GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - When you take a deep breath, oxygen enters your bloodstream through small pockets in your lungs, and travels via red blood cells to all corners of your body, where it fuels your every move. It might also relax you, or boost your mood, but for most people a breath is nothing more than a biological process.
For H.P. and Christine Reilly, it was a business opportunity.
For the last five years, the Reillys have run The Oxygen Company Inc. of Glenwood Springs. The firm makes oxygen condensers that allow customers to customize oxygen levels in their homes, and thus breathe as easily at altitude as they would at sea level.
"I would say 90 percent of our clientele are second homeowners that are traveling to a high altitude area," said H.P., who was recently featured in the pages of the Wall Street Journal discussing his product.
"A lot of people just don't sleep well those first couple of nights, and we're trying to make the transition from low elevation to high elevation easier. Spending a couple of days acclimatizing is a lot if you're only up here a couple of weeks per year," he said.
The company's so-called "oxygen enrichment systems" work by dividing ambient air from one area of the house into oxygen and nitrogen, then piping the oxygen into another room at elevated levels.
If the goal is to combat altitude sickness during the initial days of a trip, then the oxygen is pumped into a bedroom as its occupants are sleeping. Oxygen levels reach their peak during the night, then taper off as morning approaches to prepare the occupants for the high elevation world outside of their bedroom.
"If you just lower the elevation of the bedroom, you go out and feel like crap," Reilly said.
The systems can also deliver a shorter, more concentrated dose of oxygen through a headset plugged into the wall, or oxygen can be directed to specific areas of the room.
Given their relative rarity and the equipment involved, oxygen enrichment systems remain expensive. To equip a room that's 12 feet square with eight foot ceilings, Reilly said, would cost about $8,500. That includes a display with a read-out of the room's real-time oxygen content. The ability to alter that via a set of controls, however, could run $3,000 more.
Oxygen is a known mood booster, and Reilly said he doesn't know whether couples that use his company's products fight less as a result, though it wouldn't surprise him.
"I don't usually talk to the person who actually needs the system. You know how stubborn men can be," he said. "Though I do get the sense that people are getting along better."
Reilly is quick to note, however, that the levels of oxygen infused by the company's systems aren't high enough to induce any real intoxication, they merely mirror levels that are typically present at sea level.
Oxygen concentrated at much higher than sea level equivalent, he said, could be a fire hazard.
The Reillys founded The Oxygen Company after a failed attempt to start a business offering short-term rentals of oxygen tanks to Aspen tourists. (No insurance company would touch the venture).
After shifting gears to designing medical oxygen systems for people's homes, they received an inquiry from a medical client asking whether they could integrate an oxygen system into the walls of a second home the client was building in Aspen.
"Her husband was at the point where he wouldn't even come to Aspen because of the altitude," said Reilly.
On a mission to design such an integrated system, Reilly traveled to Korea, where enriched oxygen systems in hotels and apartments are a fairly common way to combat air pollution problems.
Applying what he learned in Asia to the Aspen project, Reilly constructed the first of his in-home oxygen condenser units, and immediately saw their potential.
"In reality, that family is here much more than they used to be," he said. "It's really changed their life."
Although members of the family wished to remain anonymous, their Aspen property manager, Matt Price, said the system has also helped many houseguests combat altitude sickness over the years.
"We find that if people do about 20 minutes on the headset as they are lying in bed just before going to sleep, they sleep a lot better," he said.
And Price, who is well acclimatized to the Aspen altitude, sometimes uses the system for another purpose - to improve his performance on summer mountain bike rides.
"I do use the system sometimes before and after I work out, and I find that I have a quicker recovery time," he said. "I'll often ride the Smuggler Mountain loop at lunchtime, and I can get back to my desk and not feel tired at all."
Reilly says his products are starting to gain traction with performance athletes in addition to people struggling with altitude sickness. He has installed oxygen enrichment systems in two weight lifting gyms, he said, and is interested to see whether they boost athlete performance.