By Donna Kreutz
Thomas Palkon was fresh out of college when he took a temporary job as a lab technician testing water treatment equipment in the fall of 1997. It was stopgap work to earn money while he studied for the Medical College Admission Test. He planned to be a physician and he did very well on that admission test. But by then, Palkon found he was enjoying his job in an industry he previously knew nothing about. He stayed… and stayed.
You could say Palkon became a water doctor. He started as a temp with Water Quality Association under Joseph Harrison. “My primary responsibility was to test water softeners to WQA’s S-100 performance standards.” He learned the business from the ground up. “I still get Christmas cards from people whose water problems I solved,” he said.
Nineteen years later, he is Senior Vice President of Water Systems at International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) Research & Testing in Chicago, IL. IAPMO is recognized the world over for its uniform codes and is a leading authority on industry code development and product certification. The non-profit organization has a total of 13 international offices, with thousands of members worldwide.
Palkon joined IAPMO R&T in January 2015. “I was hired to expand IAPMO’s product certification services into the residential water treatment industry, with a focus on standards covering water softeners, ROs, UV equipment, filters—anything that deals with drinking water. We are capable of testing/certifying to more than 400 standards, as well as providing special services, such as research and development, training, quality assurance, failure analysis and witness/field testing. Our strengths are speed to market—we work with a number of labs and can get products tested quickly. Because of the volume of testing we do, our prices are very favorable. And on top of the technical expertise of our engineers, we have staff with a depth of experience in the field.”
Impact on a global scale
“While we continue to focus on the US and Canadian markets, we are increasing involved internationally,” Palkon said. “Access to potable water and functioning sanitation are keys to the health of a nation’s citizens. We work with the governments of India, Indonesia, Philippines, Middle East countries and other developing nations to establish enforceable codes with the necessary personnel training that can make a difference on a global scale.” He’s currently working with affiliates on code standards and certification projects in India, China, Australia and Europe.
“The water treatment industry continues to have a bright future,” he said. “With deteriorating water quality, droughts, floods, algae blooms and continued media coverage on new chemicals found in drinking water, our industry is truly the one solution that can solve the multitude of water issues we have today.”
Consumers are now paying more attention to water quality, he said. This is evidenced by the exponential increase in bottled water sales, which bodes well for in-home water treatment. “Consumers are slow to comprehend that it is possible to make the equivalent of bottled water at home for probably a tenth of the cost. Many do not yet realize that for a reasonable cost you can make very nice quality water in the home and have a much better experience for the family. As an industry, we need to enhance the consumer’s understanding of the importance of water treatment.” One promising sign is that more homes are being built with plumbed-in options for filtration systems.
Consumers are also becoming more aware of issues like lead, arsenic and other contaminants in the water supply. The ongoing Flint, MI water crisis is driving this message home. Water treatment plants can produce high-quality water at the source yet it can become contaminated as it travels through the delivery system. “Flint changed its source water but did not address the chemistry in the pipes,” Palkon said. An RO or carbon filter designed for lead reduction in the home could have benefited these water users.
He noted that even though US EPA has set the acceptable amount of lead in drinking water at 15 parts per billion, its desired goal is zero ppb. “If I had little kids I wouldn’t want to take that risk. A filter can get you to that goal now. It’s an eye-opener for consumers.” That’s what Palkon and the industry call the ‘final-barrier’ treatment. Selecting an appropriate water system also protects households from changes in water quality that may go undetected for days, weeks or even months.
Challenges, opportunities ahead
As regulators aim to further reduce levels of contaminants (arsenic is a good example) municipalities cannot afford to invest millions to build or modify their treatment plants to meet the lower contaminant requirement. The industry continues to struggle with centralized versus decentralized treatment options, Palkon said. Today, however, more regulators are beginning to understand that decentralized treatment options can be a solution.
IAPMO R&T recognizes the growing importance of water conservation and green building and provides certification to US EPA’s WaterSense and ENERGY STAR programs. The company also offers education, certification and sustainability initiatives. It certifies and lists plumbing, water treatment and mechanical products according to established US, Canadian and Mexican codes and standards to ensure their continuous compliance. Offering flexible, local resources, IAPMO R&T works with 35 ANSI-accredited laboratories globally and has reduced completion time of third-party listing NSF/ANSI 61 certification reports to less than three weeks. An ISO accreditation and training program also is available.
“I think most consumers do not realize what a company goes through to get product on the shelf. It was an eye-opener for me. I would encourage manufacturers to look at several options for product certification, compare the industry leaders and figure out what’s best for their company. Look at the education materials, attend events and take advantage of the trade associations. It can be a huge benefit.”
IAPMO began in 1926 in California when 39 plumbing inspectors gathered to write a model code to protect the health of the people they served from inept plumbing practices. Over the next nine decades, the organization grew steadily to attain a national, then international, presence working with other organizations to bring efficient and affordable plumbing systems to developing nations.
Russ Chaney became CEO of the IAPMO Group in 1995. “He had a vision that IAPMO could be much more global and much larger,” Palkon said. “He’s done an excellent job expanding services and growing membership.”
Well known and widely respected, Palkon said he is very proud to contribute to the overall knowledge base of industry participants, which includes writing technical articles for WC&P International. His temporary entry into in the water treatment industry turned out to be a good career move. He’s remained close to his college friends who did go into medicine and has no regrets. “I am extremely happy with my decision.”