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Thus the bottle, the water truck, and the well remained Zwebner's chief competitors in the tsunami zone. "In many places affected by the tsunami we have been relying on bottled water, usually in liter bottles, as the quickest way to get water to people in the early phase," says Rick Perera, a spokesman for CARE. "Once the immediate need is met, it becomes a priority to restore local water sources that have been damaged or contaminated. Many communities near the shore depended on shallow wells that were contaminated by salt water." Tanker trucks and aircraft were able to bring larger volumes of fresh water to some areas.
"It's generally cheaper to ship potable water in bulk or obtain it some other way," says David Staelin, professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Mass production requires a mass market, which doesn't exist now [for Air Water machines]. Energy costs and availability will probably dominate the decision to use this proposed condensation technology in preference to alternatives."
Such conventional thinking aggravates Zwebner, who impatiently does the math. "We sell an AW120 -- which is 120 to 200 liters of water daily -- for $3800," he says. "We could probably sell a solar-power unit for it for $8000 and still make a profit. So something around $12,000 to $13,000 for a system completely independent of power forever. Twelve thousand dollars divided by 24 years [life expectancy], that's $500 a year, which is, let's say, $10 a week. For a $1.50 a day I will supply you with about 200 liters [53 gallons] of water. Now, what does it cost you to buy 200 bottles of water today, liter size? Minimum of 50 cents a bottle. That's a hundred bucks. Now you have to take that bottle, put it on a jumbo, and ship it to Sri Lanka. You're talking about two dollars a bottle. And I'm talking about two dollars for 200 bottles. Tell me I'm stupid."
One question: Will Air Water Corporation be here in four years, let alone the twenty-four in Zwebner's calculation? At this point it's anyone's guess. Air Water's parent company, Universal Communication Systems (Zwebner is CEO), has never turned a profit. In fiscal year 2004, Universal posted a loss of $3.5 million.
Zwebner, whose salary at Universal is $240,000 per year, likes a challenge. In the Seventies he worked in Iran as a representative for a U.S. company that sold patrol boats to the Iranian navy; he fled just days before the Shah was overthrown. He had married in 1977 and appeased his wife by agreeing to stay in London, where over the next ten years he operated a travel agency, became the father of four girls, opened a restaurant, invested in properties, and lost a substantial amount of money when England's real-estate market tanked in the late Eighties. (He divorced in 1990.)
In 1991 Zwebner and his brother Charles founded Cardcall International Holdings, which sold prepaid long-distance phone cards. A Connecticut-based company bought the firm in 1998 for $22 million, according to Zwebner.
The phone card success seemed to whet Zwebner's appetite for telecommunications ventures, so much so that he developed a proclivity for launching flashy high-tech businesses before determining whether there was a market to sustain them. After unloading Cardcall, he started Videocall International. The concept was to put video phones in shops that provided discount long-distance phone service on a walk-in basis. But the technology was still too crude to allow smooth operation and the company folded.
In 2001 Zwebner leased space in a building at 1540 Washington Ave. on South Beach and remodeled it to resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, which he then outfitted with computer terminals. That was the Hard Disc Café. For a small entrance charge customers could use computers equipped with audio technology, allowing them to make free long-distance phone calls over the Internet. The computers also had video capability, which was useless unless the person on the other end also had it. Most people didn't. Zwebner attributes Hard Disc's failure to 9/11's decimation of tourist travel.
And yet Zwebner is confident that Air Water will lead Universal Communication Systems out of the red. "I'm not only doing it to make money for the company and the shareholders and myself, but I feel that I'm actually doing something. In other words, I actually feel that I'm producing a product and a service that will save lives," he enthuses. "We're shipping machines right now to areas of the world where they will stand in a very rough, jungle-type environment, surrounded by desperate, destitute people who every day will get life-saving water that we produce from the air. I think it's incredible."
Issues of credibility came to the fore on January 20, when Zwebner announced that he'd filed a lawsuit demanding $18 million in damages from a San Diego man named James Coughlin, a.k.a. IrishJim44. It was the latest of five lawsuits Zwebner has filed since June 2004, all of them aimed at silencing people who have posted malicious messages about him on two Websites: Raging Bull and Bad Business Bureau. One of the suits, filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, alleges that badbusinessbureau.com, in concert with others, has engaged in a racketeering scheme to extort money from Zwebner.