Trickling streams: Water-tracking firms flow smoothly
Area companies have experienced growth in remote monitoring systems that track one of the West’s most important and fought-over natural resources – water.
“One of the nice things is that regardless of the recession, people still need drinking water,” said James Elliott, vice president of sales and marketing for PerLorica Inc., a Brunswick Road company that sells automated systems to check water quality.
Government regulations have helped PerLorica’s business, as they have helped Automata Inc., a company that tracks the use of water for agricultural uses.
The oldest area company engaged in remote monitoring systems is Automata, a New Mohawk Road firm that sells equipment to monitor agriculture and water distribution. The company was established in 1975 and employs 12, though more people have been brought in lately to help with the company’s seasonal spring peak.
Automata’s radio telemetry systems report moisture levels to control agricultural irrigation, provide frost warnings, and help with pest management – all in one package. The systems are also used in environmental monitoring and hydrology for energy savings, water savings and environmental impact.
Some of the results, says the company, are reduced agricultural runoff and less fertilizer waste.
The all-in-one package has not been an easy sell for farmers who want to think of one thing at a time, said Lenny Feuer, the company’s president and chief engineer.
But in the last couple of years, things have started to come around, Feuer said.
The company has seen 20 percent annual revenue growth for the last five years, except for 2000, said Feuer, who declined to provide an annual revenue figure for the privately held company.
Water issues are helping in a number of ways, Feuer said.
Government incentives are aimed at agricultural water conservation, Feuer said.
“Our stuff is one of the tools to do that,” Feuer said.
The Bureau of Reclamation has mandates that could require water districts to monitor where their water is going, though they’re not yet strictly enforced.
The business has 25 to 50 water districts as customers, Feuer said.
“Eventually, that’s going to kick in where the accountability of water is demanded, and that will fit very well with our canal automation products, because you have to monitor flow into when you’re controlling your canal,” he said.
Automata signed a joint development agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture three years ago for an automated canal control system, Feuer said.
The use of pesticides has also come under scrutiny. Automata’s monitoring stations help reduce pesticide runoff by precisely monitoring irrigation.
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Not far away, a Brunswick Road company sells systems that keep an eye on drinking water and help purchasers comply with environmental regulations.
PerLorica Inc. sent a report card Wednesday to the principal of Pope Valley Unified School District.
The e-mail report and graphs showed the school’s chlorine levels were a little low. The system was otherwise operating up to standards.
With the operators of small water systems like Pope Valley facing almost the same Environmental Protection Agency regulations on chlorine levels as the city of Sacramento’s system, the company’s virtual water system manager has met with strong acceptance, company officials said. There are about 10,000 water treatment plants in California, most with less than a few hundred customers, said Tom Wolfe, PerLorica’s chief executive officer.
A surface water supply that provides drinking water to more than 25 users, even campgrounds, is considered a municipal water supply, said James Elliott, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.
PerLorica automates what can be a big chore for those small water providers. It sets them up with instruments to check the water, instead of manual sampling, like a swimming pool owner might do, and puts the information on an Internet site. PerLorica received a patent for its WaterEye system in December.
Automation takes the “monkey off the back” of administrators responsible for the water system, said Elliott. In 2000, there were 50,000 reporting violations in the United States, meaning regulatory agencies did not get the environmental information they require by law.
Small water districts can buy a prepackaged monitoring system from PerLorica to collect the information, alerting the user of reporting deadlines. The company provides the instruments to collect data, and an Internet site akin to an online service provider.
“Right now, we’re selling those as fast as we can build them,” said Wolfe, PerLorica’s chief executive officer. “We’re very gratified by the market response.”
The company’s revenues have grown from a few hundred thousand dollars per year five years ago to $2 million in 2001. The company employs 10. It was started in 1993 under the name Palmyra Group, and changed its name to PerLorica in 1998.
More growth is expected this year, as the company completes work on a $600,000 contract to monitor water at a $75 million Tampa Bay desalination plant. PerLorica is supplying software, control computers and data transmission for its largest project yet. Testing the purity of water for industrial use is another of the company’s markets.
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A third area company that sells monitors for floods and weather events has found that it’s an ill wind that blows no good – or higher sales, at least.
High Sierra Electronics, a Grass Valley Avenue firm with 22 employees, sells equipment that alerts people of raging floods.
The company’s founders James and Katherine Slouber, used to work at Automata and started High Sierra in 1992.
The company sells monitoring systems for floods and weather events which send information over the radio to centralized collection sites.
Though regulations have not helped the company much, it has branched into new markets, expanding its revenues from about $100,000 in 1997 to $2 million in 2001, said James Slouber, the company’s general manager.
High Sierra’s recent projects include a Texas Department of Transportation project for automated flood and ice warning highway signs; a contract for a flood warning system in several Arizona counties; and an order last week for remote sensing units that will be employed in a flood monitoring system for the Dominican Republic.
Nevada County used to have a fourth company, NovaLynx, focusing on remote environmental monitoring. The company moved to Auburn.
The concentration of companies provides a mini-industry, sort of like the broadcast equipment sector that started with Grass Valley Group, Slouber said.
“It’s a small niche across the country, and there’s quite a bit of business done from this small town,” he said. “It isn’t a huge business, and a fair amount of it happens in this community.”
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