MT suspects many entrepreneurs dream up their business while sitting on the toilet. But not many have come up with a new way of flushing one.
It might not seem like the ripest market for technological disruption but Garry Moore wants to substantially reduce the world’s water consumption by getting us to use his Propelair lav. Because it uses an air pump to force waste out of the pan it only needs around 1.5 litres of water per flush, a reduction of 84% compared to a typical conventional model.
Moore started pursuing the project around the year 2000. ‘We'd had some hot summers and I was living in London at the time,’ he tells MT. ‘Thames Water were putting these little hippos through your letterbox. You put those in your toilet cistern to retain a litre of water so that you use less water to flush it. Having tried one, my toilet didn't flush very well, it left stuff behind and I had to flush it two or three times.
‘I started thinking it was ridiculous that we use such a large amount of water to dispose of such a small amount of waste. It's perfectly good clean treated drinking water that we're flushing down the toilet, turning it into sewage that then needs transporting and disposing off.’
Using air to flush toilets isn’t a new idea, but Moore says the ‘Eureka moment’ came when he hit upon the idea of using air to push, rather than pull waste away. Those on ships and aeroplanes use a vacuum, which is unsuitable for the normal drain systems we have on dry land, whereas Propelair’s air system is self-contained. As well as saving water it reduces the energy used in processing the waste and its sealed lid suppresses the spread of airborne contaminants that can be released when a normal toilet flushes.
They’re environmentally friendly but they don’t come cheap – the base price is £675 plus VAT, though as they are sold primarily to developers rather than domestic users, Moore says the unit price is usually less than that. Plus there’s the savings in water costs. In some cases the toilets can pay for themselves within months, he says, although typically it’s more like 1-3 years. The company is currently working on a financing package that would allow customers to install the product effectively for free and pay back as the savings begin to appear.
Though Moore’s lips are watertight when it comes to Propelair’s financial performance, the company has bagged some high-profile clients including Network Rail, London’s Peacock Theatre, and Thames Water, which installed them in its Reading HQ. It employs a full-time staff of 15 as well as having an outsourced manufacturing workforce of up to 70 depending on demand.
In 2014 the company found itself flush with cash after a £2.6m funding round, including £2m from renowned fund manager Neil Woodford. Raising money is ‘all about knocking on doors, good old-fashioned shoe leather,’ says Moore. ‘With a disruptive technology in an emerging market, it takes a visionary to see the potential. I went to Oxford and presented to Neil Woodford, which went really well, he liked the product, he liked us and I think he saw the potential in it.’ The company was recently awarded a €1.3M project grant under the EU's Horizon 2020 programme, and Moore’s hoping to announce a new round of funding ‘shortly’.
Given the abundance of water in the UK you might not be rushing out to upgrade your loo anytime soon, but it seems clear Propelair has massive potential in other markets. ‘Many parts of the world have got extreme water problems,’ says Moore. ‘Some of that is something governments are dealing with and we've had dialogue with some overseas governments. And some of it is just availability - customers don't have too much water or they generate too much waste. So we’re in the process of growing our capability overseas by appointing partners.’
Time will tell if Propelair can revolutionise the way we do our business - or if Neil Woodford’s cash will simply go down the drain.