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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Could Harvesting Water From the Air Be a Sustainable Option for Businesses?

For businesses looking to make their businesses leaner and greener, taking a look at the drinking water they provide for their employees is one place to start. The average full-time employee drinks about 2.5 gallons of water per month at the office — and that does not include the water used to make coffee or other hot drinks. Clearly a business looking to be more sustainable is going to ditch bottled water because of the heaps of plastic involved. Tap water is the cheapest option, but the filtration systems often have their own costs and waste issues. Now a southern California startup, Skywell, is pitching atmospheric water-generator systems, which extract water out of the air with its advanced water generators.

This technology has been around for centuries, and in concept even dates back to the Incas. More modern versions, however, never caught on in the wider marketplace for two reasons. First, the amount of energy needed to extract the water out of the air was too cost-prohibitive for most homes and businesses. In addition, previous systems were often too noisy and operated in a one-size-fits-all approach, and therefore could never be adjusted to account for local variances in humidity and climates. Now Skywell says it offers a cost-effective option companies should consider, especially when evaluating the increasing costs of municipal water and worries over local water supplies. So is harvesting water literally out of thin air a viable option?

It is, according to Ron Dorfman, Skywell’s CEO and co-founder.

“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback from companies who have already installed our systems, and more companies are taking a look at us as they seek alternatives to bottled water while having concerns over their local municipal water supplies,” said Dorfman during an interview with Sustainable Brands.

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The technology is relatively simple, and works similarly to a dehumidifier. Air is forced over a cooled coil, which causes the water to condense. It then passes through an electrostatic filter, which traps out any airborne articles such as dust or pollen. As the water in the air condenses even further, it is pushed through another filter, then is treated with natural ozone. After passing through three more filters, it is sterilized by ultraviolet light, then is stored in a five-gallon reserve tank and ready for drinking. The systems look similar to the bottled water dispensers or filtered water stations that are now ubiquitous in offices, with one additional benefit: they can be moved around easily, such as into a conference room for a meeting. Each Skywell unit takes about 24 hours to generate five gallons of water, meeting the daily water requirements for roughly eight to 10 employees.

Skywell also claims these new systems are smarter than the water generators of yesteryear. Similar in concept to a smart meter, the generators can adjust to changes in the local temperature and conditions — and can run at a faster pace overnight, when employees are out of the office and off-peak electricity rates can apply. For early adopters and sustainability hawks, the units come with a dashboard that offer all types of information, including total water consumption, local climate conditions, and the number of plastic bottles users have saved from not drinking bottled water. Individuals can also create a profile so they can gauge their “hydration status,” which could be of interest to companies seeking creative ways to enhance health and wellness programs for their employees.

Skywell’s units require less energy, too: Dorfman said they consume about five to eight kilowatt hours of electricity per day. Account for a price range of about 11 to 15 cents per kilowatt hour depending on location, and the price of using a Skywell system to create drinking water runs about 25 cents a gallon. When compared to the cost of delivering the standard five-gallon water bottles that have long been a common sight in offices, Dorfman says they are cost-competitive, and he insisted Skywell’s costs are comparable to installed water filtration systems.

Skywell could very well have a chance at succeeding, especially as more companies are burnishing their sustainability credentials while on the lookout for ways to cut costs. Bottled water companies pitch their products as a necessity and a way to promote good health, but the stubborn facts get in the way of such messaging. The National Resources Defense Council, for example, estimates that 90 percent of bottled water’s costs come from the packaging, marketing and shipping of their concept. Furthermore, despite branding that implies this water is coming from a natural spring, it is estimated that as much as 25 percent of all bottled water comes from a local municipal supply — it is simply filtered and bottled at the plant. Plenty of companies have tried to develop a “greener solution,” whether they are compostable bottles, in-bottle water filters or a program allowing consumers to mail their bottles back so they can be recycled. Nevertheless, the facts are sobering: Americans throw away as many as 35 billion plastic bottles a year and less than one-third of them are recycled.

Dorfman also asserted during the interview that Skywell’s air-generated water was a viable alternative to tap water. Many companies, of course, install filtration systems to ensure drinking water is safe for employees, but the pressurized systems involved create their own waste problem. According to Dorfman, about three gallons of water are wasted for every gallon of filtered water generated — hardly a great statistic for companies keen on measuring their water footprint. The company touts a white paper that insists as many as 14 million Americans are drinking water that is contaminated, though in fairness Skywell’s stance is a tad self-serving: Most of the scientific and environmental communities agree that tap water in the United States is overall safe for consumption.

The hype notwithstanding, Skywell offers a compelling option for companies looking to reduce water waste while offering their employees a healthier working environment. For now, the company only has business customers in southern California but is rolling out new residential systems and is starting to expand its business outside of its home base. For those early adopters, these new water-generating systems will definitely give a new “wow” factor in the office. But like any new technology, Skywell will have to answer a few questions: Will more air-to-water systems really help reduce our collective water footprint at a cost that businesses can accept? And should this technology succeed, can Skywell keep up with the demand?


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