Plumbing the depths
When it comes to water, technical solutions assisting in conserving this precious resource have undergone continual innovation in recent times. However, what does the future hold for our entitlement to water? By PAUL ANGUS.
The plumbing system within your building effectively has two primary roles: to deliver water and take away waste. In doing so, it ensures our public health is fully protected and it’s why many believe plumbing is undoubtedly humankind’s greatest invention.
It’s not surprising to learn that decisive trends within plumbing are to be found in the field of efficient, future-oriented technologies and intelligent building services technology. Digital data interaction and collection already play a pivotal role in our everyday lives. This is even more the case in your plumbing system, by integrating water resources management and effectively providing data on water quantity, quality, demand and consumption.
Smart metering and sensors connected to the Building Management System (BMS), can trigger automatic alerts to smartphones, tablet apps or in the form of an audible alert, enabling facility managers (and utility companies) to analyse consumption patterns and their operations more effectively. Automatic systems even provide dynamic feedback that can assist in detecting leaks and can prioritise repairs.
WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE?
Why do we often take for granted the very things that deserve our gratitude the most, assuming they will be there whenever we need them? This applies to our sense of entitlement to water. Having wholesome water on demand is one such luxury we all take for granted; however, we should never forget that water is a precious commodity.
We cannot know exactly what types of problems there will be in the future regarding the supply of potable water. But one thing is certain: we must use all the tricks we have up our sleeves in order to stave off a possible worldwide water crisis. The recent water crises in Cape Town, Sao Paulo and other cities around the world exemplify the impact that water scarcity can have, more than just the risk that the water supply within your building could run dry. Even here in the Australia, the current drought is affecting our agriculture, and jeopardising food production and supplies of water for energy generation. The social and economic implications of droughts are enormous. Increasing water stresses, exacerbated by rising demand, population growth, urbanisation and climate change, emphasise the need to tackle water scarcity.
MAKING A SPLASH
The technology to address the water problem is already here. For example, as a necessity astronauts continuously recycle water;
urine, bathing water and even condensed humidity from the crew’s breath are filtered into drinking water. So why here on Earth do we continually waste so much water in our everyday lives? Closer to home, research is being conducted to extract water from air. It sounds a little far fetched, almost something you’d expect to be reading in a science fiction novel. Within the Moroccan desert, the world’s largest fog harvester traps dense fog and converts it into clean, fresh water. With a surface area over 600 square metres, the apparatus takes advantage of the fog that regularly settles over the drought-stricken Aït Baâmrane region for up to six months of the year. As much as 60 litres of clean, safe drinking water is reportedly captured per one square metre of netting. Solar-powered pumps, along with a system of pipes, deliver the clean water to 400 local residents, who ordinarily struggle to gain access to safe water in this arid region.
The cost of clean water is a major obstacle for many thirsty people on Earth, so researchers are constantly seeking affordable solutions for small-scale, personal water purification. Desalination is an expensive and large-scale operation. However, with advances in technology, a joint research team from the University of Texas, Austin and the University of Marburg, Germany, have developed a low-drain water chip, which generates a small electrical field to desalinate seawater. Although still in its infancy of development, the water chip promises to offer a portable clean water solution capable of running on a regular battery.
HARD TO SWALLOW
Still gravitating to the out-of-this-world and almost science fiction theme, recycling water in the form of rainwater, grey or black water isn’t anything new. However, Janicki Bioenergy has developed a means of producing clean drinking water from human faeces. Sure, read that sentence again and slowly digest (not literally) what you just read. You may remember watching Bill Gates drinking a glass of water extracted from the device and further explaining how it works with admiration, which makes it hard to disagree with the feasibility of the idea.
In addition to producing clean drinking water from human faeces, the device also produces electricity. Although the device is an extremely large piece of kit, it is also worth noting that the Janicki Omni Processor is not specifically designed to produce clean drinking water, despite this being its feature attraction. Janicki Bioenergy actually developed it primarily as a sanitation project designed to clean up cities around the world. With the rapid advancement of modern technology, it’s only a matter of time before this device becomes more compact and readily accessible.
On the subject of recycled water, Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, an industrial designer who collaborated with NASA, devised the Orbital Systems shower system. His design is fairly simple, but brilliant. It may sound a bit filthy to consider reusing water circling through the pipes and falling directly back on your face, but a state-of-the-art filtration system means that the water coming out of the shower head is clean enough to drink and is actually purer than general tap water. As the water is released from the shower, it flows down into the drain, through the filtration system and then is pumped back up to be used again. Because only a little heat is lost during this process, it only needs to be slightly reheated, which can also significantly reduce energy costs.
In a similar nature, think about the mechanical plant located in various plant rooms within your vicinity. The condensate is piped
to the drain point and allowed to flow away to the sewer. Condensate could be potentially captured and reused as make-up water for cooling towers, up to 20 percent of the potable water currently used could be slashed from your utility bill. Although capturing condensate water isn’t anything new, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and like-minded building certification schemes are providing an incentive to building designers and owners to maximise all water that is effectively conveyed down the drain.
Over a year, the average person flushes more than 7000 litres of water down the toilet. With more than half of the world’s population using flushable toilets, this amounts to trillions of litres of water per year being wasted. British industrial design student Tom Broadbent is harnessing his research to change this with HighDro Power – an innovative system that transforms wastewater into electricity.
The device works by using the discarded water from everyday appliances like toilets, sinks and showers, which hits four turbine blades as it falls down the drainage pipework, powering a generator. Designed for the pipework configuration of high-rise buildings, rather than individual dwellings, HighDro Power could offer substantial energy and cost savings. The energy harnessed by the device can either be utilised inside the building – for example, to power building services systems like air-conditioning, heating and elevators – or, alternatively, sold back to the national grid.
The opportunities are endless in regards to generating electricity from wastewater, but what about moving our mindset from within the building? As advanced and efficient solar panels are becoming, they are not as effective when clouds obscure the sun during the rain season. That could soon change thanks to a hybrid cell that can harvest energy from both sunlight and raindrops.
The key part of the system is a triboelectric nanogenerator (TENG), a device that creates an electric charge from the friction of two materials rubbing together, as with static electricity – it’s all about the shifting of electrons. TENGs can draw power from car tyres hitting the road or, in this case, the rolling motion of raindrops across a solar panel. The end result, revealed by scientists from Soochow University in China, is a cell that works, rain or shine! Best of all – it also rains during the night. Not so far into the future, we will gain from solar arrays working around the clock regardless of the weather, adding another huge boost to the potential of renewable energy.
DROP IN THE OCEAN
Although potable water is still viewed as being relatively cheap in a majority of countries, further incentives other than financial aspects may be required to change perception and manage demand. Water is a basic human need, yet is divided very unevenly and, in many cases, we currently pay far less for water than it is actually worth. Advancements in technology, and increased water scarcity in the not-so-distant future, will change this for generations to come. ●
Paul Angus is an associate director – Hydraulic Services and Education Sector Lead (NSW and ACT) at AECOM, based in Sydney. Angus has strong commercial and technical capabilities in developing and delivering hydraulic design strategies and solutions. He specialises in providing a sustainable approach to system design, including water conservation, recycling and generating innovative engineering solutions.
This article also appears in the October/November issue of Facility Management magazine.
Image: Water treatment plant. 123RFs Chaiyapruk Chanwatthana © 123RF.com