Lynn Mueller shares something in common with the prime minister of the climate-change threatened Cook Islands, who captured attention at the recent Paris conference on climate change by proclaiming, “We may be a small country, but we believe in big actions.”
Mueller, who leads a tiny heat recovery company based in Port Coquitlam, B.C. now helping clients around the world to capture heat – and potable water – from sewage, is also a man of action.
A refrigeration journeyman by trade, Mueller started building systems for Metro Vancouver projects six years ago, but today is inking deals with institutions and governments in locations as far flung as Scotland and Australia. His company – International Wastewater Systems – has a straight-forward business concept: tap into and recycle the heat inherent in the raw sewage that humans generate every day.
“Sewage is everywhere and it’s extremely efficient and reliable,” says Mueller. Yet, the vast majority of the heat it produces is simply wasted.
“The U.S. Department of Energy did a study in 2009 that determined that 350 billion kilowatts of energy go down the drain every year from household uses,” he says. Fascinated by the possibilities, Mueller worked with a partner who is a mechanical contractor to develop SHARC, short for Sewer Heat Recovery System. The equipment diverts sewage flow through a series of filters, and extracts heat from the flow by heat exchangers and pumps.
While the sewage is then returned to its original path to be treated, the extracted heat is used to warm a building, such as the 60-unit North Vancouver townhouse complex where Mueller’s company installed its first residential plant. One of Wastewater’s most recent installations is at a $30-million sewage treatment plant in the B.C. coastal community of Sechelt.
Since the Sechelt success, Mueller has hired a water specialist to develop a system capable of producing potable water from sewage, which Wastewater plans to announce at the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers conference next year in Orlando, Florida.
Mueller says that Wastewater’s jump into international markets was more a result of the company being sought out by others rather than Wastewater actively seeking out foreign markets.
“We were lucky because people were pulling our product into the market,” he says, adding that most business stems from exposure through the Internet, various publications and word of mouth. “We weren’t actively trying to sell it. We weren’t competing with a bunch of people, but just scrambling to keep up with the business coming in.”
Mueller’s business model varies depending on which country he is targeting. In Europe, where government and industry are more proactive about green technology, he is more likely to enter into operating agreements with clients and share an income flow from environmental incentives offered by government, retaining ownership of the equipment. In the United States, where Wastewater now maintains a sales force, the company sells its heat recovery systems outright.
Meanwhile, word has spread quickly about Wastewater’s potable water technology. “We have got the California planning commission on our case to get down there and show them what we can do to save water. They are desperate for water-saving measures.”
While he hasn’t been in the export business for very long, Mueller says he has learned much, “including that Canadians are too modest and too humble and don’t realize what we bring to the table.
“We kind of say, oh well, we’re just a simple Canadian company doing what we can do. But we really do hold the key to the future of a lot of issues in the world.”
Like many independent business people, Mueller initially eschewed the idea of seeking assistance, admitting he has had a jaded view of “government help.” However, now that he is expanding his business, he realizes that the services offered by Export Development Canada to Canadian businesses – such as financing, bonding and insurance – could help fuel future growth.