September 5, 2013
For Rain Makers Inc., gruesome wildfires such as California's Rim fire serve as a grim reminder that Mother Nature may be the start-up's best salesperson.
The Washoe Valley-based company has developed a fire-protection system for homes and other buildings. Founder Floyd Heaton modestly calls it a "glorified sprinkler."
Now the company is trying to raise between $600,000 and $1 million for additional research and development, and to hire marketing staff and finish the process for four patents pending on the system.
The RMI fire-suppressant system consists of distinctive sprinkler heads designed by Heaton, a former plumber. They're installed in the eaves of a building and managed electronically by the Rain Brain, a program developed by Heaton's grandson, Shane Lyons. A pipeline ties the system into a standalone water supply from a swimming pool, pond or large tanks — and a backup power generator. When the Rain Brain detects fire or the system is manually turned on, it cascades a mixture of water and fire retardant down the sides of the building, placing a protective curtain between the structure and the fire and embers.
"It is completely automatic," Heaton said. "There is nothing you have to do." Homeowners can also monitor the system online, from a safe distance.
Heaton, who once ran a Southern California shop employing 120 plumbers, moved to Northern Nevada in the mid-1990s and got the idea for the invention after his plumbing business here slowed down with the rest of economy.
"I started thinking, I've got to come up with something different," Heaton said.
Then the Angora Fire erupted, destroying more than 250 homes near South Lake Tahoe, and Heaton had the seed of an idea. He started designing the heads and experimenting with injecting fire retardant into the system. It took some time to figure out how to maintain the retardant, called FireAde 2000, as a mist rather than as foam, which can easily blow away.
"It took us about five years to get us to this point," he says. "To have something that is bulletproof."
In the process, Heaton tested it on his own Washoe Valley home, getting in a little hot water with local fire officials. He had asked for permission to do the test, hosted the fire marshal for a demonstration, secured a one-day insurance policy from Lloyd's of London to insure all his neighbors and was ready to do the real run-through when the fire chief decided against it. Heaton says three months later, he decided to try a small test on his own and informed all but one neighbor, who wasn't at home. When he started the small brush fire next to his house, the returning neighbor saw the flames and called the fire department.
"It was out by the time they got there," Heaton said.
So far, the start-up has been financed by Heaton's father-in-law, Carl Martin, in Long Beach, Calif. Heaton recently registered with gust.com, a website for matching entrepreneurs with investors.
"I want to stay ahead of the curve," Heaton said. "People will start copying this when the systems start to get installed. It's the start of whole new industry."