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Drinking water from the air: Local company finds niche in selling atmospheric water generators

Steve Engel was getting desperate. Earlier this summer, the owner of Pacific Palisades feared that the recently enacted limit on outdoor watering to just two brief periods per week was effectively killing off most of his flowering plants and fruit trees.

“I can’t run my pipes for much of the day, otherwise I risk a financial penalty,” Engel said. “I also want to do the right thing and save water.”

Then Engel, a writer and television producer, heard from a friend of a company with a device that extracted water from the air – water that could be used for outdoor irrigation, bypassing municipal tap water. It seemed almost too good to be true.

A Skywell water generator on the campus of Bunche Middle School in Compton.

Engel contacted the company, which turned out to be Santa Monica-based Skywell. He eventually ordered a pair of atmospheric water generators from the company – and a 100 gallon storage water tank to go with them. Total initial cost: approximately $5,000.

And not a moment too soon. Less than two weeks after Skywell’s water system was installed at Engel, Southern California entered a 10-day heat wave. Unlike many of its neighbors, Engel was able to draw water from its Skywell system and storage tank to save its plants and trees.

“It was a godsend,” he said. For Skywell, the scorching temperatures this summer have sparked increased interest in its machines that extract water from the air.
“We’re now getting calls from worried homeowners who can only water once or twice a week: there’s no limit to keeping their lawns and plants from dying,” said Ron Dorfman, Founder and CEO of Skywell. “We can offer them their own private water supply.”

Rethinking water coolers

When Dorfman founded Skywell nine years ago, however, he had a completely different goal in mind: to give office workers an alternative to bottled water or substandard water filtration systems. At the time, he had just finished law school and was working for a large law firm.

Steve Engel uses Skywell’s Atmospheric Water Generator in his Pacific Palisades home.

“We were constantly on the lookout for the latest and most innovative office equipment – ​​all but in one area: water,” he said. “No one was thrilled with the water in the office, but they were content to buy bottled water or rely on a shoddy filtration system.”

For Dorfman, that all changed when he glimpsed an early model atmospheric water generator, which was essentially a water condenser machine with a purification device attached.

Water-cooled condensers – also called dehumidifiers – have been around for over a century. They draw in moist air and cool it, allowing water vapor to condense into liquid. This water – which generally does not meet drinking water standards – is either discharged or reused, particularly in industrial settings.

About 30 years ago, as portable water purification systems using ozone or ultraviolet radiation became more viable, the idea spread to add these systems to dehumidifiers, to make the water extracted from the air capable of meeting drinking water standards. These new machines became known as atmospheric water generators.

For years, atmospheric water generators were very small-scale units, producing an average of around five gallons of drinking water per day – usually suitable for homes or small offices.
But for Dorfman, it was just the ticket to improving water quality and convenience in the workplace.

“My initial goal was modest: to reinvent the office water cooler,” he said. “No more water filters or Sparkletts deliveries of those five-gallon bottles or running to Costco to pick up cases of bottled water.”

Dorfman started Skywell in early 2013, self-funding the money needed for market research and due diligence. He said he was looking to offer a premium product, with the best water quality, advanced water usage tracking features and generating the “hottest hot” water and the “coldest cold” water of any product on the market.

It then teamed up with Foxconn, the multinational electronics giant based in Taipei, Taiwan ($215 billion in revenue last year), to refine the design and begin manufacturing the energy-generating product. ‘water.

This first-generation product, producing up to five gallons of water per day, costs around $2,500. Dorfman’s initial target market was offices.
A desktop client is Nile Capital Group Holdings, a Century City-based investment firm.

Henry Brandon, the company’s chief operating officer, said Nile Capital originally considered investing in Skywell, but instead opted in 2019 to buy one of the atmospheric water generators for its own office.

“It was easy to set up and the water is some of the best tasting we’ve ever had,” Brandon said.
He noted that the Skywell machine is more than cost effective thanks to savings on bottled water purchases, although it is still more expensive than tap water.

But the water-generating machine soon began to fulfill another function: its appeal for novelty.
“When we have customers in the office, they see the machine prominently and it instantly becomes a topic of conversation,” Brandon said. “People are inherently intrigued by this and want to know how it produces water from air.”

New generation water machines

Skywell is one of dozens of companies offering small-scale atmospheric water generators, according to Roland Wahlgren, an independent consultant based in Vancouver, British Columbia, for what he called the “l ‘water from the air’.

Wahlgren said there are only a handful of major players in the industry, citing just one: Watergen, based in Petach Tikva, Israel. The company also has offices in the United States.
“The biggest issue and barrier to scaling up in this industry has been the cost of converting water from its gaseous form to liquid,” Wahlgren said. “There is a built-in energy cost.”

Skywell offers a larger atmospheric water generator capable of producing 100 gallons of drinking water per day. But the cost is astronomical: one unit costs around $28,000, more than 10 times the smallest unit.

The company has found a few takers for this product on a larger scale, mostly in institutional settings such as schools. Skywell’s machines are at Bunche Middle School and Jefferson Elementary School, both in Compton.

The company’s larger-scale modular systems made up of two or more five-gallon or eight-gallon units are in more demand right now, Skywell’s Dorfman said. Some of them have a water tank included. These are the systems that homeowners like Engel install. They cost a lot less – around $5,000. And the water production units making up these outdoor systems do not incorporate the full range of purification technologies that are part of the units intended for drinking use.

Engel said his Skywell system rarely runs out of water. In addition to saving his plants, Engel said it also prevents him from having to pay the highest levels for water usage on his Los Department of Water and Power bill. Angeles.

This increased demand for outdoor water systems comes at an opportune time for Skywell. Predictably, sales of its desktop systems plummeted during the pandemic as many offices closed and their staff worked remotely.

In 2019, before the pandemic, Dorfman said revenue was around $4 million; last year, revenues were “between $1 and $2 million”.
Looking ahead, Skywell is trying to solve one of the main challenges of atmospheric water generators: their energy consumption. Dorfman said the company was researching and prototyping a self-contained model using arrays of photovoltaic solar panels.

“It would be very useful for rooftops and community gardens, as well as places like Skid Row where large numbers of people have little or no access to water or electricity,” said- he declared.

The company has deployed some of its electric units in downtown Skid Row, but Dorfman said the goal is to eventually deploy solar units there.
“It’s part of our mission to provide clean water to people who don’t have access to it,” he said.