Industry: Energy & Enviro
Products: Sustainable water disinfection systems
CEO Steve Berens is bringing low- and no-chlorine disinfection systems to make swimming pools greener and cleaner than the status quo.
When he was growing up in Arizona, Berens helped with swimming pool maintenance. It didn't take long for him to develop a dislike of the chlorine used to sanitize the pool water. Berens remembers all of the sensory displeasures of chlorinating pools; not just the smell but also the burning sensations in his eyes and nose.
Flash forward to 2017 and Berens is still cleaning the water in swimming pools. He's now running a water sanitation company, Clear Comfort, that is trying to get rid of chlorine in swimming pools with a clean technology.
Clear Comfort, headquartered in Boulder, uses a natural process that continuously cleans the water used in swimming pools, both commercial and residential. The company's systems can eliminate or dramatically reduce the amount of chlorine in the water.
Since its founding in 2014, Clear Comfort has installed more than 700 systems and is expecting to reach 1,000 this year. Among these are a number of YMCAs, recreation centers, hotels, spas, and competitive training facilities.
The technology that Clear Comfort uses is based on oxidation rather than chemical disinfectants. More precisely, the company's systems create hydroxyl radicals in an advanced oxidation process that also has been used in recent years in treating drinking water, according to the National Water Research Institute. Hydroxyl radicals are naturally occurring, although short-lived, and sometimes are called the "detergent" of the earth's lower atmosphere by decomposing many pollutants.
In addition to its own sanitizing function, a byproduct of hyrodoxyls is hydrogen peroxide that remains in the swimming pool water and provides more sanitation. Berens says the company's system also kills a chlorine-resistant protozoan, Cryptosporidium parvum, which can cause serious gastrointestinal illness.
One of the most recent Clear Comfort installations was at the North Carolina facility of a leading U.S. competitive swimming program, SwimMAC Carolina. David Marsh, who headed the 2016 USA Women's Olympic swim team and, until recently, was CEO and head coach of SwimMAC, says the organization chose Clear Comfort for the health and well-being of its athletes.
"I hear from the coaches that there is a lot less trouble with chlorine 'off-gassing' that causes the athletes to start coughing," Marsh says. "Day in and day out, the water is more clear, and the experience of being a coach and swimmer at SwimMAC has been improved sizably."
Berens says studies have shown competitive swimmers are more likely to suffer asthma than athletes in other sports. That's because of toxic disinfection byproducts created by the use of chlorine in pools, he says.
"The long-term health consequences of overexposure to disinfection byproducts [DBPs] in competitive swimmers can't be overstated," explains Berens. "The elimination of DBPs with the Clear Comfort system provides a much healthier swimming environment compared to the alternatives."
Berens has a background in engineering and business. He helped launch another Boulder startup, the smart grid firm Power Tagging Technologies, in 2008. He and two partners, Nick Rancis and Robert Fenwick-Smith, started Clear Comfort in 2014 after Berens got to know a company using hydroxyl radicals for industrial water purposes. Rancis is Clear Comfort's chief water officer and Fenwick-Smith is the chief financial officer. Berens is also on the advisory board for the University of Colorado's Deming Center for Entrepreneurship and chairman of the University Center for Atmospheric Research Foundation board.
After its creation, Clear Comfort quickly found traction with public facilities in Colorado, including three YMCAs, the Estes Park Aquatic Center, the Wheat Ridge Recreation Center, Regis Jesuit High School, The Club at the Garden of Gods, and Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort. Berens says the company tripled revenues in 2016 and will probably see the same increase in 2017.
The company has three systems for different pool sizes and operations. Its CCW100 system for residential and spa pools is in its third generation and is manufactured in-house. The commercial systems, CCW300 and CCW500, are made by another Colorado company through a joint arrangement. The systems run 24-hours a day and are connected to an existing water system.
In addition to its health and aesthetic benefits, the system also saves water. Where a commercial pool might change its water every one-to-two months, Berens says some of Clear Comfort's commercial users haven't found it necessary to change water for two years.
The Colorado Cleantech Industries Association named Clear Comfort a Breakout Cleantech Company of the Year in 2014.
Clear Comfort announced a pair of partnerships this year that will help its expand its market base. One is with Lincoln Aquatics, a leading supplier of commercial swimming pool equipment and aquatic supplies. The other is United Aqua Group, which is one of the country's largest pool construction, retail and service industry organizations with a member base of 230 top pool professionals.
Challenges: "We need to manage growth and stay ahead of the demand curve for manufacturing," says Berens. "That's what we do day in and day out. We aim for a one-week lead time on shipments and would like to get it down to a lower number. The good news is that is caused by high demand."
Opportunities: Growth in two markets. "One is the commercial aquatics industry, like hotels, universities, water parks, and a lot of different community and hospitality pools," says Berens. "Then there are the residential pool owners across the U.S. We sell systems [for them] that basically address the issue of chlorine."
Needs: Expansion beyond the Rockies. "Our need has been mostly market reach and, as any young company will tell you, we want to expand our reach," notes Berens. "We are basically regional. We're adding manufacturing reps, dealer territories, and managing fast growth."