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It sounds like a breakthrough solution – producing water from condensation in the air. But in his bid to solve Cape Town’s water crisis, a Durban man could be knowingly wasting thousands of litres of water.
Airwater CEO Ray de Vries has in recent weeks appeared on television talk shows and in newspaper articles warning that if the water crisis is not tackled Cape Town will be “dry by Christmas”, while punting his machines that he claims can provide a sustainable water solution to everyone from offices and restaurants to car-wash services.
De Vries, the former marketing manager for the country’s Dusi Canoe Marathon, claims his solution has the perfect “talkability, profitability and responsibility” to make it a winning product.
But there’s just one hitch. His water makers rely on electricity to produce the water. The catch is about 90% of South Africa’s power is generated by coal-fired plants, which the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists estimates use between 75 and 225 litres of water to produce just one kilowatt hour of electricity.
De Vries’s Airwater website states that his machines – which can produce up to 32l a day – use between 0.45 and 0.55 kilowatt hours of electricity per day. It means that for every litre of water a machine produces, coal-fired power stations are using a further one to four litres just to produce the electricity that powers his machines. This doesn’t exactly make it a water saver.
Yet when this is pointed out to him De Vries, surprisingly, agrees. “That’s 100% (true) but it’s highly theoretical,” he says, adding that he’s “had this conversation before”.
He however points out that unlike water produced by spring water bottling companies, the water his machines produce “never existed before”.
For every litre of water a machine produces, coal-fired power stations are using a further one to four litres just to produce the electricity that powers his machines
While De Vries imports the smaller machines which make up to 32l a day, he’s aiming to sell the larger SA-produced ones to private bottlers.
In November he plans to open a plant in Cape Town which will produce water in glass bottles for likely hotels and tourism-related businesses, he says. He claims while ordinary bottled water uses about three litres of water to produce one litre of the bottled stuff, his machines don’t use any additional water to make a litre of filtered water.
He claims to have already sold four of the big machines since the first machine came off the factory floor in March, including one to a bottling plant in Thailand which is producing 2000 litres of water a day. Now he is betting on selling “over 30” by June next year.
‘Water more alkaline, soft’
Yet if Ventureburn’s calculations are anything to go by the electricity the machines gobble mean it will consume quite a lot more water than he lets on.
But argues De Vries: “The water you’re putting in (at power stations) is different to the water you’re getting out – it’s more alkaline, very soft”.
He admits that his solution isn’t perfect however and that off-grid power would help make the solution more sustainable. Some years ago he did however use a wind turbine to drive one of the machines, but he says renewable power options require a significant outlay of capital, which he doesn’t have at present.
Currently he and his team of five imports the smaller machines from China and sells them for R26 500. The larger ones retail for between R785 000 and R1.5-million.
Machines in demand
The machines, he claims, are in demand – not only by rich home owners, such as a woman who uses them to water her horses, but by restaurants and dental offices as well. He’s also approached car-wash businesses in the Cape, many of whom have been shut down by the city, to sell units to them.
De Vries was previously a director in another company, Water from Air, but he left in recent months to run his own venture Airwater, which he says is more a consultancy. He estimates that since his time at Water from Air to now he’s sold a collective 1300 of the smaller units.
But he admits that his main challenge will be to ensure that the machines stay in working order. To deal with this he says he has teams on standby in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg and adds that his office can supply spare parts (imported, he says from places like Lebanon, China and the US) to users within 72 hours.
De Vries says the water crisis in Cape Town is dire and warns against what will happen if more measures like his aren’t adopted soon. “You will have political strife and businesses closing beyond reason,” he adds.
So is De Vries then just capitalising off the fear of others?
Not at all, he claims, saying people just need to look at the “sincerity” of his organisation. “You don’t have to scare someone, they’re scared enough.”