By Eric Peterson | Jan 11, 2019
Perlite is a bit like volcanic popcorn. Heat it up and water inside expands, and the perlite particle becomes a much airier material.
"It's volcanic glass. As it cooled, it captured a little moisture in it," says Joe. "Anywhere where there was a volcano, there's probably a deposit of perlite there."
After it's fired in Persolite Products' vertical, gas-fired furnaces at temperatures as high as 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, 60 pounds of the stuff expands from about a cubic foot to 10 cubic feet.
In Colorado, Persolite Products has provided perlite to a number of industries for 70 years. Founded in Denver, the company moved south to Florence in 1957, closer to a mine it owned in the Wet Mountain Valley. The company ceased mining in the 1980s, and has now sourced perlite from New Mexico for more than a decade. "There's a huge deposit of perlite by Socorro," says Joe.
Joe's late grandfather, Howard Steiner, started working as a furnace operator for the company in the 1960s, and bought the company the subsequent decade. Howard passed the torch to his son Michael Steiner (Joe's late father) and son-in-law Richard Soden, Mike's (Joe's uncle), who together ran the company after Howard retired in 1998; Soden remains a co-owner and VP.
Through the company's first seven decades in business, the perlite industry has undergone an evolution. "We've gone through several iterations with our industry," says Joe. "At first, [perlite] was used for texture in wallboards."
The advent of drywall pushed perlite into filler for concrete to make roof decks and other lightweight structures.
"We transitioned into more filtration applications, and that's when horticulture started to expand," explains Joe. "The markets kind of shifted. My grandfather, my dad, and my Uncle Rich saw some of the construction markets were starting to drop off and the horticulture industry was burgeoning."
In the 1980s and '90s, Persolite focused on marketing perlite as a soil additive to a wide variety of growers. Now, horticultural users account for about 60 to 70 percent of the company's sales.
"It's an additive they put in soil that doesn't add weight to it," says Joe. "It moves through the soil and keeps it from compacting, and it actually increases root growth. Perlite won't absorb water. It actually adsorbs water" -- meaning the perlite holds it as a thin film on its surface before releasing it.
Hydroponic growers like perlite for this reason, and Persolite Products also provides compost manufacturers, greenhouses, and nurseries. Farms with compact soil are a big target, and cannabis grow operations are another emerging market.
"We sell to the cannabis industry," says Joe. "Pretty much anything that will grow, you'll see perlite in the soil mixes."
Construction is the second-largest market. Perlite for concrete is a slightly denser product than horticultural perlite.
Perlite is also used in filtration by wineries and breweries, but Persolite "doesn't delve into it because of the certifications involved," says Joe. The company sells perlite for industrial filtration, not food-grade uses. "It'd be a bunch of red tape and we'd have to retrofit."
Regardless, a lot of perlite moves through the doors here. "We on average use 1,500 to 2,000 tons of ore a year," says Joe. That translates to upwards of 500,000 cubic feet of product packaged in bags and totes. Persolite sells about 120,000 four-cubic-foot bags a year.
Persolite Products' market spans from Texas to Montana. "Your market reach is as far as freight is cost-efficient," says Joe. "We don't go very far west of Colorado." That's partially because of the Continental Divide, and also because of competitors in Idaho and Arizona.
Joe worked at Persolite while in high school, but joined the U.S. Air Force and found himself moving from station to station while his father and uncle ran the company. In 2016, Joe retired from the military after 26 years and returned to Florence to run the family business.
He describes similar market dynamics as the 1980s when construction declined for Persolite. Horticultural has started to trend downwards as other materials have come to market.
"We're at kind of a crossroads," says Joe. "There are some other markets we're looking at if the horticultural market drops off." He's not ready to discuss specifics: "I don't want to tip off my competitors."
Persolite has operated out of the same 10,000-square-foot facility since it moved to Florence in the 1950s, a century-old oil refinery. "It's a repurposed building," says Joe.
As he buys the company from his Uncle Rich, Joe is the third generation of the Steiner family to work there. His son is now working for the company as the fourth generation. "You don't see that very often in this country and that's something we're pretty proud of," says Joe.
Challenges: "Changes in the market are something we're always looking at," says Joe.
Controlling costs of raw materials and energy are also ongoing issues. "Utilities are a huge thing for us," he says. "The cost of doing business in Colorado is higher than doing business in some neighboring states."
Opportunities: "One of our opportunities -- and a challenge we have in the perlite industry -- is education," says Joe. "People don't know our product."
He sees another opportunity providing perlite to organic farmers, and plans to pursue certification from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). "Perlite is organic. There's a potential emerging market for us."
Needs: "We need to remain in touch with our customers and meet their needs," says Joe. "We need to be thinking forward in our industry."