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Inventor's Savvy Turns Wastewater into Savings

By Sara Bedal |

Gerald Van Decker is a natural-born inventor.

In grade five, he concocted an idea for noise-cancelling headphones; in grade six, it was a clip-on bicycle mud flap.

Now 41, he has channelled his engineering smarts and personal finances into an invention he calls the "Power-Pipe." The Power-Pipe saves money by re-using the heat from drain water to warm fresh cold water coming into your home.

Put simply, this no-muss, no-fuss device is based on the premise that, when you take a shower, the energy from the warm water that drains away should not, well, just go down the drain. The Power-Pipe slashes residential water heating costs by up to 35 per cent—and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Van Decker has even sold the French on his ground-breaking technology.

He launched the Power-Pipe in 2004. That was after working in project management and R&D with Natural Resources Canada for three and a half years — and after selling his Ottawa home.

Though risky, it seemed like the right time. He was young, it was before kids, and his wife was pulling in an income.

In 2000, he started RenewABILITY Energy Inc. in Waterloo, Ontario. Initially, his company served as the Canadian agent for a precursor to the Power-Pipe. Known as "drain water heat recovery" or "DWHR" systems, the two generations that were on the market had design flaws related to water pressure and heat transfer.

So Van Decker set out to improve upon the technology.

The Invention Process

What he came up with were narrow copper tubes wrapped in parallel around a central copper drainpipe. With DWHR systems, when shower waste water flows down a main drainpipe, it doesn't fall down the centre of the pipe. Instead, it clings to the pipe's inner surface as a very thin film.

Unlike the earlier systems, the Power-Pipe maintains water pressure and maximizes heat transfer. With the wrapped coils around the main pipe, the copper conducts the heat from the waste water and warms the cold water.

Then, when fresh cold water travels up through the wrapped coils, the copper conducts the heat from the waste water and warms the cold water.

"I knew that it needed to be counter-flow and that you could wrap multiple tubes at the same time to do that," says Van Decker. "It was partially intuition, trial and error, and blood, sweat and tears."

Marketing the Invention

The Power-Pipe offers homeowners, businesses and institutions a cost-effective and maintenance-free way to reduce water heating costs. But it also promises energy conservation—a subject near and dear to Van Decker's heart.

"I learned about climate change when I was 15," he says. It was then when he decided that his life "would be about reducing energy consumption."

Curiously, Van Decker downplays the green side of his product. "We're one of the few companies that doesn't need to ‘greenwash,'" he says, claiming that the more environmentally effective products are, the more cost effective they are.

Rather, he plays up the Power-Pipe's money-saving capacity, noting that water heating is the second-highest energy expense for the average homeowner.

It typically costs homeowners between $800 and $1,000 to have the Power-Pipe installed, with the return on their investment ranging between 10 per cent and 50 per cent each year. (Variables include factors such as family size and whether water is heated by gas or electricity.)

Initially, Van Decker flogged the product at trade and home shows. He now laments that he "spent too much money too early" when the market wasn't ready to accept a product like the Power-Pipe.

Gaining a Foothold

Van Decker is not a great believer in government incentive programs unlike some entrepreneurs. Instead, he secured independent third-party verification of the Power-Pipe's performance by organizations such as the University of Waterloo and Natural Resources Canada.

This has only helped him forge strategic alliances and economies of scale. RenewABILITY works closely with utilities such as Union Gas, Enbridge and Minnesota Power. Union Gas, for instance, offers an incentive to new home builders to try the Power-Pipe in new construction. Sears, The Home Depot and other companies also market and sell the Power-Pipe.

And in France, where builders must meet very strict guidelines for energy performance, RenewABILITY has a licensed distributor. The Power-Pipe is the first DWHR system to be approved in that country.

It also doesn't hurt that the Power-Pipe has a wide variety of applications. "It's not just single-home retrofits with Home Depot and Sears or single new construction," says Van Decker. His product can reduce energy and water heating costs in multi-unit residential buildings as well as commercial, industrial and institutional buildings, such as hospitals and universities.

Parting Advice

Only time will tell whether the Power-Pipe becomes a plumbing phenomenon in homes and buildings everywhere but, in the meantime, Van Decker has the following advice for other inventors who want to see their products and services fly:

  • Maintain manufacturing control. Gone are the days when Van Decker actually assembled the Power-Pipe himself. Now, the product is made in RenewABILITY's factory in Waterloo. Van Decker contracts out the manufacturing of some of the Power-Pipe's parts to other firms in North America but not the core component.
  • Hire staff with multiple skill sets. This is especially important for smaller companies. If employees don't have multiple skill sets, the alternative is to contract out various tasks, which can get pretty expensive, notes Van Decker.
  • Deliver cost-effective value solutions. "To ride the storms," he says.

Critical Statistics

Entrepreneur:    Gerald Van Decker
Company:    RenewABILITY Energy Inc. in Waterloo, Ontario
Industry:    Energy efficiency
Number of employees:  About 20 and growing
Innovation:    Power-Pipe, a drain water heat recovery device
Innovation launch:   2004

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