Shop Talk

Steve Judd invents groundwater monitoring system after a drought

Jason Bean assembles Well Watch 600 products to be shipped to California Jan. 21. He started working for Eno Scientific after his mother-in-law and company co-owner Deborah Judd was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Jason Bean assembles Well Watch 600 products to be shipped to California Jan. 21. He started working for Eno Scientific after his mother-in-law and company co-owner Deborah Judd was diagnosed with lymphoma. vbridges@newsobserver.com

In a barn off Faucette Mill Road, Steve Judd is constantly looking for ways to improve products that use sound and circuitry to measure groundwater in wells across the world.

Impacted by a drought about seven years ago, Steve Judd and others built a business around devices that use low-frequency waves to measure the depth of groundwater in wells. In 2008, Judd, his wife, Deborah, and a partner founded Eno Scientific and rolled out a simple product that could provide a water depth reading when connected to a well.

Over the years, the company has sold more than 2,000 units, expanding its reach with hand-held products that professionals can use to measure well water and collect flow data, along with residential options in which an alarm will sound when a well is too low.

Jim Sparrow, vice president of Hillsborough-based The Water Specialist, which provides groundwater analysis, well recovery and other related services, said that as the technology for measuring groundwater in wells has advanced, interest in monitoring those water levels has increased.

In recent years, privately run community well systems have been used for developments that can’t hook up to municipal systems. Residents, who are concerned the private system will impact their water flow, are seeking measurements on their wells to ensure they can document the impact over time.

Drought proves product need

Eno Scientific is housed in a 2,000-square-foot warehouselike space that connects to an eight-stall horse barn and the Judds’ home. Most of the workshop is storage, but two walls in a back corner are covered with monitors, frequency meters and other scientific measuring tools.

In 1999, Judd, a physicist and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus, and his wife, who has an accounting background, sold Advanced Plastiform, a custom plastic molding and fabrication company that they started in 1988.

The couple then built a home and horse farm on 166 acres in Hillsborough.

“I continued to do consulting work for some of the companies we had dealt with in the past,” said Judd, now 62. “Mostly design work, electrical and software development.”

In 2007, the state faced a drought and the year was deemed its driest in more than 100 years.

Some of the Judds’ neighbors’ wells started drying up, and that had the Judds worried. They depended on a well to supply water to their home and a barn full of horses with water bowls the size of small bathtubs.

Judd decided to build his own solution after he couldn’t find a well monitoring option beyond dropping a rope with weight on it down the well.

He experimented by lowering wires, tubes and pressure gauges into his well.

“That is when I came up with the acoustic method,” he said. “I sent sound pulses down the well and measured the reflections.”

Judd connects a probe to the well’s air vent. The probe sends an air-pressure pulse into the well, giving a time-distance measurement on the sound waves after they drop down to the water and bounce back.

When Judd talked about his invention with friends and neighbors, they asked for their own. Then the U.S. Geological Survey requested devices to monitor some wells in Wake County.

Recognizing consumer needs

Steve and Deborah Judd and Arthur Quinby founded Eno Scientific in 2008, and the Judds bought out Quinby in 2010.

The partners set up a website and the Judds flew to Las Vegas, where they set up a booth at a National Ground Water Association exposition. There they sought to explore the groundwater industry and find out whether well-building and maintenance professionals were interested in their product.

They learned that there were many different types of wells that need monitoring: residential wells for single-family houses, commercial wells for housing developments and municipal wells for entire communities, along with agriculture wells for irrigating, and wells that help monitor aquifers, dams and contamination of ground water near landfills.

Initial customers were professionals who drilled and maintained the various wells, and they wanted a device they could carry from well to well and measure how much water was pumped out.

The first version, the Well Watch, plugged into a well and read and recorded water levels using low-frequency sound. Judd then built the portable, battery-operated Well Sounder 2010 and accessories, such as a flow meter.

The company started advertising in industry publications, such as the Water Well Journal, as Judd improved the product and addressed challenges that included the varied terrain and groundwater temperatures across the U.S.

Relying on family

In 2010, Judd hired his daughter Rachel Bean, now 36, who worked for seven years as a police officer for the Chapel Hill Police Department. Bean loved law enforcement, she said, but was pregnant with her first of two children.

“This just makes sense,” Bean said. “I can stay home instead of working nights.”

Judd needed help with the workload and wanted more time to develop products, so Bean started handling production and sales.

Judd set prices after figuring out how much it cost him to build the products, taking into account the distributor markup while staying below competing models.

The Well Sounder 2010 PRO kit sells for $995 and includes a hand-held meter, a sound probe, a USB cable and a carrying case.

In 2010, Bean started seeking international distributors but once again had to work through issues dealing with the varied wells across the world, such as hand-dug wells in India and freezing temperatures at the North Pole.

Meanwhile, single-family homeowners showed interest in the product, but balked at the nearly $1,000 price tag.

So, Judd developed the Well Watch 600, which starts at $345.

In mid 2013, Judd’s wife was diagnosed with lymphoma. He pulled away from the business to care for her. Bean’s husband, Jason, who was then a Chapel Hill officer, took over production at Eno Scientific while Bean took over her mom’s responsibilities.

After Deborah Judd died on Christmas Day 2014, Judd turned his energy and focus to the company, Bean said. He is concentrating on taking the company to the next level and building new and better products.

“I think he is going to take all these ideas that he has come up with over the past couple of years,” and focus on incorporating them into his products and offerings, Bean said.

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