In the early 1980s, Don and Lani Dolifka noticed a warning on their water bill. It indicated the water provided to their community was not safe for pregnant women or infants under six months of age. They decided to do something about it. Today, they lead a privately held company that provides safe, affordable drinking water to neighborhoods in 10 states.

The husband and wife team started the operation out of their garage simply because they wanted to help the local environs, says Darin Whittington, executive vice president of development for the Brighton, Colo.-based company. “It was just a genuine concern for the community.”

Watermill Express opened its first location in the mid-1980s. Since then, the company has grown to more than 860 sites. One hundred new locales are online this year (including stores currently open). Currently, units are in Florida, Ohio, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California.

The units are located in the parking lots of grocery-anchored centers or corner lots in neighborhood centers. They may also be found in landscaped areas away from major traffic flow. “It all depends on the amount of time we've been in a market,” Whittington says. “The company generally has to have brand-name recognition before other types of sites are considered.”

The footprint for one structure is approximately 206 sq. ft., and includes extra footage for a perimeter sidewalk and a buffer zone. The company pays the entire expense for the unit and its maintenance, while also paying rent to the landlord.

Whittington describes Watermill Express' concept as a “drive-up, water-vending facility” where customers can get pure drinking water in 1-gallon increments for approximately 25 cents.

The structure, fitting into a single parking space, is blue and white and resembles a Dutch windmill. The water is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Every unit is monitored by computer and features an automatic shutdown system. This prevents the sale of water if the quality were to fall below the company's preset standards. If there is any kind of problem with the component, the computer notifies the company via modem.

Whittington points out consistent quality makes Watermill Express unique. “What really sets us apart is that we service our units every day,” he says.

Technicians, who are employees of the company, go through certification classes. Each person is responsible for approximately 10 units.

Each day employees execute a 26-step process to ensure water quality at each unit. Weekly, they follow through with a 56-step process. In addition, each month, the water is tested by state certified labs.

Convenience is yet another edge the company has over its competitors, Whittington says. “Our customers can drive right up to a Watermill Express facility and swiftly make their water purchase.”

Whittington cites a recent survey showing each Watermill Express location averages approximately 100 customers a day. More research indicates 34% of those customers never set foot in the shopping center prior to the company's presence.

Contact: Darin Whittington, executive vice president of development, 303.659.1573, (F) 303.659.1635.

Allyson Sicard is an Atlanta-based writer.