Nestled between mountains and peaks in western Montana, Crisp Water Technologies Inc. is dedicated to environmental protection and sustainable growth. Based in Missoula, Montana, Crisp Water Technologies, along with the business’ lab division — Water Technologies Laboratory — covers a wide service area across the vast state of Montana as well as a range of contaminant concerns. The business currently has seven employees, many of which are family, plus a contract engineer, hydrologist and electrician.
The business was launched in February 1992, when owner Ken Crisp was a 34-year-old single parent of two young children, ages seven and four. According to the mission statement from the employee manual, Crisp wanted to have the flexibility to spend as much time with family as possible, so he started his own company. Additionally, he has always had an interest and a passion in the water industry, and his goals were to develop and grow as a successful company that family and friends could benefit from.
“Those dreams and goals have become a reality, but it started before 1992,” Crisp said. “I started actually in 1974 working for a water conditioning company, a company called McGowan Water Conditioning that’s still in operation.”
Crisp started working with McGowan Water Conditioning when he was 16 and still in high school, throughout college and beyond learning “all the ins-and-outs of water.” Eventually, he went back to school at the University of Montana to get additional education in water — focusing on chemistry, biology and business — before launching Crisp Water Technologies in 1992. He also studied to become a certified water operator through the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Crisp has been entrenched in the water industry as long as he can remember and has always been drawn to water.
“Through high school I was always interested in water, even before I started working for McGowan. I took some college courses my junior and senior year of high school in biology and geology for summer school,” Crisp recalled. “We would get to go out on all these backpacking trips all over the state and draw soil samples, water samples, study the geology of the different canyons. And I always went and grabbed the water testing kit because that was my passion back then and I just love getting into the streams, creeks and lakes up in the mountains and testing the water.”
Building a Business
“So that’s kind of how it started,” Crisp said. “And then when I first went to the university, I was going into education because I wanted to be a teacher. I decided to become a water specialist, so then I can teach people about water.”
In fact, Crisp teaches about water whenever he can. He teaches a class at Montana State University on arsenic testing and treatment options. He also helps teach at local 7th and 8th grade science classes. The middle school classes, in particular, are so fun, he said. The kids bring in their own water bottle from their own home and Ken brings in portable water testing equipment. Each child then gets to test their own water and write up a report. That philosophy of community and customer education is vital to Crisp Water Technologies, both to inform the community and promote growth.
Looking back to the early days of the business, Crisp joked on the challenges of starting a business, “To live on macaroni and cheese without the cheese was very difficult because we couldn’t afford the cheese, just the macaroni.”
The business started out as a Kinetico dealer with a partner, but switched to be independent after six-months. Building reputation in the early days of the business was a challenge, but already being a part of the community and Crisp’s previous work helped build a positive reputation.
“My business just started to pick up slow and I just forced myself to do a great job at a very, very fair price,” Crisp said. “Sometimes just above costs, and get my reputation out that I’m here to stay and that I’m going to do a good job and you can trust me.”
The initial challenges were in the early days, Crisp said, and the “only tough parts after that have been the growing pains.” Now, the business has expanded to buy its own buildings, including a shop, lab and office. Crisp anticipates there has not been a decrease in customers since 1998 and is optimistic for continued growth.
Leveraging expertise from others in the industry has also helped Crisp Water Technologies continue to grow. Crisp works with Hydrotech, AdEdge and Viqua, and cites the national backing of knowledge and equipment from those manufacturers as influential in helping the business remain on the cutting edge of technology.
Small Systems & Contaminants of Concern
Crisp Water Technologies operates 172 water systems, more than anyone in the state of Montana, Crisp said. About half of those systems are community public water systems.
“With our own water systems, we do about 175 water tests a month for bacteria, e. coli and coliform,” Crisp explained regarding the lab division of the business, Water Technologies Laboratory, which was launched 10 years ago. “But then also we do a lot of private water testings for real estate transactions or people moving into a home and they’ve got water issues.”
Many of their systems are small systems or operated through one or multiple wells. In fact, most of the community water systems that it operates have between 50 and 100 homes. The business also works on many non-transient, non-community systems, such as schools and warehouses. Finally, about 40% of the systems they work on are transient systems, such as restaurants or hotels.
The business is also increasingly finding pockets of arsenic around western Montana and is working to chart that information. With an increase in new residents moving to Montana from out of state, community education is more important than ever, as sometimes residents from out of state can be unfamiliar with the water quality challenges small systems or well water can pose, Crisp explained. Partnerships with real estate and home builders can help the business meet and educate new homeowners.
Current Market Landscape
Regarding the current market landscape, like others in the industry, Crisp Water Technologies faces business obstacles unique to 2021, including supply chain issues, COVID-19, water scarcity, unpredictable wildfires and more.
On supply chain, “It seems like everything went from full speed down to [a] crawl,” Crisp said. There is plenty of room in the business’ warehouse, so it is working to keep stock always prepared.
Beyond supply chain issues, water scarcity and wildfires have also presented challenges. Two key issues have been a result, including pump maintenance and service time. Montana, where the business is based, has faced the most wildfires out of any state in the U.S. this year. Water levels have been dropping for some public water supplies that Crisp Water Technologies helps maintain, meaning wells are starting to pump more as the aquifers drop. This can burn out the pumps and clog water lines, Crisp said. In addition, the wildfires have led to road closures that may require the team to drive up to a hundred miles out of the way around a fire in order to get to a client.
As far as the impact of COVID-19, while the business has of course had to pivot safety and sanitation practices this past year and half, business has remained steady. At the end of the day, people still need clean water, Crisp said.
An Ever-Evolving Industry
Crisp has seen the industry evolve over the years, but the biggest change he has noticed has been in regards to public awareness. As water quality and scarcity are increasingly an issue, people are more aware of water issues. The rise of the bottled water industry over the past 30 years has also influenced this awareness shift, he said.
Regarding the future of the industry, Crisp’s outlook circles back to that original core mission of environmental protection and preserving our resources.
“The future of the industry is going to be dependent, I believe, on the future of water availability,” Crisp said. “It’s scary to think about how many people that we need to provide safe, clean drinking water for, with the limited resources that we have and the shrinking resources along with the increased population that we have. So being in the water industry is key.”
Only time will tell what the next 30 years holds for Crisp Water Technologies, but likely customer education and environmental protection will remain key priorities.