A Madison-area startup hopes it can revolutionize an industry by jet-propelling salt.

SaltCo promises its customers — homeowners and businesses — will never have to physically handle another bag of salt when refilling brine tanks for water softeners.

To accomplish this, the Prairie du Sac-based company has built a custom delivery truck that shoots salt through a dedicated piping system into the tank.

A sensor then monitors the levels and lets drivers know when a customer needs to be topped off.

“When the tank gets low, we’re on the go,” said CEO Dave Gerry. “We’re going to head out and take care of that customer, and the customer does nothing.”

To make the system possible, the company installs two 3-inch PVC plastic pipes leading from the exterior of a building to the salt tank. One line acts as a delivery conduit where air from the truck forces salt through the pipe.

The other line, the return pipe, is an outlet for the air to travel back to the truck. This creates a closed-loop system, which eliminates pressure buildup and allows for the salt to drop directly into a tank without creating dust, said President Mark Landgraf, who said he brought the idea for the company to Gerry.

A delivery driver attaches hoses from the truck to the intake and outtake ports and blasts in salt at 100 pounds per minute.

“It really is revolutionizing a delivery system for one product: salt,” said Landgraf, who founded Landgraf Construction.

Making it a reality

In January, the company started working hard on its research and development and finalized a delivery vehicle in June, built on the chassis of a Dodge Ram 5500 heavy-duty pickup truck with a hopper that can hold 10,000 pounds of salt.

Gerry, who also owns the Princeton Club gyms, said more than $1 million had been invested during that phase.

He brought on his son, Teddy Gerry, to invent the mechanical components. The biggest breakthrough, the younger Gerry said, happened when the team came up with the closed-loop system. A test with only a pipe to let air in ended with an expanding tank and a bang.

“All of a sudden, it just blew, and it sounded like a shotgun going off,” said the younger Gerry, who is the vice president.

While he worked on the system’s muscles, Craig Detter joined the team to develop its brains as the chief technology officer. With a background of working for Google and Motorola, Detter made a sensor that communicates the salt levels through a dedicated 3G or Wi-Fi network to SaltCo. The company then knows when a refill is needed and electronically sends an invoice to its customers.

Various components of SaltCo’s system are patent pending.

“I’m convinced it works exactly the way it’s supposed to,” Dave Gerry said.

Step Saver Inc., a company in Morton, Minnesota, began a similar business that pumps salt directly to tanks in 1995. President Chuck Steffl said the business has licensing agreements in six states and thousands of customers.

In lieu of the electronic monitoring SaltCo uses, Steffl said, Step Saver schedules refills based on salt consumption and tank capacity.

Finding a customer base

Both commercial businesses and personal residences are being targeted as potential users. The former is charged $30 per month and the latter $15 per month as a subscription fee, with which installation costs are waived.

The customer must also pay for salt itself, the price of which varies depending on the volume purchased.

Dan Olszewski, director of UW-Madison’s Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship, said the biggest challenges startup companies face are finding its target user and effectively marketing to them.

“That is especially true for this product, or service, because it’s something that clearly is valuable to the right customer, but for a lot of customers they might say, ‘It’s not that big of a deal, getting salt is not a big problem for me,’” Olszewski said.

It’s important for SaltCo to look for the people who are most affected by physically filling tanks, he said, such as businesses that use large quantities and people who might have physical difficulties.

“Your initial customer is usually someone who has the biggest pain point with the current system,” Olszewski said.

Currently, SaltCo has nine vehicles and 11 employees to service around 50 residential and commercial customers. The first customers were largely friends and family of those involved to ensure the system worked properly, Dave Gerry said.

SaltCo installed a system at Blessed Sacrament Parish and School on Madison’s Near West Side this summer. Landgraf, a longtime parishioner there, brought the concept forward to a committee he’s involved with that oversees the grounds.

Andrew Henter, the parish’s director of buildings and grounds, said he was intrigued by the service. Its building is heated by steam, and soft water is needed to keep the system running properly. The service saves him from carrying hundreds of pounds of salt and monitoring the tank’s level, Henter said.

“It sounds like a goofy thing to get excited about, water softener salt, but being in facilities management, maintaining that water quality saves you a lot in the long run,” he said.

Although it is still establishing a foothold in the Madison area, the company already has set its sights beyond the Badger State. Dave Gerry said there are people interested in franchising the business in Minnesota, Arizona, California, Texas and Illinois.

“We’re set to do this in a very big way. Our goal is go across the United States,” he said. “Once you see it and you realize it works, it’s just a matter of repeating it.”

Environmental benefits

Gerry sees environmental benefits to the business. He estimates that one truck could prevent 100,000 plastic bags from entering a landfill per year by distributing the salt in bulk.

SaltCo has a 15,000-square-foot facility in Sauk City that holds its installation supplies and the salt.

Landgraf said the plan is to have people come to the location for a weeklong training session to learn how to assemble the system, operate a truck and market the service.

“That’s ultimately the goal,” Landgraf said. “To have people from all over the country come and learn how to do this.”