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One Entrepreneur Proves "Going Green" Is More than Hype

May 27, 2010 By Robert Woo, Undergraduate Research Fellow

Going green is all the rage today. Businesses love to add a green label to their products. Consumers feel better if they are told what they purchase is green. But as Dave Schneider, the president of Zap Water Technology, Inc., found out a long time ago, making people believe in the real green is not easy, even if he has one genuinely green product.

Schneider's technology is called ElectroChemical Activation (ECA), a chemical-free cleaner and sanitizer. The way ECA works is simple-some salt water is combined with regular tap water and is run through a special electrolysis device, called FEM, in which the water will be electrolyzed into two solutions. One is called catholyte, which automatically becomes the cleaner, and the other is called anolyte, which becomes the sanitizer.

What sets ECA solutions apart from chemical cleaners and sanitizers? It is 100-percent safe. When ECA comes into contact with skin or eyes, the two solutions cause no harm. Schneider often demonstrates this point by drinking a whole glass of ECA water. "It doesn't taste very good," said Schneider. "But it won't harm you either." 

If it's not harmful, some people think it's not effective. Professor Joellen Feirtag of the University of Minnesota was skeptical at first as well. She did a series of studies with the technology, including several tests on beef carcasses. To Feirtag's surprise, she found that ECA is capable of effectively killing almost all major pathogens including E. coli, salmonella and even anthrax spores.

Despite a faint smell, similar to that of a swimming pool, the ECA solutions leave no harmful chemical residues on the surfaces they touch. This is especially important for Izzy's Ice Cream in St. Paul, one of Schneider's customers. The ice-cream maker on Marshall Avenue is keenly aware of protecting the popular ice-cream from being tainted by chemicals. However, if the ice cream were to come in contact with ECA solutions, only a tiny amount of salt would remain on the ice cream, which is not only harmless, but will also not damage the Izzy's experience.

Sound too much like those crazy TV sales program at 3:00 am? In fact, "too good to be true" is still one of Schneider's biggest challenges four years after he started this venture. Details about the product don't mesh with people's preconceptions of sanitizing products. For instance, the early users of ECA questioned Schneider as to why no foam was produced. But according to Schneider, although foam is a by-product of traditional chemical cleaners, it is not necessary for cleaning or killing bacteria.

Schneider has noticed that it is especially hard to convince big corporations, as the site managers usually dare not take the initiative. Talking to public employees, even those charged with promoting green products, also tends to be very challenging. He chooses to work with smaller partners, especially organizations that have vested interests in being green, such as the Seward Co-op, a pro-green grocery cooperative on East Franklin Ave. in Minneapolis. 

Not only indifference and distrust stand in Schneider's way. In 2009, a Minnesota-based Fortune 500 corporation purchased a small business that used a similar technology to generate non-toxic solutions. According to Schneider, the small business was shut down immediately after the acquisition. The fate of the small business only adds to Schneider's skepticism about how genuine today's "green" businesses truly are.

"Too many people are capitalizing on the green theme without actually being green," he said. "When I was at a green technology conference, all I saw were publicity people."

Another thing Schneider will tell you is that there are many sanitizing products that claim to be non-toxic, yet if you look closely, most of them still have labels that caution against contact with eyes and skin and warn to keep out of reach of children.

Despite discouraging stories, Schneider keeps at it. One reason may be that promoting ECA is only his part-time job. In fact, Schneider became aware of ECA technology during his work with business contacts in Russia. Although ECA has encountered skepticism in the U.S., it has been widely used in Russia and Japan for years. Schneider also has the benefit of being a start-up-he can pick the clients he wishes to work with, those who share his green beliefs and practices.

"Working with this technology is fun and rewarding," said Schneider. "And it's really, really, really, really, really, really green."

Every other Monday evening Schneider goes to customers' sites to do maintenance on the equipment, and every other month he services an out-of-town costumer, Larsmort Cottages, on the shore of Lake Superior. Looking ahead, he is optimistic. He is confident that ECA will become mainstream sooner or later.

Minnesota is well-positioned to lead the way in promoting innovative green technologies and products like Schneider's ECA cleaner. The state simply needs more proactive citizens like Schneider and a little help from state leaders to get the word out. The time to grow Minnesota's green economy is now.

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