We can do better for Flint

The water crisis is entirely avoidable. Our irresponsible use of fresh water has caused a global crisis. But instead of climate change causing this water crisis, it was cause by criminals in the government. Yes, I said criminals. And stupid criminals at that.

Rather than relying on the government officials to solve the problem they caused (they’re probably not capable enough to anyway), we can start to implement long term solutions ourselves because sending water bottles to flint is a VERY inefficient short term solution.

A gallon of water weighs 8.34 lbs. Will and Jaden Smith have already sent at least 9,200 bottles to Flint and have said that they will continue to make monthly donations. Assuming they are 20 oz bottles, that’s 1,437.5 gallons weighing almost 120,000 lbs. Shipping all that weight releases greenhouse gases, not to mention the single-use plastic waste from all those bottles, most of which will end up in landfills or littered on the ground. The cheapest bottled water we could find online to have shipped was $0.01 per ounce, which would put this Smith’s donation at $1,840. Doesn’t sound like much right? Well, if people only needed water to drink, this might be doable. But we also do things like shower, use the bathroom, and wash dishes and clothes, which brings the water usage for the average American household up to 80 a 100 gallons PER DAY. Let’s say due to the circumstances, people in Flint are only using one tenth of that. First of all, that’s not sustainable. We can’t expect them to live like that forever. Second, the Smith’s donation would only cover ONE household for maybe half a year, so they would need to double their donation to last just one household a year at a cost of around $3,700. Theres over 40,000 occupied households in Flint. If you only took care of 100 families, you’re talking about millions of dollars in water bottles. We can do better.

Old pipes are not the problem in Flint. Lead in the water is not the problem. They are symptoms of the real problem, which is large, centralized utilities. Maybe it made sense at one point, but technology has progressed beyond the need for sprawling infrastructure projects that are vulnerable to all manner of failure points (e.g. lead in pipes).

Let’s make it plain. Where does water come from? The ground and the sky. Pumping groundwater is one of the activities that is causing the global water crisis, so we should probably avoid that. We should leave our rivers and lakes alone. So that leaves the sky. There are two primary ways to get water from the sky.

  1. Collect rainwater
  2. Dehumidification

We can start there. People like to say these solutions are too expensive at scale, but “expensive” is relative, and we’ve already demonstrated that the current method of simply donating water is expensive and unsustainable. Having lead in your water is more expensive if you account for the healthcare costs associated with lead poisoning. But with volunteer labor and using the money that would have been spent sending water bottles, we could create a system that would be cost competitive with the existing system, especially considering that Flint already has expensive water, with the average water and sewer bill around $140. We can do better.

Initially, it would look like rainwater collection and filtration systems installed at churches and community centers that can serve as distribution points. One church has already started, led by Pastor Bobby Jackson, so this is not a new idea. Then you could expand to residential installations. These are relatively simple systems that local people can be trained to build. All you need are barrels, pipes, pumps, and filters; all of which you can get from local hardware stores. You could throw some small-scale solar and wind in there to make the system even more resilient. To be clear, this is not a quick fix, but it is a sustainable one.

A rainwater collection and filtration system can cost between $4,000 to $7,000 plus labor. Say we keep it to $4,000 through the use of some volunteer labor, ingenuity, and donated parts (it could cost that much or more just to connect to the grid when building a house). Ongoing costs for filters and UV bulbs would be about $250/year. Sounds like a good deal compared to that $100/month water bill. The average rainfall in flint is ~31 inches. That means a 1000 sq foot rooftop could collect more than 18,000 gallons.

One criticism is that during the winter, it doesn’t rain as much because it snows instead. Guess what? Snow melts…into liquid water.

Then you have dehumidifiers and air-conditioners. This is a more energy intensive way of collecting water, so it should only be used when there is excess power available (like from solar or wind power without battery storage or net metering) or if the rainwater system is running low. When you run the air conditioner, it creates condensation that is usually just wasted and drained outside. Same thing goes with dehumidifiers.

You can get a 9-gallon dehumidifier from Amazon for $220. It uses about 600 watts of electricity, so if you ran it 24/7 (unlikely you would actually do that) then it would cost $1.97 per day to run with the average electricity price in Flint being 13.71 cents per kWh. That’s $720/year for 3,285 gallons of water, or 21 cents per gallon. This is relatively expensive, but you can get that cost down if you can get cheaper power, like from donated solar panels or generators hooked up to the bikes in spin classes that are so popular now, and it’s only a backup option if rainwater isn’t enough. There are also some new lower cost ways to pull water from air that could be used.

Now, we’ve dealt with the supply side of getting water without going through the water company, but there’s a huge issue with the demand side…inefficiency. Everything about the way we use water in our houses is inefficient and we could easily cut our consumption by over half if we built our plumbing systems properly. We can do better.

Water Saver #1: Greywater recycling

Why would you put drinking water in the toilet just so you can defecate in it? Makes no sense. You can use unpurified rainwater or slightly filtered shower, dishwasher, or laundry water to fill up your toilet. With a high-efficiency toilet using 1.28 gallons per flush, if you use the bathroom just twice a day, that’s 934.4 gallons per year you’re saving. With a family of 3, each using the bathroom twice a day, that’s 2,803 gallons per year.

Water Saver #2: Recirculating showers

The average American shower lasts about 8 minutes and uses 17 gallons of water. That means showering daily uses 6,205 gallons of water. There are recirculating showers that reuse and filter the water several times during a shower session, for a total of only 1 gallon used. That would be an annual savings of 5,840 gallons. PLUS you save power by not having to heat all that water because the water retains a lot of the heat as it’s being recirculated, providing up to 90% energy savings.

Water Saver #3: Ventless clothes dryer

When you dry clothes, you pull moisture from the clothes. That moisture usually gets drained. With a ventless dryer, the water is collected. You can empty the water from the collector into the grey water system. Easy.

These are just a few ways to save water at home without sacrificing a lot of convenience.

In the meantime, people still need water while all these systems are being set up, but we’ve already shown that sending bottled water is not a good idea. So what to do? Filters.

There was some information going around that filters don’t remove lead. That’s true for Brita filters and such, but there are plenty of other filters that do indeed remove lead, and they’re much less expensive than buying bottled water (the bottled water companies probably just use these filters to filter tap water anyway). You can get a whole house filtration system with a UV purification upgrade for about $1,200 (without the UV purifier, it’s $600). Yikes! Sounds expensive.

But wait, this system is good for 600,000 gallons. That much bottled water even at $0.50/gallon, which is very cheap, would cost $300,000. Even at 10 cents/gallon, it would be $60,000. Not to mention the expense and environmental impact of shipping that much weight. If you really want to help Flint right now, we should be sending filtration systems and helping people install them. If we’re installing rainwater systems eventually, then people would need these filtration systems anyway, so this could be phase 1.

Whew, that was a lot of math. Even if our assumptions are off and everything is twice as expensive, it still makes sense. How much is safe water worth to you?

So we’re looking for people and organizations to lead this effort. Specifically, we need people to donate money, filters, rain barrels, and plumbers to help install these systems and train other people to install them. We will get the DNBE community involved, help design the systems, and help raise money for the effort, but we don’t have the resources or manpower to do this alone. When it works in Flint, we can expand to cities all over the country that have contaminated water. Fill out THIS FORM if you want to get involved.