SEMINOLE — Like many others who have lakes behind their homes, Nick Reale and John Allan were disgusted with persistent algae, a nauseating smell and dead fish.
But out of that frustration came an idea that turned into a business that's attracting international attention from people looking for environmentally friendly and economical ways to clear shallow lakes and ponds of pollutants and algae.
"We allow the lake to heal itself," Reale said. "Our goal is a long-term healthy lake that can recover and be sustainable."
Allan agreed, saying, "Think of it as penicillin for your lake."
Their invention is a pump that continuously churns the lake water from the bottom to the top. It's different from other aerators because it pumps water from the bottom to the top while most other systems only circulate the top layer of water and never touch the water at the bottom, where pollutants rest and noxious plants take root.
"Very little grows in moving water," Reale said. Keep the water moving and the lake will eventually heal itself, he said.
Reale and Allan saw the need for such a system when they were unable to clean Lake Sylvia, a 3-acre lake in unincorporated Seminole near the Pinellas Trail. Allan, a retired general contractor, and Reale, a Pinellas Park firefighter, own two of the 37 houses that surround the lake.
Lake Sylvia is about 100 years old, but began having trouble after Pinellas County decided to use it as a temporary holding area, or detention pond, for stormwater runoff from nearby streets. About 70 drains carry the water from the streets into Lake Sylvia. With the water come pollutants that vehicles leave behind as well as those that wash into the street from nearby yards — fertilizers, arsenic, lead and copper.
Those pollutants lie at the bottom of the lake and build up. Soon, fish die and algae blooms. When that happened at Lake Sylvia, the neighborhood called the county and demanded it clear up the mess. The county refused, saying the lake is private. But county officials did come out to give advice and sign the neighborhood up for the Adopt-a-Pond program.
The neighborhood paid someone to spray the algae, but the dead stuff sank and created a fertile environment for more to grow. They added aerators to help circulate the water.
Some solutions helped, but none provided a permanent fix. The neighborhood's frustration grew. Lake Sylvia at times was covered by a green scum that appeared solid enough to walk on.
"We were sitting on John's back porch … smelling the rotten egg smell … smelling our property values decrease," Reale said. "We thought, there's got to be a better way."
So they looked for one. They took a cue from the raw sewage smell that hung over the lake and took a look at what wastewater treatment plants do. From that, and other research, Reale and Allan came up with a pump that uses little electricity to suction water off the bottom and squirt it out nearer the top. If you keep the water moving, the lake can eventually heal itself, Reale said. The pump also adds oxygen to the water system.
They were both a bit surprised when their design worked the way they hoped it would.
"We only did it because no one told us we couldn't," Reale said.
Eco-Pond Rescue was born in 2007 when the two decided to sell their pumps on the open market.
But the road's been tough. Many doubt the system really works.
But others have decided to give it a try.
One of those is civil engineer David Eisenman of Seattle, who was attracted to the engine design.
"I figured it had to work," he said.
Eisenman has only had the pump for a week or so but said he's pleased. After about a week, he said, "It's cleared up the water. You can see all the way to the bottom of the pond. The water's totally clear when it was in a bad kind of a way."
Reale and Allan were especially pleased to sell one of their systems to Jamaican business owner Jackie Stuart.
Stuart, co-owner with his son of Renewable Energy Solutions, was contacted by 70 or so fish farmers who needed a less expensive way to aerate their ponds.
The Eco-Pond system may be just the thing, Stuart said. One fish farmer has agreed to install the system and, if it works, other fish farmers will likely also be interested.
But Stuart does not want to stop there. He wants to see if he can hook up one of his solar generators to the pump so that it runs on sunlight. If it can be run cheaply and works off solar energy, Stuart said, he'd market it not only across the Caribbean but also in other countries.