UCL Chemistry water flow update – ups and downs

Annoyingly I pressed publish accidentally so an incomplete version may have been posted out to the few subscribers I have – apologies for wasting your time.

Time for an update on the water flow situation in our Department. In case you haven’t read previous posts on this subject, we realized two years ago that our Department was haemorrhaging water at the rate of about 170 m3 (i.e. tonnes) per day. After a major shut down we were able to identify the major water users in the Department: not the expected culprits, the “wet” (i.e. synthetic) chemists, but rather the spectroscopic chemists who use diffusion pumps. The cooling water connexions on the individual pumps were first throttled back, and then fitted with adjustable water flow controllers.

The results are pretty astonishing, as shown by the following two graphs.

[A plot of water use vs time]

Plot of total water consumed by the UCL Chemistry Department from Autumn 2010 to late winter 2012. Notice the remarkable change in slope as water consumption dropped.

[Plot of weekly average water use from 2010-2012

The average weekly consumption showing the weekly averages following the initial throttle-back exercise in January 2011 and then the completion of water flow controller installation by Christmas of the same year. Note the drop from 170 to 90 to 45 m3.

The running averages are very striking. Simply throttling back the valves initially took us down from about 170 m3 per day to around 90 m3. Once the flow controllers went online the flow dropped to around 45 m3per day. At a time of significant drought in the South East of England that can’t be a bad thing and it’s astonishing that in previous times of drought that no one ever asked any questions.  From the point of view of the university  the financial saving is very striking – it represents a reduction of around £40,000 per year, equivalent to a staff position.

But it does raise questions. It’s clear that because of the way budgets were separated – water, heating and electricity are top-sliced out of grant overheads and the direct block grant – the Department was blissfully unaware of what was going on as no one ever saw the bill. But at the same time neither did the people running our Estate ever question the volume of water. But why should they? They had no idea of what equipment was in use, had no benchmarks, and the number was in any case probably buried as a line item in a huge total for the whole of the campus.

The whole story highlights the need for accurate data and good communications between  estate managers and academics, and one might imagine that the story would end there. But it doesn’t.

Cooling is a major issue for an active department such as ours. Apart from the fact that more and more airconditioning has been installed in offices, there is a lot of kit that disperses lots of heat – X-ray sources, for example, and of course computers and servers. It was therefore rather disappointing to discover that our estates team have, apparently, already produced a plan for the upgrade of the closed circuit water chillers on the roof of our building that serve some our needs. It is a large contract for a huge facility that will substantially improve on what we have at the moment.

But did they consult? Did they even tell us what they were thinking? Nope. Not a word. What is frustrating is that had there been consultation there could have been a more holistic approach taken that might help to solve some of the major energy-related problems with our building. Given that a large sum of money is available for this job it might have been a cunning idea to discuss with users whether upgrades or improvements to their equipment could be made that might reduce the need for overall cooling, for example. Could some of that money go into replacing diffusion pumps with turbos, thereby mitigating the problem at source? And, it might have been sensible to ask whether there was a way of diverting some of the dispersed heat back into the building in the winter time – after all everyone in our Department and in the estates management knows that when the outside temperature drops below about 10 degrees C, the internal temperature follows it. This winter my office spent about 10 days below  10 ˚C and some of our labs were little warmer.

Surely we can start looking at the big picture and think strategically about energy waste heat? Electricity analysis is on the way. And chemicals inventories too. God, is life going to be dull!Water flow update


About Andrea Sella

My name is Andrea Sella. I teach and do research in chemistry at UCL in central London in the UK. I also spend a lot time doing public science, cycling with ballast in my panniers, and worrying about how to keep my family's energy consumption down.
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4 Responses to UCL Chemistry water flow update – ups and downs

  1. Nick Day says:

    “Not drop from 170 to 90 to 45 m3.”
    I think you mean “Note…”

  2. karldcollins says:

    This is fascinating, I thought it was just our lab that matched external temperatures. It took four years of complaints to estates, burst water pipes resulting in more than £50,000 of damage, and then another year and a half of complaints to estates before the problem was taken seriously and addressed. The fact that out THF still did not go up when the pipes burst (all our other stills were full of water from the shattered condensers – it hit -10 deg inside!) was incredibly fortunate.

    • Andrea Sella says:

      We’ve seldom had pipes freeze, but it is for fear of such a water failure that we decided that even having water flow monitors on our stills was not good enough. Being in central London we are considered a dangerous facility and the fire services treat us as a 4 minute building – they must reach us in that time. They are also very reluctant to fight any fires from the inside of the building – if we did had a fire and they turned the hoses on after smashing through the windows the results would be unimaginable. As a result some six years ago we took the decision to replace our stills with “Grubbs” style alumina columns, which, for my sins, I am responsible for. They work very well. There are few people who do really extreme chemistry here – I do a bit of cerium (III) synthesis and the solvents occasionally play up, but they’re pretty reliable. The alumina is very cheap and once you have a reliable grade that works for you, there are few problems activating it. I think our students are a lot safer than they were before. How many stills have I seen go up in my time? I think I’ve repressed the memory.

  3. Hi
    managed to cut water by 50% and power by 18% in large Millbank building so agree with you on need for transparancy and joined up thinking.
    Have you considered asking your estates team to purge the building of hot air at night eg by installing a freecooler? Also using a thermal store (eg Bosari tank) to store excess heat during the day in order to maintain temperatures over night thus cutting the early morning demand spike.
    Just a thought,

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