FLINT, Michigan— Last year, Flint native Jonathan Quarles, 37, started to make technological waves in his city by coming up with a system that turns the condensation in the air into water with the help of solar panels.
His idea gained more traction in November 2019 when Quarles won the first-place $10,000 prize for his business SolAir at the 100K Ideas Pitch for $K competition. Though Quarles already had the solar panels and demonstration sites before the competition, the $10,000 has helped raise awareness of his business and now he’s taking that message anywhere he can.
“I travel internationally often on behalf of the U.S. State Department, so this gives me a topic to continue to talk about for marginalized communities,” said Quarles. “ Almost kind of [like] being an advocate for clean water for communities that have black and brown people living in it.”
SolAir has two demonstration sites in town. Located at the Berston Field House and City Hall, both locations have 15 solar panels each.
SolAir's demonstration site at Berston Field House with 15 solar panels.
According to Quarles, each panel can give up to 7-8 liters of water per day. As a rough estimate, that's 210-240 liters a day. Hypothetically, it’s also enough to bottle some of that water, which is exactly what Quarles is starting to do switching from plastic to glass bottles.
Apart from putting SolAir water on the shelves of hotels, Quarles has his eye on retail spaces as well. Nowhere is off-limits for SolAir; domestically Quarles has aspirations to cover the Midwest, the West Coast, and the South. According to Quarles, the SolAir bottles water with glass materials as opposed to plastic. water already sold is the cleanest possible water because it comes from the condensation in the air. Just to be safe, the water is also run through a distillation process that rids the water of any impurities or bacteria and Quarles and his associates monitor the water daily by an app. The panels are also monitored at the Zero Mass Water’s headquarters in Arizona. In any case, if the solar panels detect contamination in the water they shut down immediately.
“Flint is a small market for us,” Quarles says. “We have a pretty big presence in Detroit … All the Midwest is where we’ve been targeting.” Quarles figures that trying to distribute water as far as someplace like California doesn’t make sense for SolAir’s current water production rate.
Providing water to retailers and various sections of the country requires a large supply of water, and one of the main goals of 2020 is to increase the production of water.
“Our goal this year is to really be at capacity in the hospitality spaces. We can only produce so much water,” said Quarles. “… we want to be in a place where we’re able to maximize as much water we can actually create in Flint, to be able to be in hotels, restaurants, [and] private clubs by the end of this year at capacity.”
Because of Michigan’s cold-weather cycles, Quarles is looking into opening up more demonstration sites in warmer climates so he can try to bottle water consistently year-round.
“We are actually just starting up now that the weather is getting better. We’re kind of getting things set up now so by April we’ll be able to start producing water at scale and getting it out,” said Quarles. “… we haven’t started bottling officially in Flint right now just because of the weather.”
“I’m looking all throughout the south,” said Quarles. “So I’m looking at Florida, I’m looking at Atlanta, but I’m just looking right now so I haven’t really finalized anything.”
If everything goes according to plan, you may even find SolAir branded water in your local store that carries bottled water.
“Anyone that’s willing to support. Grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, wherever. We’re open to it because the thing is we want to sell as much as we possibly can,” said Quarles.