CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio -- Economists and conservationists agree: fresh water in the 21st century is more valuable than gold, and for millions of people worldwide, clean, drinkable water can be more difficult to obtain than the precious ore.
One visionary company in Northeast Ohio has made clean water production the foundation of its existence.
"Our goal is to change the way the world thinks about water by changing how we treat it, use it and manage it," said Michelle Matty, sales and human resources manager at the Tangent Company.
Tangent is resting its fortunes and the future of the company on one product: the "Tangent Watercycle," a patented, on-site drinkable water recycling system for homes and small buildings. Company officials say it is the only commercially available containable system of its kind in the country.
The Watercycle is the brainchild of a visionary conservationist, the late Bill Prior, a Cleveland native and graduate of the Case Institute of Technology. During the eight years before his death in 2016, Prior established a research project to develop a wastewater recycling system that would supply a perpetual source of drinking water for home and business uses.
Last month, Tangent was awarded a U.S. patent for its recycling unit, and later this year plans to offer the product commercially nationwide.
"While water recycling has started gaining traction on the municipal scale, the technology has not been accessible to the small building scale market, until now," said Greg Orloff, the CEO and one of 14 employees at Tangent. "The patent is an exciting milestone in our journey."
A 2,000-gallon Watercycle pilot project has been operational for the past four years at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy's headquarters in a century home in Moreland Hills. The on-site recycling system served multiple purposes for the conservancy, eventually eliminating the need for a well and septic system, said Rich Cochran, the conservancy's CEO.
"Bill Prior approached us with this new technology, and it was perfect timing," Cochran said. "We wanted a building that looked beautiful and also was state-of-the-art."
What many people might consider the highest hurdle for the Watercycle to overcome -- the so-called "yuck factor" that comes with drinking recycled toilet water -- is actually one of the company's least concerns, Matty said. Turning wastewater into drinking water is more of a sociological problem than a technical problem, she said.
"Especially when people are in dire need of drinking water they get over that pretty fast," Matty said. "Most people are surprised and delighted that it actually tastes refreshing, and tests show it's cleaner than the drinking water that comes out of our taps."
Ebie Holst, CEO of SplashLink, a Beachwood-based company that provides an online platform for the water industry, has been one of Tangent's biggest boosters since its beginnings in a Geauga County garage.
"The whole concept of toilet-to-tap is something you might imagine that some people have a hard time with," Holst said. "But even our own utility-based municipal tap water is reused water. It just happens to pass through a body of water like Lake Erie first."
Bill Prior spent his career as an inventor, creating such machines as an aircraft oxygen compressor, a hand pump for inflatable mattresses and a flying sailboat that used winglike foils to lift itself almost entirely out of the water, decreasing drag. The concept for Tangent came to Prior after he co-founded Kinetico Inc., a global water treatment company based in Newbury that he later sold to a Swedish company.
Living long enough to witness the conservancy's staff drinking recycled wastewater was the culmination of a dream for Prior, who died a few months after that system was operational.
"People love soft, clean water," Prior said, according to a passage read at his memorial service in 2016. "They love good drinking water, and how rewarding for us to be part of an industry that actually makes people's lives better."
Water purification in nature's model
Prior engineered the Watercycle based on the premise that nature provides an ideal model for water purification. In nature, the process occurs via soil filtration, the chemical absorption of contaminants in soil and organic matter, and the decomposition of biological contaminants by living microorganisms in wetland and riparian soils.
In the Watercycle perpetual use system, wastewater is pumped to the First Stage, a multi-chambered system of containers, where the solids are removed and biological organisms decompose the remaining microscopic contaminants. This results in 95 percent pure water, which would be safe to swim in, but you wouldn't want to drink it, Matty said.
The Second Stage is an advanced purification process, where ultraviolet light and reverse-osmosis membranes filter and sterilize the water, removing all microorganisms, chemicals, salts, pharmaceuticals and hygiene products, resulting in drinking water of ultra-purity.
The Third Stage is a 500- or 2,000-gallon storage tank where the purified water is chlorinated and held for everyday use. In the future, Tangent plans to offer up to 15,000 gallons-per-day systems for commercial use.
Because the risk from malfunctions would have serious consequences, a sensitive fail-safe network ensures the system is operating correctly. More than 30 sensors monitor the water's taste, purity, PH levels, temperature and chlorine content. The sensors are programmed to shut down an infected line and immediately alert company technicians in the event irregularities are detected, and a service engineer is dispatched to resolve the issue.
The only malfunction at the conservancy occurred after someone left an external hose open all night and it drained the system, Cochran said. But the Watercycle has never produced contaminated water, he said.
The Watercycle requires about as much electricity to operate as a home air conditioner, said Matty. Long-term plans will include battery- and solar-powered systems.
Since the death of Prior, his wife, Carol, has assumed the role of primary owner of Tangent, a privately held organization. Son Kerry served as CEO until Orloff was hired earlier this year. Carol remains a daily presence at the company headquarters, often accompanied by her dog, April.
Orloff's primary focus now is to get the Watercycle to market. The company is in the process of assembling a sales staff to help accomplish this goal. Potential customers include housing developers constructing projects in arid regions of the country, and areas where water treatment infrastructure is lacking.
The potential for success for a groundbreaking appliance such as the Tangent Watercycle "is the million-dollar question," Holst of SplashLink said.
"Where their biggest opportunities lie are in water-stressed regions," Holst said. "Texas and California are areas that may be very welcoming of this technology. I think the opportunities for Tangent are quite significant."
The 2,000-gallon system at the Conservancy costs about $75,000, but the target price for a 500-gallon residential unit is $50,000. Tangent officials acknowledge that is expensive, but a preferable alternative to installing a septic system too close to pristine rivers, such as the Chagrin, or near sensitive underground water tables.
In the Western U.S. and other areas of the country, the Watercycle system is the solution to water sources located hundreds of feet underground or beneath impenetrable rock. As groundwater tables shrink, and water sources such as the Colorado River and Lake Mead dry up, the Watercycle provides an alternative source.
The only other Watercycle system currently in operation was installed at a rental home owned by the Prior family, and it continues to purify wastewater with the approval of the renters.
The next Watercycle is planned for Bellwether Farm, a new sustainable camp, retreat and education center run by the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio on a 137-acre working farm in Wakeman, Lorain County. The system will be installed early in the spring at one of the staff residences, and will serve as a vehicle for teaching campers about environmental fidelity and natural resource conservation.
"Together, we will be able to achieve effective water reclamation and teach people of all ages how it works," said the Rev. Mark Hollingsworth Jr., bishop of the diocese.
"The Episcopal Diocese of Ohio is delighted to be partnering with Tangent to further this important technology, and we hope that one day our entire facility can be handled by a single Tangent system," Hollingsworth said.