logo

Plastic balls protect California reservoirs

By: Catherine Kavanaugh

January 3, 2014

XavierC LLC really has to be on the ball these days.

The 18-month-old Glendora, Calif.-based manufacturer is getting ready to fill its biggest order yet for 6.4 million four-inch polyethylene balls for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADPW).

Called shade balls, 80 million of the hollow black orbs are needed to cover the reservoirs in Los Angeles to stop sunlight from triggering a potentially dangerous chemical reaction between bromite, which occurs naturally in groundwater, and the chlorine used to disinfect drinking water.

Add sunlight to a mix of bromide and chlorine and you get bromate, a suspected carcinogen that threatens water safety for the nation's largest public utility, which has 4 million customers.

"We knew we had to eliminate one of the three and sunlight was the best way to minimize bromate formation," Melinda Rho, manager of regulatory affairs for the LADWP, said in a telephone interview.

The utility is spending $24 million on shade balls for the L.A. Reservoir with XavierC LLC joining the two current vendors, Artisan Screen Printing of Azusa, Calif., and Orange Products Inc., of Allentown, Pa.

"It was impossible for any one company to do," XavierC President Sydney D. Chase said in a telephone interview. "We've been tooling up for a while so we can kick in the volume, be on time to fill our order, and act as a backstop in case another supplier isn't able to meet delivery."

Shade balls have been around for a while but they were used mostly to keep birds out of water near airport runways, control vapors in industrial ammonia tanks, or stop water from evaporating at petroleum operations. The LADWP pioneered their use to protect water quality.

Back in 2008, soon after high levels of bromate were detected in the city's Silver Lake and Ivanhoe reservoirs, the utility dropped its first batch of shade balls into the water as a low-cost, maintenance-free solution to the chemical reaction.

"We give a lot of credit to our own Dr. Brian White — a research biologist in our department who retired last year — for his innovation and imagination," Rho said of his suggestion to try shade balls. "That helped us move quickly to resolve the bromate issue."

Shade balls cost about 33 cents each. LADWP has been a big customer, buying 3 million to cover the Ivanhoe Reservoir and then 9 million more to shade two other reservoirs as temporary fixes. The L.A. Reservoir — the city's biggest — will get 80 million to blanket its 176-acre surface, most likely on a permanent basis.

XavierC LLC was awarded its contract in November, said Chase, who started the company 1 1/2 years ago, in part to provide jobs in a still-emerging market for minority, military and female individuals seeking work. The company is named after her business consultant, Xavier Castillo, who lost use of his arms and legs in a car accident 18 years ago.

"Xavier is a quadriplegic I met through a friend," Chase said. "He has real gumption and fortitude and he's proficient in the areas where I'm weak. He's very good with computers, administrative work and organizing. I'm better at manufacturing, selling and marketing. Between the two of us, it made a whole person."

To prepare for their $2.4 million order from LADWP, Chase invested about $250,000 in automated blow molders and ancillary downstream equipment, hired 5 additional workers, and lined up a disabled veteran to provide packaging bags and a woman-owned trucking company to handle deliveries.

"It's going to take like 150 truckloads to deliver so that's 150 days of work for someone," Chase said. "Overall, I'd say this is creating about 15 jobs and in every single aspect we stuck with disabled, minority and military people."

XavierC LLC started filling the order on Jan. 2.

"Artisan hired about 80 temporary, full-time employees and they are probably working around the clock putting out these balls," said Rho, who estimates 20 percent of the L.A. Reservoir is covered to date.

Shade balls are part of the utility's strategy to comply with federal drinking water regulations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring all uncovered water distribution reservoirs be covered, replaced with tanks, or treated at the outlets to remove protozoa and bacteria.

The LADWP is covering three reservoirs, replacing Silver Lake and Ivanhoe with a covered concrete tank in a massive $230 million construction project, and treating water at the outlet of the L.A. Reservoir.

"The shade balls won't help us with our compliance so to speak but they help us indirectly," Rho said. "They cut down the amount of light, which reduces the amount of algae that can grow, and that reduces the use of chlorine needed to control algae. They also keep the seagulls and migratory birds off so those are all good reasons to use them."

Right before XavierC LLC got its order from the LADWP, the company sold some of its product — Chase calls them conservation balls — to Mt. Baldy Ski Resort in California, which she believes is another first-time use.

"They want to protect their costly water from evaporation," Chase said. "They're saving $10,000 a month in water that they purchase and pump up to their snow-making reservoir. It is a unique application. We're reaching out to new customers. Next will be the mining and petroleum industry then waste water."

She had been in business development for a company that makes plastic, water-filled barriers when she decided to manufacture conservation balls.

"I could just feel this thing taking off," Chase said. "I think we're going to go for a long ride."