Before a Canadian company saved the day, Greg Toussaint had no choice but to watch a precious resource vanish into thin air. Mr. Toussaint is president of the Lakes Association, a 300-strong homeowners' group in the private Las Vegas community of Lake Sahara.
As Mr. Toussaint explains, arid Las Vegas gets most of its water from Lake Mead, which is steadily dropping. For the past three years, to help cope with that shrinking supply, his association has been spreading a product called WaterSavr across the 12-hectare surface of its own artificial lake.
Developed by Victoria, B.C.-based Flexible Solutions International Inc., this granulated blend of 90-per-cent hydrated lime and 10-per-cent extract of palm and coconut oil reduces evaporation in still and slow-moving bodies of water, such as lakes, reservoirs and canals.
"We believe we're saving about 15 per cent of our evaporation, which is a substantial amount of water," says Mr. Toussaint, who has led the effort. In 2013 alone, the Lakes Association used almost 30.3 million litres less water than its average annual total.
Since early last decade, Flexible Solutions has been building a track record and an international clientele for WaterSavr. Two keys to the environmental technology company's export strategy are gaining the trust of government agencies and working with local distributors. Flexible Solutions is also planning to move some of its WaterSavr manufacturing out of North America.
All of that groundwork is starting to pay off, given drought conditions everywhere from India to California, which the company's WaterSavr division regards as its biggest upcoming market this year. In Southern California, roughly 11 litres of water evaporate from reservoirs for every 3.75 litres used,
"The nature of our product is that we follow drought," says David Verlee, managing director of the WaterSavr division. For instance, the company no longer works in Singapore, but is active in Brazil, Mexico and Turkey.
WaterSavr yields at least 15 times more water per dollar invested than a desalination plant, according to Flexible Solutions. The company calculates the cost of the patented product as between $125 and $175 (U.S.) an acre foot, depending on evaporation rates.
"I think it's fair to say that it's a billion-dollar industry," Mr. Verlee says, adding he sees no alternative process that has been proven to be safe and effective.
The Canadian water industry has an excellent reputation, notes James Sbrolla, chairman of Environmental Business Consultants and chief executive officer of Cleantech Capital Inc., both based in Toronto. "Internationally, we've got a great level of respect, and there is an opportunity," he says.
Mr. Sbrolla credits that respect to two Canadian water treatment companies: London, Ont.-based Trojan Technologies and ZENON Environmental Inc., now owned by U.S. conglomerates Danaher Corp. and General Electric Co., respectively.
Canada is home to many smaller cleantech operations with proprietary technology that can find their way in export markets because they have a superior value proposition, says Céline Bak, president of Analytica Advisors, an Ottawa-based consulting firm that specializes in the sector.
Although the global cleantech market grew from $550-billion to $1-trillion between 2005 and 2013, Canada didn't maintain its share, Ms. Bak notes. "That represented a lost opportunity of about $124-billion in exports," she says. "So the challenge is to enable smaller firms to be successful."
Flexible Solutions was founded in 1989 to sell a liquid cover for the commercial and residential swimming pool markets.
Publicly traded Flexible Solutions, which posted total sales of almost $16-million (U.S.) last year, retails the pool product worldwide under the Heatsavr and Ecosavr names.
Through its NanoChem Solutions Inc. division, Flexible Solutions also sells polymers whose applications include making fertilizers more efficient and stopping corrosion on oil production platforms. Besides offices in Victoria and Vancouver, the 30-employee company has a NanoChem facility in Taber, Alta., and a Chicago-area factory for the division.
In WaterSavr's case, the biggest challenge was getting risk-averse water authorities on board, Mr. Verlee recalls. "They tend to be government agencies, and government agencies don't move fast," Mr. Verlee says. "But then when you add that extra layer of dealing with drinking water, you are going to go through a very thick bureaucracy."
In the United States, for example, WaterSavr had to win National Science Foundation (NSF) certification and the blessing of the Environmental Protection Agency. With that in mind, Flexible Solutions decided to outsource all manufacturing of the product to U.S. suppliers.
"Part of the reason is because it gives us flexibility," Mr. Verlee says. Because WaterSavr must be NSF-approved, outsourcing also saves the trouble and expense of having a factory that meets those standards.
Mr. Toussaint in Las Vegas heard about WaterSavr from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which oversaw an initial 2012 trial on Lake Sahara. A series of tests showed that evaporation fell by an average of 30 per cent and that water quality, fish and wildlife suffered no ill effects.
Last year, those findings were published in the journal of the American Water Works Association. "Because we have more and more data, both in terms of safety and efficiency, the sales cycle is getting very quick," Mr. Verlee says.
When authorities on the Hawaiian island of Lanai recently contacted Flexible Solutions, the company had a WaterSavr purchase order within a week. "If that call had come in five or 10 years ago, it would have taken a long time because there was not enough supporting data," Mr. Verlee explains.
The company entrusts much of WaterSavr's distribution to local partners. When it needs a distributor somewhere, Mr. Verlee says he often calls the water authority and asks for a recommendation; Flexible Solutions then does its own due diligence on this potential partner. "If it all works well, I usually fly there and meet with them to sign an agreement," Mr. Verlee says. "They tend to be for four or five years at least."
For Mr. Verlee, WaterSavr's patent offers some protection against would-be rivals. "But I think the real protection is the fact that anybody that goes into this business will have to go through what we've been through, which is a lot of trials, a lot of testing, a lot of published papers," he says. "And it takes a long time to build trust in this community."
WaterSavr's potential market is vast, according to Mr. Verlee, who cites the mining and oil and gas industries as targets. Stateside, treating California's Salton Sea alone could bring in about $35-million (U.S.) in annual revenue. Flexible Solutions recently got a call from Egypt, whose biggest reservoir represents a sales opportunity of as much as $45-million a year.
"If you look at the numbers and you look at the potential, we could save more water than anyone else in the world right now," Mr. Verlee says.