Parlaying a Radon Course
into a Million-Dollar Business
Air & Water Quality Inc.
of Windham, Maine
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.
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 Twitchells
first venture into the business world. Both were joined nine months later
by Gelbergs brother-in-law who was hired to do installations. For
the first two years, Gelberg and Twitchell received nothing in salary.
Suddenly, Twitchells days of teaching high school students didnt
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 hes extremely happy with the site.
Currently, Gelberg is president of Air & Water while Twitchell is
vice-president. Its easy to get in the water treatment business,
Gelberg said. You dont have to have any license, except a
plumbing license. In Maine, theres 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 youre a good company and youve got
a good reputation, a good product, good technical knowledge and you can
solve the problem, you dont 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 isnt 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 states water supply presents
different problems than you would find in more populated cities, where
public water is the main source and analyses arent as scrutinized.
About 60 percent of Maines 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 isnt 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. Its 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
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 peoples reaction to each harmful
Radon cant be seen, so people dont 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, whos licensed to work with radon,
teams with the USEPA at Rutgers University, home of the agencys
regional training center to develop and teach courses for the states
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, its 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 shouldnt be difficult
to find a solution. Air & Water installed those as well.
Gelberg sees young retirees, increasingly stringent drinking water regulations
and new tax laws as key to his businessnot to mention growth in
These people are buying up oceanfront property. Its driving
the taxes up but, thank God, theyre providing me with new well water,
and theyve got lots of money, he said. And lets 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. Its pretty easy to say.
Air & Water Quality Inc.
219 Roosevelt Trail
Windham, ME 04062
(207) 892-0336 (fax)
Owner: Mike Gelberg
Employees: 11one 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
"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."