Aqua Sun delivers sun-powered fresh water to world
It was 1991 and Greg Hanson had been building homes equipped with solar-powered hot water heaters for more than 10 years. Five years earlier, he started installing in the homes water purification systems made by his brother-in-law’s company.
And he was looking for a change.
“I was kind of disgusted with the construction business, and I had just put in a water purification system and was admiring it,” says Hanson. “I thought if I could add solar to this I could provide clean water for women and children in the Third World.”
A simple moment and a grand idea, one that Hanson has made good on ever since.
Aqua Sun International, Hanson’s now 23-year-old brainchild, sells a range of sun-powered water purification systems — from $2,000, portable models installed in carry-on luggage to room-sized, transportable systems built into solar-paneled trailers.
Aqua Sun buys the solar and purification equipment from a range of suppliers and connects them to create products capable of purifying between 100 gallons and tens of thousands gallons of water using only the sun for power, allowing the machines to be installed anywhere, including in the world’s remotest areas.
“We make the interface to make them work together,” says Hanson, Aqua Sun owner and chief executive officer.
Assembly is done in about two-thirds of Aqua Sun’s 5,000-square-foot facility near downtown Minden. The company, which employs about eight people full-time, will be moving within the year, probably somewhere near the Minden-Tahoe Airport, because its current building is being razed by its owner, Bently Enterprises.
Product sales are mostly via online and through a worldwide network of sales representatives.
“When I first started I wasn’t sure how I would sell,” says Hanson. “It was the mid-1990s and someone suggested he create a web site. “I could barely use a computer back then. And I asked, ‘What’s a web site?’”
Hanson has now established a separate distribution arm for selling to hospitals and for emergency response. The spin-off, Veterans for Clean Power & Power LLC, is run by his stepson, Bill Muller, an Afghanistan and Iraq war veteran and president of the start-up, along with other veterans.
“I feel that we really need to help our veterans,” says Hanson. “They deserve the best we can give them.”
Many of those customers are in the United States, including hospitals in Kentucky, Illinois and Tennessee. The state of Montana has ordered an emergency response system, a trailer Aqua Sun was busy equipping with solar panels earlier this month. The company built a similar, trailer system for a Texas oil company to provide clean water for crews drilling for crude.
The U.S. military, too, is a customer. An Aqua Sun system is used to wash down the turbo prop jet engines of the V-22 Osprey, says Hanson.
Mostly, though, the company sells outside North America, to countries in Africa and South America.
“We do a lot of work with relief agencies, (nongovernmental organizations), that’s the usual customer,” said Hanson. “Missionaries and church groups. I’ve sold to the Red Cross, to World Vision.”
World Vision International, the Christian poverty relief group known for its child sponsorship program, is installing an Aqua Sun system in its Federal Way, Wash., headquarters to show potential donors what the group does. And one of its volunteers, Leon McLaughlin, a Chicago shoe shine operator who volunteers in Bolivia, was featured on NBC Nightly News’ Making a Difference segment alongside an Aqua Sun system.
“They call him the pied piper,” says Hanson.
Another customer, Mother Teresa’s Mission in Haiti, reported attendance tripled six months after installing an Aqua Sun system in its school because students were no longer getting sick from drinking dirty water.
Last year, Aqua Sun even found a short-lived market with preppers, survivalists preparing for the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012, as predicted by the Mayans.
The company also has a foundation, which has donated about 50 systems, primarily for disaster relief.
“People who need the systems the most can’t afford them,” says Hanson.
Because the equipment often goes to customers with few resources in far-flung locations, Aqua Sun strives to make them easy to install and maintain.
“We realize there isn’t a Home Depot around the corner,” says Hanson.
Shipping is a challenge. The company primarily uses DHL because it delivers door-to-door, and freight, with customers meeting the shipments at customs so nothing gets lost or stolen. Oftentimes, says Hanson, customers such as relief agencies travel with the smaller portable systems, delivering and installing it themselves.
Moving money around the globe can be a struggle, too, says Hanson.
But Hanson says he wouldn’t trade it, despite the difficulties inherent to an international business.
“I love what I do,” he says. “I enjoy talking to people all over the world.”