Parlaying a Radon Course
into a Million-Dollar Business—
Air & Water Quality Inc. of Windham, Maine
By Ronald Y. Perez
WC&P Associate Editor

In 1988, Mike Gelberg was looking to make a career change that required putting his Philadelphia home up for sale. Before he could sell, however, the house had to pass a radon inspection. Unfortunately, it failed and Gelberg was forced to put in a preventive system in order to complete the transaction. Little did he know that this simple turn of events would shape the next 11 years, and counting, of his life.

Chance meeting
The Portchester, N.Y., native decided it was time for a more sedate and quiet lifestyle. In the city of brotherly love, he had worked with his real-life brother in helping him run his computer company, Human Design Systems (now called Neoware), where Gelberg served as executive vice president. While traveling around the world, he “burned out and wanted to relax a bit.” Who could blame him?

After earning his undergraduate degree at MIT in aeronautics and astronautics, he worked on jet aircraft in Texas during the Vietnam War. From there, he worked for NASA in Houston and TRW in Boston before moving to Philadelphia.

With such a frenetic pace, Maine never looked better. So, Gelberg headed up the coast. Once there, he heard about a course on radon given by a technical college in Portland. He struck up a conversation with a classmate named Jeff Twitchell, who was similarly burnt out teaching high school science. Shortly thereafter, they decided to go into business together. And thus was born Air & Water Quality Inc., a water treatment company based in Windham, Maine.

Bumpy ride at start
Looking back on those first few years of operation, Gelberg remembers lean times brought about by a poor economy with high interest rates. He had built a nest egg from working with his brother, but this was Twitchell’s first venture into the business world. Both were joined nine months later by Gelberg’s brother-in-law who was hired to do installations. For the first two years, Gelberg and Twitchell received nothing in salary. Suddenly, Twitchell’s days of teaching high school students didn’t seem so bad.

After graduating with a degree in sciences from the University of Maine, Twitchell had spent 10 years in classes before becoming “disillusioned” with the education system, according to his business partner. Twitchell, who Gelberg likes to call “Mr. Wizard,” can devise unique solutions to any problem. This comes from Twitchell being raised on a farm where being self-sufficient is wise as well as expected. For example, before two years ago, Air & Water had no website. Gelberg figured it was time to begin one, if for no other reason than to be prepared for the future. A company was contracted to provide a site, but it took too long to download because of the graphics. Twitchell, who had no prior computer experience, jumped online and designed one (www.awqinc.com) that he has tweaked over time. Gelberg says he’s extremely happy with the site.

Currently, Gelberg is president of Air & Water while Twitchell is vice-president. “It’s easy to get in the water treatment business,” Gelberg said. “You don’t have to have any license, except a plumbing license. In Maine, there’s no other requirement. Unfortunately, a lot of people get into this business who have very little technical background. Some want to make a quick dollar. We see those companies come and go all the time.”

Standards bring business
Gelberg is quick to point out that Air & Water is anything but a traditional water treatment outfit. The company uses technical expertise to provide innovative solutions to all types of problems associated with water and its usage. “We want to educate customers and give them options,” Gelberg said. “If you’re a good company and you’ve got a good reputation, a good product, good technical knowledge and you can solve the problem, you don’t have to go for the hard sell.” Offering round-the-clock service, the company has three licensed small system operators on call.

Gelberg adds there isn’t a lot of competition within the state. In its inception, the company built a strong base in the residential arena, but it hopes to do more commercial jobs in upcoming years. About 70 percent of their customers are residential, and the remaining is commercial.

“Maine has been warned by the (U.S.) Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) that it will take over the drinking water program because the money (allocated) is not being used to enforce the rules,” Gelberg said. And once these guidelines go into effect, the boon to businesses like Air & Water is immeasurable. Last October, for instance, the USEPA presented a proposal on what is considered a dangerous level of radon in drinking water, lowering the maximum contaminant level (MCL) from 4,000 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) to 300 pCi/L unless the state or community has adopted an approved “multi-media mitigation” (MMM) program. If this recommendation should be accepted, few wells would pass inspection in Maine. Obviously, the state’s water supply presents different problems than you would find in more populated cities, where public water is the main source and analyses aren’t as scrutinized.

Well water
About 60 percent of Maine’s 1 million residents subsist on well water. Half of the population is concentrated along the coast in a 50-mile area, with Portland being the hub of the state. Being known as a state provider, Air & Water finds transporting to secluded areas, including islands near Portland, can pose unique obstacles. A good part of well water contains colloidal iron, which frequently combines with organic matter and is basically a tannin with iron in the middle. As a result, discolored water is produced and isn’t easily filterable. In turn, techniques must be developed to remove colloidal iron using anion resins or ultrafiltration. Also, non-traditional standard techniques like flocculation are often implemented.

With granite bedrock wells, the advantage is that water softeners usually work well. However, water is relatively hard to find drilling through such hard material. Although it has little hardness, the water in the area requires more filtration. It’s low pH water (more acidic water) with high iron and manganese. Corrosion control is a top priority. Gelberg said, “You can see the iron up the shore, it comes out of the rock.” Hydrogen sulfide gas, arsenic, radium and uranium are always concerns.

Arsenic and radon
With so many harmful contaminants associated with the region, Gelberg knows the area is being watched closely. If the USEPA has its way, “almost half of the wells in Maine will fail,” he said. “We can use a little help from the outside. I throw a party every time a new standard is announced.”

Radon alone accounts for $500,000 in business for Air & Water, he said; Hawthorne House, a nursing home in Freeport, Maine, had the company install a 40 gallon per minute (gpm) commercial radon system. On one occasion, a car accident near the Windham office released MTBE that contaminated a whole neighborhood; with the USEPA, Air & Water helped prevent further danger with air stripping and carbon tanks.

The USEPA has also targeted arsenic with a recommendation in late May for stricter levels (lowering the MCL from 50 parts per billion, or ppb, to 5 ppb). Gelberg is puzzled over people’s reaction to each harmful element.

“Radon can’t be seen, so people don’t worry about it,” he said. “Arsenic and radon, for the most part, are naturally occurring. Arsenic is seen as a poison, but radon is not.”

In that same vein, Twitchell, who’s licensed to work with radon, teams with the USEPA at Rutgers University, home of the agency’s regional training center to develop and teach courses for the state’s radon program.

New facility
Maine, to Gelberg, is still about potato farming, paper mills and fishing. Air & Water was approached by a business that wanted to remove water from the bay so they could process sea urchins. First, the polluted water had to be chlorinated. Retention tanks and filters followed. Total tab: $12,000. In another instance Bottoms USA, a company that makes soles and heels for shoes, was spending $100,000 a year to separate silicone from the water. A centrifuge system from Air & Water saved the company a lot of leather.

With such specialized projects, it’s only natural that Air & Water would expand. In Freeport, the company has purchased a piece of land just south of L.L. Bean headquarters. Construction will begin next spring on a facility with a warehouse, lab, sales office and a retail store. Well-trafficked, the land between Interstate 95 and Route 1 is some of the most visible in Maine. The retail store is expected to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Gelberg. And if L.L. Bean should have problems with their water coolers, it shouldn’t be difficult to find a solution. Air & Water installed those as well.

Conclusion
Gelberg sees young retirees, increasingly stringent drinking water regulations and new tax laws as key to his business—not to mention growth in the area.

“These people are buying up oceanfront property. It’s driving the taxes up but, thank God, they’re providing me with new well water, and they’ve got lots of money,” he said. And let’s not forget the possibilities with the website. When he first envisioned it, Gelberg never realized what an economic windfall this could be for the company. He can see his 10,000 accounts growing exponentially.

So would Gelberg risk another move and a lucrative business to break the monotony of living in one place for so long? Not a chance. “This is it,” he responds. “It’s pretty easy to say.”

 

Air & Water Quality Inc.
219 Roosevelt Trail
Windham, ME 04062
(800) 892-9655
(207) 892-0336 (fax)
www.awqinc.com

Owner: Mike Gelberg

Employees: 11—one president, one vice president, one sales/marketing manager, one full-time sales, one office manager, one service/installation manager, three installers, two office assistants

Revenue: $1.5 million expected in 2000; 15 to 20 pecent increase each year for the past four years

Quotable:

"People are getting more in touch with water treatment. It's something you use every day. But I stress to people there's a bottled water, but you can have water just as good without buying bottled water."

—Mike Gelberg