, UT, plus a plethora of point people around the nation who do weekly readings, testing, cleanings and filter changes at the stores.
Now Zitting is looking for dealers across the nation to help grow their Pure Water Technologies and Arctic Mountain Water businesses. “Now that we have a long track record and have proved our system, we are building a dealer base. Our Pure Water East Division has grown to more than 90 stores in the last three years. A lot of dealers know their local stores and have done work for them, like putting in water softeners. We offer a turnkey setup so they don’t have to hassle with billing or a big parts inventory. We do all that, including state requirements for testing and record keeping. This way our dealers can focus on the base business, adding more machines and stores in their territory. The nice thing about this is it provides revenue every month of the year, year in and year out, even in slow times. Our dealers enjoy long-term revenue, just as we have done over the past 25 years,” he said.
“The most important thing is that we save an estimated 20 million bottles from going to the landfill each year. That amount would fill more than 1,600 semi-tractor trucks. On top of that, by refilling bottles, the customer saves more than 85 cents per gallon. That’s more than $16 million in total savings per year. When you buy water, 60 to 70 percent is the cost of the bottle and shipping—a very small amount is actually for the water. Typically we have a 97-percent refill ratio, which means if you sell three bottles new off the shelf, you’ve sold 100 gallons of water; 97 percent goes into used bottles customers already have.”
From one store to nationwide
The Zittings established Pure Water Technology in 1992 and started buying water systems from Harmony Brook. “After Culligan took them over, we decided to manufacture our own systems. We upgraded many things and added a web-based computer monitoring system. With this, we can know ahead of time if there is a problem, which reduces downtime.” Then they established Arctic Mountain Water as the market brand.
“We have systems in stores from northern Washington state to southern Florida. The stores we are in usually do more volume than all their pre-bottled water combined. We are usually the last to have water available before a hurricane because the stores run out of bottled water and the trucks are not coming anymore. And we’re the first to be back in business after a storm like in Florida this last hurricane season. Out of the 12 stores in the Florida area, only the Naples store was closed for a couple weeks due to building damage. The rest were producing and giving away water for free.
“We’ve always just grown our business by answering the phone, with very little advertising. It comes to us. My wife handles sales for the company. She returns calls, then we go out and put in the system. We just had an order for 20 more stores in Salt Lake City area. We expect we’ll be in 470 stores by year’s end. We have water refill stations inside the grocery stores, this helps pull customers inside the stores, where customers refill their bottles for usually around 30 cents per gallon. We also supply purified water to the produce, bakery, meat and deli departments. If a store has organic produce, ask if they mist it with purified water. You should not put chlorinated water on organic produce.”
Originally a mortgage broker, Zitting discovered he likes engineering water systems. “I just tend to combine things I know about.” He began experimenting with a 12-volt solar panel and an RV battery. That led to the portable solar-powered water purification system: Solar Water Purifier. It can produce clean water from almost any source: a stream, lake, canal, swimming pool, pond or puddle. “We’ve been testing it on canal water that’s pretty darned nasty.”
The Solar Water Purifier uses a standard RO system and can operate when the sun shines and/or with a standard battery from a car, RV, motor home or boat to suction the water into the unit. It can produce up to 30 gallons of purified water a day for drinking and cooking, plus 120 gallons of filtered water for bathing, dishes, and clothes etc. That’s enough for several families.
“The system will run almost two days on a fully charged battery, even without the sun. When the sun is out and the clouds go away, the sun charges the battery back up. The unit is about three feet across and 3.5-feet tall and can be easily rolled across a field by one person or lifted into the back of a truck by two people. The system sells for about $1,900 with an optional $700 commercial grade unit that has a UV sterilizer.
“We’ve had this for a few years and would just build one when someone needed it. Now we actually have are talking to a couple of groups doing disaster relief. These are desperately needed in Puerto Rico. In these areas they have water all over the place but it’s just not clean enough to drink. Because of all the natural disasters, we’ve recently started to advertise on the radio.
“One of our goals is to get more Solar Water Purifiers into Hurricane Alley in Florida, the islands, etc. We have 12 Lucky’s stores in Florida and Georgia. In October we gave away 10-gallon refills free to every customer every day. In November and December, we are giving away two-gallon refills free to every customer every day in all our Florida stores and in Savannah, GA. I watched the news and people were out scamming, charging $30 a case for water, so I thought let’s go give it away. It helps them out and promotes our products as well.
“We also help sponsor (along with many other vendors) a golf tournament in Chicago with Fresh Thyme Farmers Markets and Fresh Thyme’s Giving Tree Foundation to benefit two veterans organizations: Warriors Heart and Mission 22. The first year they raised $125,000, the next $250,000 and this year $450,000.”
What’s next? Zitting is working on an ice-dispensing unit: a machine that will make purified ice, bag it and display it for customers to buy. “Our stores are begging us to build them an ice machine that’s better than the systems currently out there. That’s a couple of years down the road, though.”