Water coolers continue to be a big growth opportunity for OCS operators as more consumers are concerned about water quality. Point-of-use (POU) systems continue to erode the 5-gallon water market as improved technology raises quality while offering a lower price and more convenience. OCS operators marketing water coolers need to be educated on POU technology like tank sanitation and capacity, while at the same time considering customer needs such as ease of use and aesthetics.
Positioned as informed water professionals, OCS operators should be able to differentiate their service and quality. Consumer water coolers have crossed over into the office market and operators should be able to explain how their products differ in reliability and quality.
Quality among professionals
Tom Ridenour, vice-president, Pine Mountain Springs, Wilmington, Del., explained that years ago there was a change in the equipment market for water coolers. There used to be three high quality manufacturers in the U.S., but then a plethora of imported cheap models flooded in. Now some of those are disappearing and the quality is going back up to where it’s supposed to be, although the brands are still imported.
Chris Sletten, president of Gold Star Coffee Service, Madison Wis., had a problem with the POU quality. The cold water capacity wasn’t sufficient and the flat assembly was unreliable.
He switched suppliers a year ago, and since then he hasn’t had the problems.
Bob Fiddler, vice president of services and vending, Coffee Distributing Corp. (CDC), Garden City Park, N.Y., said it takes trial and error to really compare brands in both POU and 5-gallon systems. He likes to ask manufacturers to send him a demo model. He can then evaluate the quality. This is a main point in considering water coolers, possibly more so than the price, since the price of a water system is recouped by the rental fee charged to the location. He uses a local supplier he knows is reliable.
Across the board, manufacturers make pretty close to the same operating systems, explained Fiddler. But the difference comes in filters for POU and sturdiness of the frame for coolers. “I’ve seen some cheaper ones that are so flimsy I’d be afraid to put a 5-gallon bottle on it,” said Fiddler.
Darrel Leeper, CEO, Cascade Bottled Water and Coffee Service, Farmington, N.M., uses 5-gallon systems instead of POU and points out there is a great difference in quality from a manufacturer making commercial water coolers and what’s available at box stores like Home Depot. The models at retail stores are throw-away coolers with no replacement parts available. The commercial brands are rebuildable, and Leeper tries to stay with a few major brands to limit the stock of parts.
The only thing not worth rebuilding in a commercial unit is the compressor, since it costs almost as much as a new unit itself. Leeper does admit that coolers these days aren’t as reliable as they used to be. Manufacturers are making cheaper units to compete with brands from the retail stores.
Still, overall, the water coolers don’t need a lot of maintenance, Leeper said. His most common maintenance issue is the thermostats needing to be fixed. A good commercial grade cooler will last 15 years, explained Leeper, versus a retail store brand which is closer to two or three. “We want our water coolers to be long lasting, with limited service calls,” said Leeper, “We sell water, not coolers.”
Leeper has a suggestion for 5-gallon water coolers. He’s using a water guard or leak guard. The water jugs themselves have a special cap. The bottle is placed on the cooler without removing this cap and a probe inside the machine pierces the cap allowing the water to flow. The water in the bottle therefore never touches anything but the inside of the machine, avoiding contamination by human hands, dust on the bottles, etc.