Clark County inventor seeks a market for water heater strap

By Libby Clark, Columbian Web Editor

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Irvin Ritola fits the classic profile of an inventor. The journeyman machinist and owner of Pro Safety Inc. is a perpetual tinkerer who hand-builds most of his safety-oriented products in his home shop on 5.5 acres between Amboy and Yacolt.

Now with a new patent on file, he thinks he’s hit on an idea that could propel his company into mass manufacturing, and earn a bundle of cash to boot.

Put simply, it’s a metal or poly-based strap that works like a ski-boot closure, snapping onto objects to secure them to a wall or another object.

photoIrvin Ritola poses with his invention (the bottom strap on the tank). Ritola feels he has improved on traditional designs of safety straps for water heaters.

(/The Columbian)

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“Banding is a much more secure method of holding anything; so much better than string or tape,” Ritola, 64, said. “There’s nobody out there who’s addressed that market. There’s no limit to it.”

A better mouse trap

In business for nearly 40 years, Pro Safety was a custom-order machine shop that boasted 25 employees at its peak in 1985. Ritola’s idea started with a request 10 years ago from a plumber who wanted him to design an easy-to-install strap to secure water heaters.

Suppliers sell only one standard strap to anchor water heaters to the wall so they won’t tip over during an earthquake and cause an explosion. It works, but it’s not ideal.

Ritola experimented with a few designs, made the strap, then promptly forgot about it.

These days, Ritola employs three workers making his own products, which include a chain saw handle, saw dogs designed for Douglas fir logs and a water heater stand. The stand, which keeps water heaters off the floor and away from potentially flammable materials, has by far been Pro Safety’s most popular product. It is carried by most plumbing wholesalers throughout the Pacific Northwest.

But with the advent of explosion-proof water heaters, plumbers don’t need a stand to meet safety codes. Demand for Pro Safety’s stands started falling about three years ago, Ritola said. That’s when he remembered that old request for a safety strap.

He went back to the shop and came up with a new and improved strap design that can be installed in half the time and with a fraction of the effort. It’s useful for water heater installers, but Ritola also envisions a wide range of applications for his straps.

“That hit me so hard when I realized that this could be among the most useful tools,” Ritola said.

Tapping expertise

Now, to make that vision a reality, Ritola needs to prove the concept to customers and investors.

He’s started by pitching it to the market segment he knows best: plumbing wholesalers. He’s offering a promotional deal to his customers, who receive a free strap kit with their water heater stand. He’s hoping to raise awareness of his new product among water heater installers to encourage orders from wholesalers.

Tapping customers or contacts who know and support you is an important strategy for early-stage startups to drum up business and find potential investors, said Mike Reynoldson, a venture capital investor with InvestAmerica Venture Group in Vancouver.

“For an individual with an idea like that, it’s wise to find somebody with some industry background who can understand the hot buttons, (such as) a company that would find the product useful or a retired employee or engineer who might be out dabbling,” Reynoldson said. “And so, in addition to funding, you might get some expertise.”

Ritola’s industry experience is an advantage that most inventors lack. He hopes to use his contacts in the plumbing industry to launch his product and establish a market. He counts most Portland-area wholesalers among his customers and several, including Ferguson Enterprises, have already shown some interest in ordering the straps.

Ferguson’s purchasing manager Tim Rather, who handles sourcing for the chain’s 100 stores in seven Western states, says the straps do make installation faster and easier. He has shared the product with all of his locations, he said, but the decision to place an order lies with each store manager.

“Whether we carry it will depend on working with customers to determine the interest level in it,” Rather said.

Convincing old-school installers, who are often set in their ways, to use a different product will likely be Ritola’s biggest challenge to market penetration, Rather said.

Another challenge for Ritola will be pitting his four-man shop against large manufacturers with more support and money available to launch new products, Rather said.

In the meantime, Ritola is shopping the prototype strap kits around to wholesalers while his workers crank out about 1,000 kits per week to meet his initial orders. His goal is to get enough orders to ramp up production to 2,500 kits per week — a sweet spot that will bring enough cash flow to invest in automated equipment that would further boost production.

He’s hoping to attract investors to help accelerate his product development, Ritola said. But he’s confident he can bootstrap it — no pun intended — if need be.

“I have the support of my customers, even though I’m a small potato in the field,” Ritola said. “And I know what needs to be done.”

Libby Tucker: 360-735-4553, libby.tucker@columbian.com.