Watershed moment: Solutions, repairs reduce campus water use by 29%

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March 10, 2021

In 2015, the amount of water Ohio State used in a year — about 1.3 billion gallons — could fill Ohio Stadium more than 3.5 times.

Since then, the university has reduced campus water consumption by nearly 29%, or 379 million gallons, by fixing issues found during building water audits, repairing leaks in water mains and installing low-flow fixtures. Because of that marked success, the university this year, as part of its sustainability goals, increased its water reduction target to 10% per capita every five years, from the original 5% per capita, by 2025.

The upcoming United Nations World Water Day, March 22, celebrates water and raises awareness of the 2.2 billion people living without access to safe water and focuses on taking action to tackle the global water crisis.

“By conserving our water, we are not only reducing the campus’ supply, but we also are making impacts with the City of Columbus’ supply,” says Brenda VanCleave, Facilities Operations and Development’s water resources engineer. “We are the city’s largest non-municipality water user.” 

In addition to the obvious environmental benefit, these solutions have saved Ohio State over $1.75 million in annual water purchase and sanitary sewer use costs. 

One step toward water conservation is locating leaks in the first place. Last fiscal year, the university used acoustic leak detection technology and fixed two leaks in its water main shutoff valves, resulting in an annual savings of 50 million gallons. The detection technology enables workers to estimate the size of the leak and its location within 3 meters of the leak. The monetary savings in water loss — $450,000 per year — easily outweighs the costs of $14,100 to conduct the leak detection survey and $300,000 to repair the leaks. VanCleave hopes to conduct another leak detection survey this summer.

Ongoing audits of campus buildings found other ways to conserve water. To date, 39 buildings have been audited; by addressing problems such as damaged infrastructure and inefficient water practices, the university is saving 2 million gallons of water annually.

“Our top three water users are the McCracken Power Plant, South Campus Central Chiller Plant and the Biological Research Tower. Together, these three make up approximately 27% of our total water usage,” VanCleave explains. “The water audit of the Biological Research Tower found that 70% of its water use was in labs, with the biggest need or requirement being distilled water or reverse osmosis water for experiments.”

She says the labs have equipment to produce the reverse osmosis water. However, for every gallon of treated water produced, the process wastes between 3 and 25 gallons of water.

“The amount of water that gets wasted depends on the age and condition of the membrane filters in the unit. So, it is really important that labs upkeep and maintain their equipment,” she says. “Also, it is important that conservation practices for the use of deionized water get created and used; only use reverse osmosis or distilled water when required by an experiment and not for everything just because it is convenient.” 

Other water conservation successes:

  • The university conducts ongoing audits of water use in 10 to 20 campus buildings per semester.
  • College of Pharmacy lab changes reduced once-through water, or water used only one time and then disposed of, resulting in a savings of 16 million gallons annually. 
  • Low-flow fixtures installed in restrooms across campus will save 3 million gallons a year. For example, Student Life replaced 4,788 showerheads and 225 faucets in the summer of 2019.
  • Additional information about water conservation efforts is available on the Facilities Operations and Development website.

“Currently the solutions we’ve been finding are building-based or point-focused, such as the water main fixes. Now we want to look broader and find either regional or campuswide solutions,” VanCleave says. “These may cost us more up front, but in the long term, with the amount of water we would save, it would hopefully end up as a wash, if not a savings, in costs. We are actively investigating these options and are finding some to be potentially viable.”

The university’s new Sustainable Design and Construction policy will bring a focus toward new development coming to campus. Planned projects such as the Combined Heat and Power Plant; the medical center’s new inpatient hospital; and other medical, research and office buildings on West Campus are estimated to add approximately 141% to the existing water demand by 2040.

Some of the campus water needs do not require potable, or treated drinking, water, but currently Ohio State doesn’t have any other source.

“The biggest key is that right now the cost of water has been increasing for a few reasons: expansion of existing systems to keep up with development, replacing aged infrastructure and increasing environmental protections,” VanCleave says. “So, if we find a way to provide other sources of water such as rainwater reuse, we may not have to spend all those capital dollars to build new water infrastructure.”

What can you do to conserve water on an individual level? Here are some ideas.

  • Take short showers rather than baths.
  • Install water-saving shower heads.
  • Repair leaks from faucets and pipes.
  • Run your washing machine and dishwasher only when you have full loads.
  • Avoid ice use at drink stations.
  • Report campus water leaks by calling Service2Facilities 2-HELP.