Going With the Flow

A need to address water impurities led to a full-fledged enterprise

by Will Lindner

clear_waterIn 1981, James Parker of Warren left a lucrative “day job” to follow his entrepreneurial muse. Our September 1989 story found the Vietnam vet (Seabees), aerobatic pilot (Parker Aviation), and founder of Vacutherm as he was eight years into his latest venture, Clear Water Filtration.

For most people the dawn of parenthood, while thrilling, is also a very sobering time, when impulse takes a back seat to practicality and the nose is applied assiduously to the grindstone.

It didn’t exactly work that way for Jim Parker. In 1978, he and Marilyn Elizabeth Fulford, his partner of some 13 years, were married. A year later, living in the Sugarbush condominium that had been their periodic refuge while their separate careers carried them hither and yon, they built a house in East Warren. When they started a family in 1981, Parker did exactly what a young father is supposed not to do: He quit his job.

With a welding background, he had been gainfully employed by a Swiss company that manufactured and distributed welding and thermal coating alloys.

Quitting was no small step: He had been welding since he was a child growing up in Warwick, R.I. His father — also Jim Parker — had a welding business in nearby West Warwick.

“I went from a six-figure income to a no-figure income,” he quips. Now 71, and looking back on those days from a comfortable remove, he adds, “I don’t have a single regret. What I’ve always liked to do is start things and make them grow.”

To be clear, Parker, with two new mouths to feed (twins Jen and Jim), didn’t retreat into idleness. He had irons in the fire, and confidence in his ability to forge them into dynamic, if somewhat quirky, business ventures.

He had begun Parker Aviation in 1973, performing in his biplane at air shows around the Northeast. And — in the humble, remote hangar he had purchased on Airport Road in Warren — he founded Vacutherm, which employed an Italian technology that hastened the aging process for drying wood.

But for all his planning, what Parker didn’t see on the horizon was the emergence of the company that has provided the greatest and longest-lasting stability for himself and his family, and now employs 12 full-timers, including Jen (business manager) and her younger brother Steve (general manager), as well as a crew of shop people, technicians, and a customer service representative.

That company is Clear Water Filtration, and it came into being largely because Parker needed water treatment for his home. “We had a lot of iron, staining, and odor,” he says, “and purchased equipment from a local company and it didn’t work. Being a technical person myself, I wanted to find something that worked.”

He eventually found and installed equipment from a Kalamazoo, Mich., company. It also benefited Vacutherm’s operation, which used groundwater in the drying process. Vacutherm is now under the guidance of Parker’s son Jim.

Clear Water Filtration has done nothing but expand since Parker studied the various technologies available for remedying the surface and groundwater issues at both the family home and the Quonset hut–like airport hangar, which now houses all three businesses.

“Then,” he says, “I thought, maybe others have the same problem. So I advertised in the local paper and started getting calls. The first house, we treated with an iron filter and they were thrilled. Iron was the biggest problem, but over the years our knowledge of water expanded, and we have developed and purchased technologies to take care of residential and commercial water supplies.”

The company now keeps five service vehicles on the road and maintains a list of some 7,000 customers in the northern two-thirds of Vermont (a licensing agreement confines them to the area north of Rutland), and in border areas of New York and New Hampshire. Along with thousands of residential patrons, Clear Water Filtration services major institutions like The University of Vermont, popular resorts like Jay Peak, the Ben & Jerry’s factory in St. Albans, and a long list of celebrated microbreweries.

“The need [for our services] comes up anytime water is part of an end product,” explains Steve. “Or where water is used in their mechanical systems — even in steam boilers.” It’s not just to prevent breakdowns; it’s for health and air-quality reasons, too, he continues. “Impurities like calcium carbonate will get misted and go into the environment.”

“We’ll work with an engineering company to design a system that will work in that application,” adds Jen (who is now Jen Fleckenstein, married and a mother of two.

Bill Cherry, owner of Switchback Brewing Co. in Burlington, meets the definition of a commercial customer with an intense interest in well-filtered, unadulterated water. Steve (who began working part time for his father’s company when he was 15) had forged a relationship with another brewery, Magic Hat. He realized that microbreweries were a natural market for Clear Water’s services and approached Cherry, who was operating on a shoestring budget with used equipment purchased in 2002 from a defunct brewery in Tucson.

Switchback brews with Burlington city water. “Our philosophy is to work with the water in your area and let it influence how you’re making your beer,” he says. “It gives it a certain distinction.” However, chlorine that safeguards the water supply poses a threat to his beer’s flavor, so he needs to control for it.

Clear Water installed an effective filtration system, and when Switchback expanded its brew house five years ago, the Parker crew returned with an updated system to keep up with Switchback’s increased production. It provides redundancy, so that in case of repair or maintenance brewing can continue without interruption. Clear Water’s technician taught Cherry and his team to test the water so they can detect early signs of chlorine between Clear Water’s scheduled visits.

“They do their job — correctly, on time, all the time,” says Cherry. “We want to be able to have that trust in people so we can concentrate on what our strengths are, which is making beer. If we get that, we are very, very loyal, and that’s where we’re at with them.”

Representative of Clear Water’s residential clients is Gordon Troy, an attorney based in Charlotte with a specialty in intellectual property law. Troy first contacted Parker’s company in 1993, when he was living in Warren.

“What was going on was clogging in the pipes, which was like hardening of the arteries,” he says. “I had them install a system for me there, and then in this house after we’d moved to Charlotte.”

Troy is adamant that he prefers Clear Water’s way of doing business to that of national water-treatment companies which, he says, deceptively charge very little for the installation but commit their customers to high-cost maintenance contracts.

“They put in a system that’s good, and they do it sensibly,” he says of Clear Water. “They educate you so that you know how to monitor the system, and yet every time I’ve sent them a quick email that I’ve got a problem, they’ve been very responsive.”

Parker makes no pretext of installing filtration systems of his own invention; rather, these are systems designed by reputable manufacturers, carefully selected, and able to address a range of water-quality issues. “Where our skills lie,” Parker explains, “is in problem-solving. When a customer calls on us, we have to analyze the situation. Then we can fix it.”

Potential problems can include calcium carbonate, iron, or sulfur in people’s groundwater, causing staining and odors “and many, many more problems,” says Parker.

“Where granite exists, you’ll often have radioactive elements in the water. A breakdown of radionuclides can produce arsenic, says Jen. “We have to be careful,” she adds quickly. “This isn’t about scaring people. We rely strictly on EPA standards for maximum safe levels.”

The comforting thing, notes Parker, is that tap water in the U.S. is generally of a high quality. It may need to be treated, but water that is extracted, used or consumed, and then returned locally preserves the hydrological cycle that is a cornerstone of a state’s, region’s, and community’s natural environment.

“We are the anti-water-bottle people!” Jen exclaims.

Actually, she and her brother Steve are much more than that. They have turned their vocation into an avocation, lending, with their father’s support, their expertise in water-related issues to Pure Water for the World, a Rutland-based nonprofit that provides critical services to poor communities in Honduras and Haiti.

PWW works with locals to install filtration systems, sparing children, particularly, from the life-threatening agony of dysentery and dehydration. Volunteers (including the Parker siblings) also build latrines and provide hygiene education. Closer to home, another project — an online film titled “What’s Your Watermark?” — seeks to inspire Vermonters to learn about and care for their water resources.

As for Parker, his main involvement with water, apart from the company he founded, is scuba diving. He loves exploring subaquatic caves off the Yucatan Peninsula, and submerged shipwrecks in the Rhode Island Sound. Marilyn accompanies him on these journeys, but stays on dry land. Her pastime of choice is musical, singing in the Mad River Chorale.

And yet he marvels at all that has ensued since, almost on a whim, he went into the water-filtration business in 1980.

“I start out with iron in the groundwater and end up with people like this” (gesturing fondly toward his offspring), “tackling the global need for clean and healthy water. I’m just happy to be a part of it.” •