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SMALL BUSINESS

Maker of toilet aquarium swims into new territory

July 25, 2007|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Toilets and pet fish have an unhappy history, but AquaOne Technologies is changing that -- one flush at a time.

This wasn't how the Westminster-based company set out to make its name. Really. The serious-minded small business was founded seven years ago with the worthy goal of ending the biggest single source of wasted water in any household: leaky and overflowing toilets.

Its first product, the FlowManager, was a sensor that attached to the toilet bowl to detect leaks and shut off the water to the fixture. It's been welcomed by nursing homes and other care facilities.

"The FlowManager paid for itself in four months in what it saved for us in terms of prevented accidents and cleanup costs," said Jim Parkhurst, chief executive of New Port Bay Hospital in Newport Beach, where patients suffering from dementia sometimes flushed their diapers down the toilets, hopelessly clogging them.

But the FlowManager was clunky and hung down in plain sight below the bowl. Its batteries had to be changed every few months. The company's five employees set to work on a second model.

The H2Orb, which sits inside the tank, can be remotely monitored and operated and has a lithium battery that needs changing only every seven years.

But the real inspiration struck during a brainstorming session on how to demonstrate the H2Orb at trade shows using a clear acrylic toilet.

They were dads who had all flushed their share of dead guppies and goldfish over the years, and the same thought hit all of them: What if we had fish in that tank and flushed it and the fish stayed and didn't go down the drain?

"We all got a good laugh out of it and quickly forgot about it," recalled David Parrish, the chief operating officer for AquaOne. "Then I heard that Richard Quintana and our chief designer were actually trying to build one."

Quintana, 53, is AquaOne's chief executive, a former Marine and 1974 graduate of the Control Data Institute in Anaheim.

Quintana said the company originally had no plans to sell such a tank -- it was simply a trade-show gimmick to attract passersby to look at the new sensor. But something unexpected happened.

Crowds gathered to see the fish tank toilet -- and ignored the new sensor the company hoped to market to institutions and homeowners.

"It was insane," Parrish said. "We had to set up appointments for people because so many people were coming by to play with the fish tank that we couldn't present our products. People were taking photos with their phone cameras. They wanted to buy the thing."

AquaOne decided to go with the flow, and thus was born the Fish 'n Flush. The company put the same design effort into the fish tank that it had into the H2Orb. It even hired a microbiologist to make sure its product would be more fish tank than fish tomb.

The design work and the building of a prototype were done in the U.S. But the manufacturing was to be done in China, and the project quickly became a learning experience for the company. AquaOne employees found it can be tough not having one's factory at close range.

A particular type of plastic was selected to preserve the illusion that the fish were in the toilet tank and not in a separate tank surrounding the working tank. The plastic had to be thick to prevent warping or bulging. Two-ton steel molds were specially designed to help the plastic cool uniformly. The steel molds then had to be polished to a near-mirror finish.

Not one step went smoothly. Quintana spent several weeks at a time in China, struggling with problems and missed deadlines.

"You work day and night, talking to the company ... from your hotel room after hours. You sleep maybe four to six hours," said Quintana, who was working with a factory in a rural area near the southern coastal city of Shenzhen, surviving mostly on rice and occasional visits to KFC.

"There really is nothing else to do there but work. The people are polite and helpful, but they have problems with their quality control," he said.

Making the basic molds took 8 to 10 weeks and finishing them took an additional four to five. Then they had to be tested.

"When you are there to monitor, it saves you the time of having to wait and have some work shipped back to you to see that it's been done wrong," Quintana said.

But the effort appears to have been worth it. Since December, the company has sold 1,000 Fish 'n Flush tanks to an odd assortment of customers -- despite not having spent a dime on marketing.

Bloggers who focus on home improvement, odd housewares and gadgets have been raving over the 1.6-gallon tank, which includes two aquarium aerators and a filter and retails for $299.

"You love your pet fish, but constantly neglect them.... Instead integrate them into a mandatory part of your life.... Then you can unzip, enjoy and never forget to feed your fish again," wrote Thrillist Nation.

GadgetCool advised: "Please make sure you put the fish in the right compartment."

AquaOne is hoping it is just a few months away from ironing out the last technical issues with its new H2Orb. It is taking a bit of a risk in the meantime, surviving on only about $35,000 in monthly sales because it no longer actively sells its old toilet sensor.

The company may also need to develop a new sensor, lest its mantra of saving water for the planet get flushed down the toilet, so to speak, since that is exactly what people like to do with the Fish 'n Flush.

"I've had the tank for about six months now. It's hilarious. If guests ask to use my bathroom, I don't tell them it's there. First I hear them laughing, then they are in there flushing and flushing and watching the water go down, but not the fish," said Megan Fernandez, 23, who works as a teller for a credit union in Tampa, Fla.

"My niece loves it. She is in the bathroom all day long when she visits. She loves that toilet."

--

ronald.white@latimes.com

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