David Billings knows some alarming numbers: four million children die from bad water every year. About two billion people worldwide have never had treated water. In North America, about 210 million people live within 10 miles of an impaired water source.

These are facts the Burlington native learned researching a documentary he plans to make over the next year on water and treatment options. Water, Billings said, is an underappreciated resource.

"We tend to take water from granted," he said. " I'm surprised at how little people actually know about water."

Billings wants to educate the public on this vital resource and give more people access to clean water.

He invented Prevori, a portable water treatment system that relies on gravity and patented valves that can produce both filtered and chemically treated filtered water using rainwater.

His system, Billings said, can be used everywhere in the world.

The system

When Billings was working as a handyman, it dawned on him how much rainwater is wasted. Utilizing his background in engineering, he devised a system that sits on precisely spaced shelving units and uses gravity to pressure water through his system of buckets, tubes and valves.

"It's water from the sky filtered with clay," he said, of the simplicity of his system.

Here's how it works: pour rainwater into a bucket holding a clay filter pot. That pot has microscopic pores that help filter out particulate matter and bacteria. Billings didn't invent this part, but he did design the valve system the water passes through. This water, he said, is suitable for boiling or using in soups, for example.

The second tier of Prevori mixes that filtered water with organic chemicals — ammonia and chlorine — to make it drinkable.

"It's a very robust system," he said. "It has applications at home and in rural communities... drinking water is such a pressing need."

The system could also solve the water problem in developing countries, or in areas with compromised water sources. It's also economical and most of the parts can be bought off-the-shelf. Billings estimates it would cost about four cents per cubic metre of water per person to operate.


The Prevori system at work. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Prevori is still in prototype phase, but he patented the valve design eight years ago. And Billings is still facing some challenges — the whole system is portable but large, and the clay pot is fragile.

But Billings said he has ideas to fix these problems.

The man

When asked what Billings did before he started working on Prevori, his response is he "has a lot of education." This is true.

In addition to his economics degree from the University of Western Ontario, an engineering degree from the University of Guelph and an environmental engineering diploma from Mohawk College, Billings is working on a film certificate from Ryerson University — skills he's putting towards his new water documentary.

It's no secret that Billings has dedicated his working life to environmental causes — he has an obvious passion.

"Even when I was a kid, others went to basketball camp, and I went to environment camp," he said with a laugh.

Later in life, Billings was inspired to study environmental engineering by an unusual bout of global warming in April 1985. He even once had a bizarre dream of people lying around suffering because they didn't have drinking water. Little did he know at the time, he'd invent a system to help solve whatever troubled him in that dream.

Why Prevori should win Lion's Lair

Using Prevori areas with compromised water sources — whether in the third world, in disaster zones or in areas of fracking — is a clear application, Billings argues Prevori will have an impact at home in Hamilton. The city's drinking water comes from Lake Ontario where there is a polluted mix, he said, of chemicals, pesticides and pharmaceutical metabolites.

"It's a soup of minute concentrations," he said. "We don't really know what it's all doing."

Using the Prevori system also eliminates the treatment chemicals municipalities use for their drinking water, fluoride and alum, in particular.

"In North America, about 50 per cent of people 85 or older get Alzheimer's or dementia, " he said. "We don't really know what causes it but aluminum concentration in the brain is increased."

Between the environmental and health applications, Billings said Prevori should have a significant social impact.

CBC Hamilton's Julia Chapman will have full coverage of Lion's Lair 2013, including profiles of each of the 10 finalists, an inside look at their training and interviews with the Lions, right up to the gala on Oct. 10.