Solar solutions to make water work
South Africa’s Water Engineering and Pumping Technologies Pty Ltd (WET) imports building wet services products from around the world to complete turnkey projects across Sub-Saharan Africa.
Over 30 years of business, WET has grown spectacularly. The business has gone from two people in a small warehouse to 25 in premises covering around 2,400 square metres, with an inventory worth 1 million euro at all times. Its large warehouse holds water engineering and solar heating products imported in from around the world, primarily from Europe.
WET uses these products to put together water engineering solutions for commercial, industrial and mining buildings. These solutions could include subsoil drainage, water heating, storage, pressurisation, transport and sewerage, for any type of application, from instrument sterilisation to mineral processing.
“We get involved right from the design of the products that we import,” says WET Managing Director Brian Ross.
“We then deliver those products as a package to the client’s premises or plant room, install and commission them; giving the client a complete, turnkey water solution for their building. After that, our maintenance division looks after the servicing, maintenance and breakdown cover of all the products we install.”
Ross started WET in 1984 under the different name of Solar 2000. In the years following he was joined by Cheryl Ross, now Financial Director, and Paulus Damen, now Technical & Sales Director. As the company’s initial name suggests, it launched with a focus on solar thermal technologies for heating water in a green, energy-efficient manner. By the late 1990s, however, the business had begun moving more towards water pumping solutions in general due to a lack of interest in green energy. This prompted the name change to Water Engineering and Pumping Technologies (WET).
“We changed our name to be more relevant to the industry we were in – but we didn’t ever lose sight of alternative energy,” says Ross.
“When the energy crisis hit in around 2006, we immediately poured all our energy and knowledge previously built up in the alternative energy field into energy-saving, solar thermal technology. We started highlighting our expertise in the area to our clients. It wasn’t really a change in direction – rather that instead of heating up bulk water with conventional oil burners and electrical elements, we started using solar heating and heat pumps.”
He adds that, today, WET is still very involved with providing standard pumping solutions, but equally involved with alternative energy.
WET imports two types of solar thermal panels for water heating applications. “We import one system from Ulster in Belfast, Ireland, that is based on vacuum tubes, making for an extremely efficient solar panel,” explains Ross.
“We chose this Irish product because firstly, it has a 20-year guarantee and secondly, the manufacturer Kingspan is a prime supplier of high-quality vacuum tubes throughout the world. For an alternative, we import flat plate solar collectors from Greece that are less efficient but cheaper, allowing us to serve the whole market. Both products are of superior quality to the inferior Chinese products that have flooded the market.”
The quality of WET’s world-class products hasn’t gone unnoticed, and last year won the company a contract for a large and trailblazing project. It required WET to provide a water storage and heating solution to the Academic Hospital of the University of Botswana, located in the country’s capital city of Gaborone.
Designed to produce 160,000 litres of hot water per day, WET believes it to be the biggest vacuum tube solar heating project in the southern hemisphere. It is certainly the largest solar heating project that WET has done, by several times over.
“The water will be used for ablution purposes, for the autoclave and the rest of sterilisation, for the laundry and for the central heating in winter,” Ross explains.
“Most significantly, it will be the first multiple-temperature water installation of this kind in all of Africa. We are heating and storing water at three different temperatures: at 60C for ablution purposes, in other words baths, showers and washbasins; at 70C for laundry and central heating; and at 85C for sterilisation.”
The University of Botswana Academic Hospital solar heating and storage plant was commissioned in February this year.
Another significant contract, featuring a very different application, required WET to supply, install and commission ice banks at the Simmerpan head office of South African electricity provider Eskom, located in Germiston. The ice banks, manufactured by Fasco in Switzerland, provide standby chilling for Eskom’s computer network in the event of a power failure shutting down the air conditioning system.
“These massive ice banks have 24-35 hours’ storage of ice they can melt and circulate through the air conditioning system, so that the computers can continue operating,” explains Ross.
“That’s another very progressive installation, utilising alternative energy for backup in the event of a complete power failure, whether regional or national.”
Part of the reason why these large institutions choose WET as their contractor lies in the company’s globally informed perspective. WET management travels abroad at least once, usually twice, a year in order to keep up-to-date with international trends and engineering advancements in energy-saving technology. This gives WET a clear advantage over African companies that merely follow national trends, says Ross, because “technology is changing at a rapid rate across the world, and if you don’t keep up you get left behind”.
WET provides its services within most countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, inclusive of South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dubai, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The company tries to avoid entering countries that are experiencing political turmoil, says Ross. But covering such a broad range of countries, each at different stages of economic development, brings its own challenges. Most notably, the available technology, engineering skills and technical knowledge vary from country to country, so in each case WET has learnt to adapt its services accordingly.
“We are familiar with the local rules, regulations, bylaws and skills available of each country we operate in, so we tailor make our turnkey projects to suit the engineering level one can expect in those countries,” Ross explains.
“In South Africa, we can work with technology and expertise equal to that in America and Europe; but technology in some other African countries is less advanced. For instance, if we went into Malawi we would have to work with technology that was perhaps five to 10 years old. So rather than putting in anything computerised, we would put in electromechanical switchgear that any basic electrician would understand and be able to repair if necessary. We also ask prospective clients what level of technology we should do our quotations and design to, and get direction from the consultants, architects, developers and so forth as well.”
WET has great ambitions for the year ahead: it wants to grow 20% over the course of 2014, while achieving a turnover of US$10 million. As this suggests, Ross and the rest of the team at WET are feeling positive about the future.
“I have a lot of faith in the growth of Africa; we are an emerging market continent, and we honestly believe there’s going to be an abundance of work available in the industry we chosen,” says Ross.
He is confident that alternative energy will be a particular growth sector, so is keen for WET to grow its focus in this area of the building wet services business.
“We would like to become more prominent in the field of passive and renewable energy in terms of ice banks, solar heating and heat pumps, because we believe this is the future,” he adds.
“Africa’s winters are virtually cloudless with very little rain, meaning solar heating works extremely well here, even when the sun is at its lowest intensity.”
The shortage of electrical power across Africa means there is a great opportunity for alternative energy to fill the gaps, while the continent’s ageing infrastructure provides opportunity for new, alternatively powered infrastructure to replace it. These circumstances put WET in exactly the right place at the right time, says Ross.
“Our aspiration is to become the dominant supplier of alternative energy via solar heating, thermal heat pumps and ice banks for the new infrastructure set to take this great continent forward.”