Less water going to waste

A long time ago, I wrote a series of posts here about how I was trying to reduce our Department’s water use. It’s an incredible dull topic but I’d like to present it as an example of how it is possible to make quite substantial changes by being patient, methodical, and persistent.

So this is a little update on what we have achieved – you can look back to see the horror of our water use back in the bad old days – every so often we exceeded 200 tonnes a day.

When I first managed to get data, back in 2010, it was clear that we were haemorrhaging water – on some days 200 tonnes of water were pouring through our pipework. It made no sense, and when I first presented the data, it was met with consternation and surprise by my colleagues. Many even suggested that the water meter might be broken.

It’s taken us a lot of slow, tedious work, to get the water flows down.

Our initial experiment was to turn water off completely every Christmas and sometimes at Easter too, in order to see what the baseline usage was. Then we turned instruments and lab activity back on, one lab at a time, a process that identified cooling water for diffusion pumps as major contributors. This led us to installing inline flow monitors onto water cooling lines. This brought water use down very substantially.

By making both staff and students aware of the progress we were making (water use dropped by almost 50%) the idea that individual action mattered slowly entered my colleagues’ consciousness. Interestingly, as we have replaced X-ray equipment my colleagues have bought compact micro-sources that require little external cooling (a bit of air conditioning which was in place already).

Water data also helped build the argument to (finally!) replace water stills with deionizers.

In late 2015, Thames Water let us into their meter feed, making the process of monitoring things a whole lot easier. So here are plots showing water flow data at the very beginning and more recently where you can see how the flows have gradually decreased.




The point is that we are now running around 30-40 tonnes a day are remarkable 70-ish% below where we were. Many of my colleagues have contributed to this but I’m especially grateful to colleagues from Estates and Facilities like Tony Overbury and Joanna Marshall-Cook who’ve contributed it a million quiet ways behind the scenes to make it all possible.

Water use will rise again once our undergraduates return and their practicals resume in October but we have achieved a lot.

But it’s clear that we can push water demand down even further as we work on the 15 tonne a day baseload and instal more flow restrictors in taps and faucets round our labs. This is coming.

It’s dull, but in a university it makes much-needed savings. But more importantly, this kind of effort and engagement brings goodwill. Our Department is now being looked at closely for ways to improve performance. Our building is now undergoing a massive window-replacement programme that should make quite a difference to both comfort and to energy use. If, as we expect, that brings savings in the coming years, then it will provide further incentives and enthusiasm to reduce our footprint further.


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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