Noah Technologies Aims to Keep Basement Floodwaters At Bay

1/9/14Follow @XconomyWI

It’s a homeowner’s nightmare version of the old tree-falling-in-a-forest conundrum: What happens if a pipe bursts in a bathroom and nobody’s home to hear the water sensor alarm?

Sharper minds can sort out the philosophical question of whether a sound is made in this scenario, but the real-world result is clear: a flooded building with potentially thousands of dollars in damage.

It’s a problem that Noah Technologies, a startup based in Bonita Springs, FL, with R&D in the Milwaukee area, aims to solve with its Intelli-Sensor system.

Common water sensor alarms, which can be purchased for as little as $10, make a loud noise to alert the homeowner of a leak. But some do nothing to actually stop it, and the homeowner would be clueless to the problem if he or she were away.

In contrast, the Intelli-Sensor will beep and send a text message and e-mail alert if it detects a leak. It also sends an electronic message to a pre-installed valve in the plumbing system, which subsequently closes off the main water pipe to the home or apartment. Water won’t flow again until someone manually disarms the alarm.

“You have to hear [the alarm] and then act on it for those other products,” said Noah Technologies co-founder David Rice, a Milwaukee-area electronic engineer who developed the Intelli-Sensor. “This one, you don’t need to do anything [to stop the leak].”

The Intelli-Sensor system includes a series of monitoring devices, each roughly the size of a garage door opener, that are placed near toilets, sinks, and other sources of water. The devices, propped up slightly by tiny screws that hold the product together, measure the volume of water present and how fast the water is moving by emitting radio frequency signals that rebound off the water to a receiver device. A half-teaspoon of water is enough to trigger the signal to the receiver that closes the shutoff valve.

Rice and business partner Dan Fish, a building contractor in Florida, founded Noah Technologies in 2010 after they met while Rice was vacationing in Florida. They are boot-strapping the company with personal investments, Rice said. Noah Technologies contracts with Accurate Electronic Assembly of Elk Grove Village, IL, and Lake-View Electronics of Grafton, WI, to manufacture the system.

So far the company has installed Intelli-Sensor in 250 condominium units in Florida, Rice said. He wants to expand the customer base to the Milwaukee area, where Noah Technologies is participating in a seed accelerator program for water tech startups. (Read Xconomy’s profiles of other Milwaukee water tech startups: Microbe Detectives, H2Oscore, and Vegetal i.D.)

Noah Technologies faces a difficult task in standing out in the flood of smart home devices, some of which also monitor for water leaks and turn off the water main automatically. What sets the Intelli-Sensor apart, Rice said, is its use of radio frequency technology to detect water, which doesn’t require contact, unlike competitors that use ultra-sensitive metal pins that can give false alarms—say for condensation or a melting ice cube—or miss a leak completely if the pins are covered by dirt or corrosion. Rice said the Intelli-Sensor’s microprocessor and proprietary software make his company’s product more reliable.

The startup will also need to convince homeowners and property managers of the Intelli-Sensor’s value. A typical home installation costs more than $1,000. Noah Technologies has agreements with a dozen insurance companies that give a 5 percent discount on the homeowner’s or renter’s insurance premium for installation, but that doesn’t come close to offsetting the up-front cost of the system, Rice said.

But the system is still cheaper than paying a potential $2,000 insurance deductible in the event of a disastrous leak, not to mention the unquantifiable loss of irreplaceable keepsakes and the headache of repairing damaged infrastructure, Rice said.

One person who knows just what that headache feels like is Rich Meeusen, co-founder of The Water Council and CEO of Badger Meter, a manufacturer of water meters and other flow measurement products near Milwaukee.

In early December, Meeusen walked into a condo in a downtown Milwaukee building that he owns and stumbled upon a dreadful scenario: a half-inch of sewage covered the entire floor. Apparently the tenant above had tried to flush something down the toilet that he or she shouldn’t have, and it clogged the pipes. The mess was seeping down into a bridal shop downstairs, which was closed at the time, he said.

So there he was, mopping up sewage in a suit and Allen Edmonds dress shoes, he said. The one silver lining: the bridal gowns were protected by plastic coverings. But the episode could cost Meeusen more than $20,000 in repairs, he said.

“When I first looked at Noah Technologies I thought, I’m not sure how much demand there would be for this product,” Meeusen said. “You’re insuring yourself against a potential catastrophe, but most people would look at it and go, ‘That would never happen to me.’”

Now that it has happened to Meeusen, he said he’s going to strongly consider installing the Intelli-Sensor in the building so he avoids another calamity.

“I’ve got a feeling the insurance premiums are going to go up if I don’t,” Meeusen said. “It’s like a smoke detector. You put it in your house, and you hope it’s never going to go off, other than for burning a roast.”

Meeusen thinks the Intelli-Sensor is a solid technology that meets a need, but it will “take some salesmanship” from Noah Technologies to make the product a success in the market.

“It’s like life insurance. Nobody buys life insurance; it has to be sold to them,” Meeusen said.

Rice acknowledged the challenge of marketing the product. Getting accepted into the seed accelerator program is helping, he said.

Through the seed accelerator program, organized by The Water Council, a Milwaukee-based water industry group, Noah Technologies received office space in the organization’s Global Water Center near downtown Milwaukee. The interaction with fellow startups, water industry experts, and more established water companies has been invaluable, Rice said.

“We have got many prospects coming along, some of which were generated entirely from the Water Council,” Rice said.

For example, the developers of a planned water business park adjacent to the Global Water Center have expressed interest in installing Noah Technologies’ product in the future buildings.

“We’re committed to including as many of the appropriate technologies that are being spawned by The Water Council as possible,” said Michael Weiss, president of General Capital Group, located in nearby Fox Point. “We think it’ll be a great showcase for the greater Milwaukee water cluster.”

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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