Futurism and Responsible Abundance with Gordon Olson
Hot water. It’s something we all take for granted. Somewhere in your home there’s a large white barrel which sits quietly in a closet providing a seemingly endless quantity of hot water… until it suddenly doesn’t. At which point, you realize how vital this appliance is to a happy, functioning household (particularly if you’re trying to summon a heating engineer during a public holiday).
As my guest this week, Gordon Olson, points out, retired water heaters usually end up in landfills, since so little of their technology is recyclable. Olson has made it his purpose to create the next generation of sustainable, tankless, and energy efficient water heaters through his company Torri Industries.
The water heaters, of course, are only a small part of Olson’s passion, but they did get him thinking about how we can continue to live abundantly, without our appliances and creature comforts creating harmful waste and negatively impacting the environment. As with many of the entrepreneurs on The Good User Experience, Olson had innovative ways to address this problem.
Climate Change and Entrepreneurship
We began our conversation by talking about how we’ve both directly experienced the dramatic and deadly effects of climate change, including unseasonable torrential rain and record-breaking temperature in Utah and the drifting smoke from west coast forest fires.
Olson’s new product, a highly efficient, low-cost, sustainable, and tankless water heater, is a remarkable contribution to the sustainable household movement. The constant pre-heating of water consumes a huge amount of energy. The on-demand system that Torri is developing is both compact and does not waste energy in this way. However, Olson was determined to make no tradeoffs in the development process.
Price and energy efficiency were the hardest aspects to crack. But something had to be done.
“65% of all water heaters make it to a landfill” — Gorden Olsen.
Service-Based and IoT-connectivity for Appliances
To defray the upfront cost of installing one of his heaters, Olson’s company created an unusual subscription-based model. Offering a lifetime warranty in exchange for a monthly payment, Olson’s company will simply replace malfunctioning units, then recondition and recycle the broken ones. Olson’s system identifies patterns of water use and predicts optimal power usage in each home, adjusting the flow and saving users even more money.
Olson is planning to start production in 3rd quarter of 2022 but there is a learning curve to address, with both end users and maintenance engineers. Olson’s units are IoT devices (internet of things) and device security is key to reassure potential owners. Likewise, younger generations of plumbers are getting used to dealing with the software aspects of the appliances they maintain.
Part of getting them on board has been demonstrating how streamlined Olson’s subscription-based model is and how it would benefit their business.
How did Olson get inspired?
Years of living in busy shared apartments led to several experiences of hot water running out when it was least helpful. Olson became interested in solving this problem and attended Portland’s Hot Water Forum in 2017. That recently, Olson found that IoT connectivity was a relatively rare innovation and even now, the industry is slow in technological uptake.
Having worked in a range of industries and trying out several different business ideas, Olson has built up an understanding of how users think, as well as gaining insight into automation technology in a factory context. This blend of customer psychology and labor-saving tech knowhow has helped inspire his work today.
Olson is now making his first foray into product creation. He feels a real passion for sustainability, having observed other companies struggling with this aspect of their business.
Going to Market
Olson is actively seeking funding, to be ready to scale up. The kind of success he wants to achieve will necessitate such capital investment.
To achieve a large market penetration, Olson can’t rely on the plumbers to advocate for his products alone. He also recognizes that there will come a time when his tankless heaters need to be marketed directly to the public. Home appliance shows and campaigns targeted at homeowners will be vital.
Market surveys show that 36% would already consider moving to a subscription-based, tankless heater. These early adopters should inspire others to follow suit, even as rival manufacturers are slow to adapt.
Olson loves the example of UK inventor James Dyson, whose bagless vacuum cleaner was at first rejected by established manufacturers who wanted to sell disposable dust bags. He had to start his own company to bring his unique products to market.
Olson has ambitions for Torri to be the Uber of modern appliances. Each appliance would be IoT connected, available on subscription and fully warrantied. Smart devices would communicate with one another for energy efficiency and cost savings.
Home hubs for IoT integration are far from perfect, but the industry is getting better at supporting an intelligent home environment. The potential is exciting and there’s a huge need for innovation, both to unleash its full potential and win the battle of persuading consumers that this technology can do good in the world.
Olson has ambitions to miniaturize his products so that the technology can be installed in every faucet, and there is no longer a single repository of water being repeatedly heated. Many other aspects of the water industry provide opportunities for further sustainability innovation. Water efficiency, particularly in the dry states, is a currently underserved area for further exploration.
Our conversation was a fascinating and wide-ranging one and it certainly made me rethink the hot stuff pouring endlessly from my faucets.