Hays Pure Water makes hope flow

Hays Pure Water Offers Life from Crossfield News on Vimeo.

WASHINGTON, Iowa – The little graves dotting the rural African village gave John Hays all the proof he needed that he had brought his crazy invention to the right place.

Khlor Gen with funnelIt was 2006, at a leper colony in Tanzania. The Lutheran hospital there was treating about 120 typhoid cases per month, and babies were suffering the worst of it. Desperate to fight the disease, hospital administrators asked Hays to help purify their drinking water – the very thing Hays had come to do.

At the time, Hays was municipal water superintendent for the city of Washington, Iowa. He was working on a way to treat the city’s entire water supply by creating chlorine from saltwater with electricity. To show the city council what he had in mind, he went to his basement workshop and out of PVC fashioned a miniature version of a much larger electrolysis unit that he’d seen before that used 100-year-old technology.

Hays brought the prototype to Tanzania, and it was that unit the village leaders were asking him to install to kill the waterborne diseases that were killing their children.

Creating the contraption

That prototype became the Khlor Gen (chlorine generator), a device made of hard composite plastic that measures about 4 inches across. It has nozzles on either end – one for a pop bottle-turned-funnel, the second for a plastic nipple that fits into another plastic pop bottle. The two sides fasten together and sandwich a flat titanium grid that is coated in ruthenium, a rare and durable metal.

That grid acts an electrode, which can be powered by any 12-volt DC power source, often a solar panel (a car battery will do, too). When ordinary saltwater is run over the grid, the electric current splits the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen and also releases residual chlorine from the salt.

John Hays, right, shows associate TJ Widbin one of the solar panels that can be used to power a Khlor Gen unit.

John Hays, right, shows associate TJ Widbin one of the solar panels that can be used to power a Khlor Gen unit.

The procedure produces a solution of hydrogen peroxide, chlorine and ozone – what Hays calls “the Cadillac of disinfectants.” The solution is shelf-stable for two weeks. After that it reverts to saltwater.

Each liter of the 0.3-percent chlorine solution can disinfect 500 liters of water. The solution kills all 1,000 known water-related pathogens – notably typhoid, cholera, e. Coli and cryptosporidium. All told, those 1,000 pathogens kill hundreds of thousands of people annually worldwide. According to the United Nations, improving sanitation, hygiene and access to safe water would save 1.5 million lives a year.

“The largest catastrophe in the world that people don’t know about or talk about is drinking water,” says Hays, 60, who has traveled to 45 countries to distribute Khlor Gen units as a ministry of Hays Pure Water Foundation.

Finding people who want Khlor Gen units isn’t the problem – word has spread so widely in places like South Sudan and Haiti that people there are calling him regularly asking for units.

The issue, rather, is finding adequate funds and a way to get the units to them. To ship the units, Hays either carries them personally to their destinations, has friends on missions trips do the same, or ships them with the financial help of a key donor in Iowa. Sending them without personal handlers carries a risk. Systems sometimes get hung up in customs or don’t make it to their destinations at all — out of a recent shipment of 130 units to South Sudan, only 10 arrived, Hays recalls.

Getting buy-in

Getting the units to their destination is one hurdle, but getting people to trust the machine usually proves more difficult yet. Because many people in rural South Sudan or India or Chad have never seen clear water, Hays makes no attempt to rid it of the dirt or the bad taste – just the pathogens.

“If it tastes like chlorine, they won’t drink it; if it looks clear, they won’t drink it,” Hays says. “So it’s got to be perfect to drink but still look muddy, like iced tea.”

And just to prove the muddy-but-clean water is OK, Hays’ associate, TJ Widbin (see accompanying story), makes sure on his overseas trips to take a swig right after it’s been treated.

“They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this must actually work if the white person’s drinking it,’” says Widbin, who has delivered Khlor Gen units in Kenya and Haiti. “It tastes horrible, but it gets the point across that this is perfectly fine to drink.”

Giving it away

After burning through $50,000 of his own money and dozens of failed electrodes, Hays finally arrived at the titanium-ruthenium combination that did the trick. If used for one minute a day (enough time to produce one or two liters of chlorine solution), the electrode can provide clean drinking water for 5,000 people a day for 63 years. The upfront costs were huge, but Hays doesn’t regret a cent of it.

“I heard His call to give water to the needy, so my promise was that I’d make a system and I’d give it to anyone in the world,” Hays says. “Jesus says give water to the poor. I just take it right out of His word.”

Over the past eight years, Hays has delivered at least 4,000 units worldwide, according to his unofficial figures. Each system – the Khlor Gen unit, cables and a solar power panel — costs him about $100, but he charges $365 to those who can afford it. To those who can’t afford a system, Hays often gives one anyway. He’s given away 280 systems just since May.

From the start of Hays’ ministry, Harmony Bible Church in nearby Danville, Iowa, has been a stalwart ally in both funding and personnel. The church this year is hosting its 7th Annual 12:1 Run, which attracts more than 500 runners and raises about $30,000 annually for Hays Pure Water Foundation. The church’s global ministries team oversees the funds and vets the various organizations who have requested Khlor Gen units from Hays or the church.

“It just seems like it caught fire with our people, and they kind of ran with it,” says Matt Yaley, pastor of global ministries at Harmony. “And it’s really caught on with the community that we serve in, by evidence of the 12:1 Run.

“It’s just exciting, opening up doors,” Yaley adds. “We love what it does because it’s just a good tool that opens up opportunities for the gospel. And so it just seems like our people are passionate about it, and that’s where God’s moving right now. We want to keep on that.”

The first Khlor Gen prototype and its modern successor.

The first Khlor Gen prototype and its modern successor.

Hays’ continued motivation lies in stories like the ones from that leprosy colony in Tanzania. After purifying all the village’s water through its Khlor Gen unit, the colony’s typhoid cases dropped from 120 a year to almost zero.

After a lot of use, calcium from the hard water (which can be scrubbed off with Coca-Cola) built up on the electrode and caused it to fail. When Hays returned to the colony two years ago, he exchanged that first unit with a new one, just to study how the unit malfunctioned.

Right now Hays is on the hunt for funding projects that he’s been asked to do this year but lacks the funds to do.  Thought Hays lives on his city pension and does not draw a salary from his 501c3 organization, Hays Pure Water Foundation, the demand for Khlor Gen units often stretches the company budget. His current goal is to raise $75,000 to make up for expenses already incurred this year.

If he needs to be reminded why he keeps fighting those kinds of financial battles, Hays just watches the video of a woman named Myra he talked to in South Sudan earlier this year. Myra walks two hours to get water, which is contaminated. She asked Hays to come help her because her children had died from drinking the water.

“That’s where my motivation is,” Hays says. “Jesus says give water to the poor. I just take it right out of His word.”

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