Water's Running? Seametrics Measures How Much

In a video on the company’s website, Seametrics Inc. Co-founder and Chief Executive Curt Burnett cites the business-management adage, "You can’t control what you can’t measure."

Businesses of all types increasingly want to control a crucial production input — water.

But to know how to control it (and to control how much they’re spending on an increasingly expensive commodity), they need to know how much they use.

That’s where Seametrics’ products come in. The Kent-based company specializes in water meters — both mechanical and electronic — to measure water use in industrial, municipal water treatment and agricultural settings.

Seametrics recently announced the appointment of a new chief executive, Asrat Mikhail (Mike) Yitref, currently vice president of sales in the U.S. for Endress + Hauser Inc., a Swiss industrial automation and measurement company. Yitref is a University of Washington graduate.

Seametrics was founded in 1989 by Burnett and Jim Frederick, who had been working for Romac Industries, a Bothell company that supplies pipe and related products for water transmission. The founder of that company was Manford McNeil. Recalls Burnett, "Just watching him convinced me that running a manufacturing company was about the only job worth having."

Burnett got his chance to do just that when Romac, in a cost-cutting measure, decided to drop a metering research project he’d been working on. "I offered to take it away and continue it on my own," he says.

The company grew steadily through the 1990s with mechanical meters, then moved into meters that measure magnetic fields to compute flow instead of relying on moving parts. "That had been our goal for years but we just didn’t have the technical horsepower to pull it off, " he says.

Today Seametrics is a company of about 70 employees, including a dozen engineers, with an array of meter types and sizes. While it’s not a big company compared to some of the giants in the industry, it’s been successful in finding what Burnett calls "our own odd little niches."

One of those is non-moving-part meters used for agricultural irrigation. Seametrics meters can be found by the thousands in irrigation districts from Texas to New Zealand.

"It’s kind of a narrow niche," Burnett says. But with conventional irrigation meters relying on mechanical propeller-style measuring devices that get fouled by sand in water and require rebuilding every few years, Seametrics has found a ready market for battery-powered electronic meters. Seametrics also makes a meter used in pesticide application.

The industrial market abounds with specialized ap-plications for Seametrics’ products. One big market is meters on cement, airport fire and highway de-icing trucks. Another is industrial cooling towers (meters are useful for gauging how much chemical treatment to add to the water in those tanks).

Other places to find Seametrics meters: On a de-watering system for construction-site runoff, and on the filtration system at a water park. Burnett says the next big area of emphasis to increase business is municipal wastewater treatment facilities.

A reliance on segments that are less susceptible to economic swings helped Seametrics endure the recession better than many companies. After a 12 percent decline in 2009, the company had a big jump in business in 2010, he says.

Burnett is encouraged about market prospects. "The industry seems endlessly promising," he says. "Any time you see the words ‘water shortage,’ our business just went up a little. We’re not worried about running out of market."

Of greater concern is Seametrics’ own ability to manage and finance growth. "We’re looking for financial stability," he says. "We plow everything back in. There’s never a reserve, I’d like to get past that, and develop more resilience." Doing so is one of the prime tasks on the new CEO’s to-do list.

The appointment of a new CEO doesn’t mean Burnett is cutting back on activity. He’s also involved in a start-up venture in Ballard, Sound Water Technology, that is developing a meter that uses ultrasound to measure water flow. "It clamps on the outside of the pipe so you don’t have to cut into it," he says. The three -employee company hopes to launch production in October. "As the new CEO frees up my time, I’m going to be working on the sales end and setting up their distribution network and sales reps."