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Engineering students use EPA funding to conserve water at medical school complex

April 2, 2009 By Sandra Knisely

A group of engineering and science students are working to drastically reduce the amount of water used on the grounds of one of the university’s latest building projects, and they’ve received funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do it.

A team of eight students has designed a catchment system that will collect rain in canopies set on the roof of the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research (WIMR), a three-tower complex expected to be completed in 2015 as part of the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. The rain will then be piped into 500-gallon cisterns that then water the grounds via a drip irrigation system.

The project is part of the EPA’s annual People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability (P3). The competition is split into two phases during the academic year. Forty-three teams from universities around the country were selected to receive $10,000 in June 2008. The teams will continue to hone their projects throughout the academic year, and six will be selected to receive $75,000 this month. The UW–Madison team received Phase I funding and is preparing for the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C., where the Phase II grant recipients will be chosen.

“Finding ways to offset groundwater withdrawals is extremely important, and using cisterns is a relatively simple way to do that,” says second-year civil and environmental engineering student Stephanie Bianco. “The great thing about this project is that it can be adapted to just about any type of building.”

It all began in the fall of 2007 when civil and environmental engineering professor Lawrence Bank recruited students to participate in P3. Civil and environmental engineering student Brian Zimmerman jumped onboard and encouraged some of his friends from other organizations focused on sustainability to join him. After debating for weeks about what project to undertake, team member Anna Bradford, also a civil and environmental engineering student, suggested a water catchment system.

“Catchment systems are something that are talked about throughout the country as obvious things to do, but very few people are actually implementing them,” says Bank. “This project will set an example for how UW–Madison could do it for most of its building without too much trouble.”

For Phase I, the team and their partners at Boldt Construction installed two pump-powered rain cisterns last spring at the WIMR center. The complex currently relies on a timer system that irrigates the lawns and gardens at a certain hour each day, regardless of whether the plants actually need water. For the UW–Madison project, ACME Irrigation Inc. installed a drip system that measures the saturation level of the soil. The system only provides water from the cisterns if the saturation level is too low, meaning the soil is dry.

“Soil saturation systems save 40 percent of water normally used to for irrigation,” explains chemistry student Stephen Utschig-Samuels. “Our system saves an additional 10 percent on top of that.”

The team’s plan for Phase II is to optimize the use of the water collected in the cisterns and evaluate the amount of space needed on a building roof to collect enough water to support the gardens. They will be monitoring the amount of water collected and used to determine the specific amount of water and money saved from implementing the system. For example, using 10,000 square feet of a roof to collect and divert rain to a cistern would save UW–Madison almost $2,000 per year.

In addition to the monetary benefits, the system will also reduce pollution. Collecting rainwater prevents it from running down streets and becoming polluted before settling into the ground.

Beyond the technical elements, the project has been a learning experience for the students in other ways. They have learned to work with a variety of people and companies to bring the parts together and implement their ideas. Along with Bank, they have worked closely assistant dean Mark Wells from the School of Medicine and Public Health and their industry sponsors. Zimmermann Architectural Studios and J.F. Ahern Co. have supported the project along with Boldt and ACME.

“They have had to convince people to implement their ideas,” says Bank. “They’ve learned how good you really have to be and what obstacles can appear that you hadn’t thought of before.”

Utschig-Samuels and Bianco, who will take over for Bradford as the team’s leader next semester, agree that the experiences of grant-writing, networking and negotiating the project have been valuable.

“It’s been a really cool experience to watch this grow from an idea into a reality and to see all the support we’ve gotten,” says Bianco.

This is the first time a team from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering will participate in the P3 competition. A team from the mechanical engineering department, advised by Kuo K. and Cindy F. Wang Mechanical Engineering Professor Tim Osswald, won $10,000 in 2007 to design and produce plastics from soy protein.

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