Interview With Entrepreneur and Water Rights Advocate Jenneth Fleckenstein
January 27, 2016
I recently traveled to an airplane hanger perched on the side of a mountain in Warren, Vermont.
I was there to chat with Jenneth Fleckenstein about her water treatment company, Clear Water Filtration. It's housed in the hanger along with two of her family's other businesses, Jim Parker Airshows, and Vacutherm. The whole place felt like well-organized inventors lab.
I was there to learn more about common issues with home water treatment, Clear Water Filtration, and Jen's ongoing advocacy work for clean water access in Honduras and Haiti.
Edward Shepard for Parent Co Tell me where we are right now.Jen: We're Warren, Vermont, in an airplane hanger. I grew up about two miles north of here. My dad bought this hanger in the '70s. He turned it into a variety of businesses, starting with a business around wood drying.
When he created that business, he found that the water supplying his machines was terrible. He found a water filter that worked. But when it broke, he figured out how to fix it. Word got out that he knew how to install and fix water filters, and that is how Clear Water started.
When you say the water was bad, what does that mean?
There was a lot of mineral content in the water. There was hardness, which is calcium carbonate. There was iron in the water. All of those minerals were clogging up all the mechanicals of the machine. He needed to make the water better for the process he was inventing for drying lumber.
When somebody has hard water, where does that come from. The earth or the pipes?
From the ground water. With the hydrologic cycle, as the rain precipitates down, it percolates down through the layers of soil and rock, and as it does that, it picks up minerals from the different layers.
Then, when it collects in aquifers, which is what we drill into when we drill a well, all of that dissolved mineral content comes with the water that we pump into our house.
Jen and her twin brother Jim Parker in Warren, Vermont.
Tell me more about Clear Water Filtration.
At Clear Water Filtration, we install and service water treatment equipment throughout Vermont, for residential and commercial applications. We improve residential, commercial water quality.
We do that by testing the water, going into people's homes or places of business, testing the water, free of charge, for a basic mineral content, or taking it a step further and analyzing it through a lab, to understand contaminants in the water.
Then we focus on finding the best solution to meet the needs of the customer.
What does somebody install in their home to improve their water?
Depending on what you're removing, let's say it's hardness and iron, you can install what's called a water softener, which is basically a big fiberglass tank, and it is filled with a resin media, and it goes through a process called ion exchange where it takes the calcium and the iron out of the water and exchanges it for a sodium ion or a potassium ion.
Otherwise, your boiler or water heater will become inefficient from calcium scaling. It even reduces it at your faucet head.
Meanwhile, people who are on city water - who don't usually have to worry about high mineral content - instead have to deal with drinking chlorinated water or chloraminated water.
What's the difference between those?
Chlorine versus chloramine, Chloramine is a combination of chlorine and ammonia bonded together. They use chloramine as a disinfectant because it's more stable in distribution. It doesn't produce what are called disinfection byproducts.
Chloramine and chlorine are perfectly acceptable ways of disinfecting water to protect against bacterial contamination.
However, once it reaches your home, you don't need it anymore. It can be removed so that you're not drinking it or showering in it.
Chlorine smells terrible. To me, it seems like you don't want to drink too much chlorine.
Yeah, you don't. Chlorine, frankly, has been linked as a carcinogen. It's not that stable in terms of being a disinfectant with big municipal supply so that it can break down, and it can produce what are called haloacetic acids or trihalomethanes, which are carcinogens.
They are known carcinogens, and those are tested for, typically, in the distribution so you would know if they're there.
Chlorine, as a disinfecting agent, has been used forever. It is monitored, heavily. They know how much is in the water, but it is not something you want to be drinking.
It's not good for us, so you can remove it once it reaches the home. It's easy to do.
When you go to somebody's home, and you test, let's say, what are the things you typically find? Water in the country must be quite different than water in the city.
Well, we find a wide variety of things. Calcium is very prevalent. Iron is very prevalent. We've found that people are experiencing high levels of sulfur, which is that rotten egg smell that you can detect.
We constantly get calls from people who have that odor in their water. We see that a lot.
Can you remove that?
Yes. Then we also see high levels of arsenic and radionuclides, and occasionally people have total coliform hits, which is pretty simple to take care of and remediate.
What is that?
Total coliform is a form of bacteria. Most municipalities inject chlorine to combat it, but some people who are selling a home, for example, have to take a total coliform sample, to prove that the water is safe for consumption. Occasionally, they get a hit, and they say "Oh, my gosh, I have bacteria in my water. Now, what do I do?" There are a number of ways we can solve that.
What are some things that you want people to know about water in their home?
I think that the most important thing that people can do with regards to their water is to test it, regularly. I think that the most important thing that people can do with regards to their water is to test it, regularly.
People are starting to swing towards wanting to have a better understanding of their water supply and what they are feeding their families and pets and domestic animals. Testing is number one. This schedule gives you a base line of what is coming into your home:
Let us come in and take a basic mineral test. You then know what your water is made up of.
We also recommend an additional test for bacteria annually, especially if you are on a well.
Test for arsenic every three years.
Test for radionuclides every three years.
Also, go into your basement and look at what you have going on down there. Where is your water coming from? How is it supplied? Knowing this is really important.
One thing that surprised me is what you said about how the water cycle changes. Your water supply will change, year to year.
Yeah, water is always changing. That is one thing that is tricky in our industry. We will go into a home, we will test the water, and get a full snapshot of what's going on, and we will make a recommendation.
Then, let's say in five years, they'll call back. The taste, smell or even hardness has changed, and they don't know where it's coming from.
That's because water is a natural element. It's part of the earth. It's always changing. There are environmental factors that play into that as well.
Not to be too fear-based, but I imagine water impurities or problems with the water are more serious in a smaller child, and a pet, even.
I was talking to a customer the other day who has horses. She was feeding the horses with water that had a lot of iron in it. So the horses refused to drink the water.
She didn't know why. She kept bringing them water, piping it right to the barn, and the horses would totally reject it.
Then we came out, tested the water, and she had abnormally high levels of iron. She ended up having to develop another source, a surface water source that didn't have as much mineral content. Immediately, they started to drink the water.
What about nitrates?
Yeah, definitely. That's one thing we test for regularly. It's a contaminate that can get into your drinking water supply, especially if you're surrounded by farm land.
Nitrates in water can lead to something called blue baby syndrome.
Nitrates in water can lead to something called blue baby syndrome, which is basically that the child's skin will have a bluish tint. It's a result of a lack of oxygen traveling through the blood.
Nitrates are something to definitely be aware if you are mixing formula and using a water supply that might have high levels of nitrate in it.
Let's talk a little bit about that because a lot of people do rely on bottled water. Not just when they're traveling, but at home. Costco sells it by the pallet. Or people buy the big five-gallon jug of water for their home or office.
There are so many elements of bottled water that concern me. One is that bottled water is municipal water. Bottled water is municipal water that goes through a variety of treatment processes and then is put into a plastic bottle.
The other thing that people don't consider is the real consumption of water that goes into manufacturing and shipping the bottle. Gasoline requires two gallons of water to every one gallon of gas, so if you're trucking water from one part of the country to another part of the country, you are using a massive amount of water. And making the plastic bottle itself requires a lot of water.
Read more about reducing water consumption in your home.
My number one argument against bottled water is simply the hydrologic cycle. We all know what the hydrologic cycle is. It's the water cycle. It's how water continues to regenerate itself both on the ground and on the surface.
The hydrologic cycle exists on a massive scale, but then there is also these little localized hydrologic cycles.
For example, if we were pumping the water out of Lake Champlain and bottling it, then trucking it to California, we're interrupting the hydrologic cycle that exists for that body of water. We are effectively removing the water that could be recaptured by the environment and used for the people that live here.
It's gone. It's totally off the grid.
That is my biggest pet peeve of bottled water. We have very, very precious ground water sources, and they have to be replenished by the hydrologic cycle.
If we remove and pump out the ground water and move it to a different place, we've lost the ability to recapture that water and keep it where it needs to be.
Tell me more about some of the water work you have done around the world.
In 2012, I traveled to Honduras with Pure Water for the World, which is a non-profit based in Vermont. Their focus is purely on safe drinking water, proper sanitation and hygiene education for very rural communities in both Honduras and Haiti.
We describe this program as WASH. It is an acronym for WAter, Sanitation, and Hygiene.
We installed about 25 to 30 filters in homes. We got to observe how the staff, which is a local staff of Hondurans, interact with the beneficiaries and teach them about hand-washing practices and how to protect your water source so that you are not putting your goat next to your source, and you are not going to the bathroom next to your source. They simply don't have the means to proper infrastructure for both drinking and cooking water and water for sanitation.
Since then, I have gone to Haiti a number of times. I became a board member, and now the Vice President of the board. It's a huge passion.
Essentially, what Pure Water does is exactly what Clear Water does, except they're doing it for people who have a critical need. It is a life or death matter for them.
What do you think people need to know about water in the world today?
Water in the world today is scarce, and what we have, we are contaminating, really rapidly.
Read more about reducing water consumption in your home.
My perspective is really about conservation and source protection. We need to be mindful about what we are putting on the ground because anything that we put in the ground is going to get into our water source, and we are going to have to treat it. We see it. Clear Water sees it every day.
We are not so much on the source development side regarding drilling wells or anything like that, but we see the aftermath of what's coming into the home, both from a municipal supply or from a well. It starts with protecting the source and conserving what you have because we have a very, very limited supply.
What we have now is all we will ever get, and if we don't protect it, we are done. We are done.
Earlier, we talked a lot about how your water may not be toxic, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's good for you.
What I pride our company on is that we don't sell, we educate.
We go into a person's home, and we explain, "There is your well. This is what your well pump does. This is your pressure tank. By the way, your pressure tank isn't working. That needs to be replaced," and then we focus on the testing.
Then we recommend what's the best solution for that particular person's goals. It's often a global solutiuon. How can they improve the quality of the water in their home so that other processes of their home is also more efficient and improved? How can they keep their family as healthy as possible by drinking the water that they have available to them?
There is a bunch of filtering stuff around. What are the components of the home water filter by the way? For drinking water.
Typically, where the water comes into the home, it goes through a pressure tank. If you are on city water, you don't have a pressure tank, but if you are addressing the working water of the home, it will usually go through a pre-filter which is like a canister filter, and that can have a variety of different types of filters in it.
Usually, it is for sediment, and then it will go through a valve, which is what is responsible for regulating what the filter, what the softener does.
Then, specifically for a drinking water system, you have a dedicated tap that is just for your drinking water, so at your sink, in your kitchen, you have your regular faucet that you are using for washing your hands or washing your dishes, but then you would have another faucet that is dedicated to your drinking water or even your cooking water, or making ice cubes, if that is how you're doing it.
That system is much smaller, and it can go under your sink, or we can plumb it in your basement if you don't want to take up space in your sink, and it's portable, so if you move or if it's a rental, you can take the drinking water system with you.
Tell me about "What's Your Watermark."
Yeah, What is Your Watermark? It is an effort that Clear Water started after we returned from Honduras, and basically, it is a sort of philanthropic program that we have created that hopefully inspires people to think more about water, so a lot of what we are talking about today is how are you conserving water, how are you treating your water, how can you get off ... how can all of us get off our dependence on bottled water.
It is an effort to try to unite and network people who are using those efforts. Several businesses are part of the Watermark program.
Wow, great. Where should people go to learn more about that?
You can go to our website, Clearwaterfiltration.com, or you can go Whatsyourwatermark.com. The two are intermixed. They are two separate sites, but you can go to either one. They are linked. I want to make it clear.
Written in partnership with Clear Water Filtration, who also sponsored a giveaway for a free home water mineral test and chance to win a $250 credit toward a home filtration system!