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Harry O'Hare Hopes to Turn Water Into Gold : Ty-D-Bol Inventor Plans to Take On Big Guys With New Filtration Method

January 19, 1988|JAMES F. PELTZ | Times Staff Writer

Harry O'Hare Sr. knows water. He invented Ty-D-Bol, the toilet bowl cleaner, and helped pioneer the use of chlorinators to clean swimming pools.

Now, at age 67, O'Hare believes that he has designed the next innovation in water treatment: an electro-chemical process that cleans and softens a household's water supply far better than other systems on the market. The product, called the Watergizer, is being developed by HOH Water Technology Corp., a Newbury Park firm organized by O'Hare in 1979 that went public last June and raised $4.6 million.

But the Watergizer is not an $18.99 charcoal filter that attaches to the kitchen water tap. The initial model will cost between $3,900 and $4,500, stand 3 1/2 feet high, and must compete against other expensive filtration/softening systems made by established companies such as Culligan, Rayne, Ionics and RainSoft.

O'Hare said he's invested "every dime and nickel I made" from his previous ventures, about $1.25 million, in the Watergizer. Overall, HOH has raised $10 million for the project, including, O'Hare said, "everything I could borrow, steal and rob" from his family. That in itself is a wide investor base--O'Hare is one of 17 children, and he has 11 of his own.

Rivals Aren't Worried

At last, the Watergizer is to go on sale next month through water-treatment dealers. The company also plans to offer a smaller Watergizer, costing $800, that purifies water for just one tap. HOH President David C. Kravitz is confident of ringing up about $20 million in sales this year by selling the two products through water treatment dealers in California. He also hopes to develop systems for industry as well.

But HOH also has its doubters. Fred Kuppers, general manager of Rayne Water Systems in Canoga Park, said that "after 15 years in the business, I'm a little bit pessimistic" about the Watergizer's outlook. "Claims are one thing," he said. "Delivering is another."

The doubt shows in the company's stock price. HOH went public by selling 900,000 units (comprised of three common shares and three warrants) for $6 apiece, but Monday the units closed at at bid price of $3.50 in over-the-counter trading.

Rival companies certainly don't appear worried about HOH. Larry Holzman, a marketing manager at Culligan's headquarters in Northbrook, Ill., said his department had never heard of HOH. At Rainsoft's offices in Elk Grove Village, Ill., President John Grayson said he, too, was unaware of the Watergizer, although he had heard of O'Hare.

But O'Hare--who retains 59% voting control of HOH--and Kravitz are confident because water purity is becoming a bigger issue among Americans. The Water Quality Assn., a national trade group for water-treatment manufacturers and dealers, estimated that more than $3 billion is spent annually by U.S. homeowners and industry for water-treatment products, including $1 billion for bottled water. About 10% of the roughly 8 million residences in California already have filters, softeners or other "water-improvement" equipment, estimated the Pacific Water Quality Assn., a local trade group.

O'Hare also pointed to a report released Jan. 5 by a Ralph Nader-backed group that said at least 18% of U.S. public water systems are polluted by one or more contaminants.

Of course, some would dispute whether water-filtration devices are necessary. Jay Malinowski of the Metropolitan Water District, the agency that supplies about half of Southern California's water, said his district produces "perfectly good water to drink." Although most of the home filtration water devices "do what they say they do," the products end up merely "removing 98% of something that's hardly there to begin with," he said.

Existing household water systems usually offer a device to "soften" the water by removing certain minerals, or a filtration system that "purifies" the water by removing other contaminants such as lead, radon gas, Mercury, arsenic and nitrates.

The softeners often use a chemical process called "ion exchange." Water is pumped through a tank containing resins, and the resins pull calcium and magnesium ions out of the water and replace them with sodium ions. Because the resins eventually become saturated with calcium and magnesium, they must be flushed out by sending brine, or a salt solution, back through the system, which removes the unwanted chemicals.

No Charcoal or Salt

A typical filtration system, meanwhile, is placed under the kitchen sink and provides "pure" water for drinking and cooking via the kitchen water tap. That system would employ "reverse osmosis," or the forcing of water through a material--such as a charcoal filter--to remove pollutants.

Many homeowners buy or lease both systems so that they have soft water throughout the house, and one source of purified water for drinking and cooking. Culligan offers such a system for about $2,440, or for rent at $34 a month.

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