Great to chat to Kevin Mercer, CEO of RainGrid a company which uses IoT connected rain barrels to manage residential storm water. We discussed how RainGrid grew out of community outreach initiatives, how the concept of One Water works in a circular economy, the importance of building communities when trying to make change, why companies might choose to be a B corp, why we should build resilient infrastructure and more! Open the podcast on your mobile device by clicking here.
Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:
MCWALTER: What can you tell us a little bit about RainGrid?
MERCER: The inspiration for RainGrid evolved over about 20 years, we actually began as a community based NGO. We worked on protecting Toronto’s Don River during the heyday of watershed restoration in the early 90s. I joined a local volunteer board called Bring Back the Don. A small cohort of us were more interested in the water quality issue, as opposed to the natural restoration issue. We asked, “why is this river brown?”. So we started researching and we got to the point where it was clear that what polluted the Don River was not industrial discharge, it was actually the heritage of a modern city; it was stormwater.
That’s when we learnt that there is this delineation between the public realm and the private realm with an invisible line between the two, which divides how modern cities address stormwater. RainGrid evolved from a community based program called to get homeowners to engage in better water practices through a door to door initiative. One thing we had people do was have people sign up for a downspout disconnection program where people could use rain barrels. It was in essence, community based social marketing. So rather than just telling people about things, we actually gave them solutions.
Then our program was replicated in the city of Ottawa. In the Ottawa campaign, we started to focus on actually buying and supplying the best rain barrel we could. And that was interesting because when the campaign ended, the company that supplied the rain barrels to the Ottawa water links project came to us and said, “We really like the work you’re doing. Here’s the mold for the rain barrel we just sold you. It’s our contribution to what you’re doing. Go and make as many as you can.” So we found ourselves in the business of actually doing the manufacturing for the product that we had been encouraging communities to use.
From there we created a program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where we put in 600 rain barrels, which is not a lot on the scale of a city, and then they had the engineers monitor the living daylights out of it and determine does this stuff actually work and they came up with remarkable results. We found that past 40% implementation, you get significantly more impact from residential rain barrels.
MCWALTER: It sounds like there’s nearly network effects with those kind of rain barrels. Is the marginal value of a rain barrel higher once you reach a certain level of penetration in a city?
MERCER: That’s absolutely right. It is the utility approach that we used to call distributed infrastructure, which we’ve now started calling aggregated infrastructure. It’s better to recognize the collectivity of the undertaking rather than the decentralized or, separated nature of what is community based infrastructure.
MCWALTER: So there needs to be a certain kind of minimum threshold for even a pilot program to start showing major benefits?
MERCER: That’s correct. And yet, pilots for startups are typically very small. So you’ll get a pilot program for 10 or 25 barrels, or something like this. And I’m sure you’re familiar with the term death by pilots. It’s where you never get past that, that threshold of intensity to actually demonstrate the real difference. Our main focus is community based social marketing, which recognizes that you can do aggregated and effective systems at the residential lot level. We are a connecting directly so that it’s the people who are the partners, rather than something being imposed upon them by the city like in traditional infrastructure
MCWALTER: How does using the internet of things help your product?
MERCER: The Internet of Things provides that remote automation that allows the rain barrel or cistern to read the weather. That’s the SaaS platform it communicates with a controller on the cistern. The whole process of how much water is in the cistern before the rain is managed by the quantitative precipitation forecast algorithm that measures the rooftop area, the intensity of the rainfall and the volume available in the cistern and it says if there is more predicted runoff from this roof from this size storm, we are going to empty the cistern ahead of time, and provide as much storage as possible. What’s remarkable about it is you can actually watch your cistern fill. Then after that, you get to use your phone to open the valve to reuse that water. This helps us address the root causes of minor flooding and urban drought; which is the recharge of groundwater in a very impermeable hard city.
MCWALTER: Where are the RainGrid cisterns stored?
MERCER: They’re installed under the downspouts of residential drained. It’s not a whole lot of whiz bang technology at the cistern level, our technological edge is in the software in the dashboards where you can actually see how much rain fell on your property, how much of it you captured, how much have you bypassed, the temperature, the barometric pressure etc. We built RainGrid as a utility for homeowners and we are building our own community, a community of people who care about clean water and want to see a different way of doing things.
MCWALTER: What is the concept of One Water and why is it important?
MERCER: One Water is important because it is the future state we are trying to reach. We are eventually going to wind up in a world where we value rain as a resource rather than treating it as a problem. Today we separate out our conception of water into different silos, for example there’s storm water and there’s drinking water and there’s sewage. One Water says there is no such thing as drinking water or stormwater. It’s all One Water and so you can create a circular economy out of water. For example when rain falls on the property it can be held and reused on the property. Its like the challenge that you have on the International Space Station. There’s no rain on the International Space Station, but they brought all the water that they are ever going to use up on a flight. And they continually reuse that water, they drink what they urinate. Similarly we will take most of the rain that falls on our properties as part of the circular economy.
MCWALTER: What are the main barriers to the circular economy today?
MERCER: One of the barriers is that we have embedded infrastructure. It’s extremely expensive and it’s very valuable. So if you change the business model, from water in silos to One Water models you threatened to abandon some of those assets. As we move into a One Water world, I think we can do it in stages and one of the first stages that’s really successful is taking the water that falls on your roof, storing it and reusing it. 40% of the water that water utilities produce is put on to our lawns and surfaces, but if you’re harvesting the rain, then you can offset potable water. The other most important thing about water harvesting or rain harvesting is we can recharge the groundwater aquifers.
MCWALTER: I noticed that RainGrid is a B Corp. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of a B versus C Corp for tackling problems?
MERCER: I think it really comes down to the corporate culture. We grew out of the not for profit world and it is a joke we tell that, to be more effective, we closed our NGO and became a corporation. Our B Corp experience was very, very interesting. The first year we applied for B corp status we got it. And we got it with a number of 139 vs the average B Corp which gets an 89. We were actually selected as best for the world in both the overall and environmental categories, and we have a nice little round wooden B Corp medal designating us as the best for the world. And then the year after that we decided not to reapply. B corps are for companies who need to demonstrate to the world that they are better than what they have been in the past, its a way to virtue signal how you intend to practice your business in an ethical and sustainable way. Whereas, RainGrid is sustainability personified already because of our genesis from the NGO world.
MCWALTER: One of the things I’m thinking a lot about is the trade off between improving resiliency at the most at risk cities on the coast and floodplains versus starting to move or build infrastructure to less at risk cities. What are your thoughts on that trade off?
MERCER: Let me put it this way. Rain is the manifestation of climate change, you either get too much of it or too little of it. The other side is that we tend to look at how to make conventional infrastructure we’ve already built resilient to climate change. I think that’s a mistake. We have typically believe that technology will save the day. The truth of the matter is that people are the source of climate change, and people will solve climate change. So building community is very important.
MCWALTER: What are the biggest areas you’d like to see large scale infrastructure investments as we try and restart the economy coming out of COVID?
MERCER: I think water security is very much the key not not just for the public health elements of addressing how we all cope with COVID but in the whole notion of public health, security of supply, etc. Sure, drinking water is a product, but it ought it to be a human right. We can’t afford the infrastructure we’ve made in our cities and often there are non-sustainable entities which we throw huge sums of money at to try to keep from falling apart. Because that’s the way cities are built. And they evolve over time over generations over millennia. We learn certain practices, and we look back at them and we go, geez, what were you thinking at the time? How could we have been so stupid?
Someone once talked to me about chlorine. Chlorine is both the scourge and the saviour of modern life. It gave us secure, safe drinking water, but it’s also the thing that gave us really tragic examples of water pollution. So we’re going to stumble along, but in that stumbling along we find new methods of doing things. Like the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, those are going to weave into more and more areas. And RainGrid is part of that wave of weaving those societal services into aggregated infrastructure at the property level.
MCWALTER: What is the largest climate problem but no one seems to be tackling at all?
MERCER: I’d say maybe in our efforts to go off coal and to use natural gas as a bridge, we are getting large amounts of methane emissions from anything associated with natural gas production. That’s a huge one. That’s kind of the black eye of what would otherwise be a really nice bridge technology. There’s also the question of the The Faustian bargain with nuclear energy. So I think those are two big picture issues. Another thing that’s really important is the separation between the haves and the have nots. Who gets access to climate resilient technology?
MCWALTER: Is there anything that I should have asked you about but did not?
MERCER: Community is so important. We don’t look at community as a brand. Within the climate world there needs to be not just the community of practice but the practice of community. Alot of climate focused communities traditionally had a really negative connotation, for example the idea of the tree hugger. But the truth of the matter is, is that we do need to build a brand of a community of people who say, this is how we choose to live our lives. And to talk about things like RainGrid and how it affects where people live. So in the world of climate adaptation and stormwater management it fits together with people. And, and it’s how we’re going to move forward.