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It’s not every day that the company founder and CEO goes and gets a screwdriver and starts dismantling his latest product to help us understand how it works. But that’s exactly what Sridhar Deivasigamani did for our benefit when we stopped by Intellihot’s corporate offices in suburban Chicago to take another look at the Legionator.
The Legionator first caught our eye at Intellihot’s booth at this year’s AHR Expo in Atlanta. It’s unlike any other point-of-use water heater we’ve seen. The Legionator heats water using quartz tubes and disinfects it using automatic ozonation.
“Going back to how we think as a company,” Deivasigamani told us as he worked to pry open the Legionator, “we want to produce efficient hot water. But at the same time we want that water to be healthy. And during the COVID pandemic, entire office buildings were shut down and, as a result, there was all this stagnant water to contend with after these buildings were reopened. So it became clear to us that our industry really needs a technology that cannot only heat water, but sanitize the water before it is used.”
Deivasigamani and business partner Siva Akasam, Intellihot’s chief technology officer, started the business in 2009 with less than $100,000 raised from family and friends and began making commercial tankless water heaters in a factory in Galesburg, Illinois, located about 200 miles southwest of Chicago.
Deivasigamani emigrated to the U.S. and graduated from Clemson University with a master’s degree in engineering and moved to Peoria, Illinois in 1998 to take a job as an engineer at Caterpillar.
But Deivasigamani was also an inveterate tinkerer all the way back to when he was growing up in India. And that never stopped at Caterpillar either. While improving performance and fuel efficiency for Caterpillar construction equipment 9 to 5, on his own time he came up with a brighter LED flashlight, which he sold online.
As these part-time inventor stories typically go, Deivasigamani came home one night to find his tank water heater had failed, leaking into his basement. In short order, he and Akasam set about opening Intellihot and came out with their first prototype in 2010. By 2013, Intellihot’s first full year of operation, the company reported sales of $300,000. This year, the company, which holds some 60 patents and employs about 130 people at its 100,000-square-foot plant in Galesburg and headquarters in Vernon Hills, Illinois, projects sales to be $100 million.
While the Legionator is the company’s first POU water heater, Intellihot is well-known for specializing in commercial tankless water heaters, and, in fact, the Legionator shared booth space at the AHR Expo with another new Intellihot product.
The Electron combines the benefits of tankless designs with the efficiency and eco-friendliness of heat pump technology. The Electron heat pump is the first of its kind to absorb energy from external air and store that heat in a thermal battery. This heat energy is then used to heat water on demand without storing it, thereby also mitigating Legionella risks, hard water scaling and energy wastage.
In addition, the Electron uses a carbon dioxide refrigerant, which not only has the lowest environmental impact with zero Ozone Depleting Potential, but also provides better cold-weather performance.
How the Legionator Works
Once Deivasigamani had opened up the Legionator atop a conference room table, he showed us how it worked.
First things first: While we naturally expected the device to heat water, the Legionator does this differently. Inside the unit, a set of four quartz tubes heats the water with infrared energy, sort of like a greatly miniaturized Rexnor heating unit, we’ve all seen provide heat to a garage or other large open space.
Now let’s stop there for a second because if that’s all the Legionator did, we’d probably still be writing about it.
“One of the goals with the Legionator was to produce efficient hot water in a clean manner without any scaling,” Deivasigamani explained. “When you heat water using an electrical heating element, the water heater tends to scale up fairly quickly. And scaling can also harbor bacteria, too.”
So hot water produced without scaling, Deivasigamani believes, might be enough of an inducement in and itself to order the Legionator.
But wait, there’s more.
Next, as the heated water makes its way through the unit, ozone gas is then added to the water.
“Ozone is a terrific disinfectant,” Deivasigamani added “Ozone can rupture the cell walls of these bad organisms.”
That smell of clean air after a thunder storm is from ozone.
Quick chemistry lesson: The oxygen we breath is actually two parts oxygen atoms. But the air surrounding us is barely 20 percent oxygen and the rest is two parts nitrogen atoms. Lightening quickly heats up the air and breaks up the bond between each of these two couples. While the air falls back into order after a storm passes, some of the oxygen atoms reshuffle and produce ozone, which is three parts oxygen atoms.
In the case of the Legionator, a generator draws in ambient air through vents into the unit and onboard electric power generates the ozone.
“It ends up putting the regular air into a lightening chamber of sorts that we call a plasma generator,” Deivasigamani explained.
Ozone, however, injected into water dissipates quickly since it combines back into water. Due to its short duration, the generator carefully calibrates the right amount to add through a basic Venturi system that functions as an effective metering system.
“We wanted to make sure that whether one faucet is opened or five faucets are opened,” Deivasigamani added, “that we were putting in the right amount of ozone.”
The ozone, once put into the water has two benefits:
It mitigates the bacteria present in the water itself.
This ozone is also carried in the water to the faucets and mitigates the bacteria present within the faucet piping, valve seats and aerators.
Finally, the ozone generator has the added benefit of never needing any refills or other recurring costs to keep operating effectively.
The end result is clean and safe water efficiently heated ensuring users are better protected from water-borne bacteria illnesses.