Jacqueline Wattles photo
Ronald Gaudet, the interim director of utilities and energy management at UConn (Jacqueline Wattles photo)

The University of Connecticut unveiled a $25 million water reclamation facility that will process up to 500,000 gallons of wastewater per day to be used at the Storrs campus power plant.

The project was paid for with university funds, which the school put away over the eight-year planning process. University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said at Wednesday’s unveiling that the facility is a cornerstone of UConn’s effort to engage in environmentally-friendly practices.

“It replaces the use of drinking water at our central utility plant to heat, cool, and power campus,” she said. “This facility not only helps to ensure sustainable growth and development of our campus, but it also demonstrates our commitment to environmental stewardship of the natural resources that surround us.”

The “reclaimed” water is sewage water that undergoes a purifying treatment before it is pumped to the university’s power grid where it is used to cool the plant’s fan turbines. Before the facility was built, “potable” – or drinkable – water was used for cooling, which expended up to 450,000 gallons of drinkable water, per day.

Tom Callahan, the associate vice president of infrastructure planning at the university, said Wednesday that the reclamation facility harnesses an untapped resource in order to address the area’s growing water demands.

“This was essentially a plan that employed an unused resource that was sitting under the university’s nose that could sustainably address the university and the region’s unique water supply challenges in a pretty innovative way,” Callahan said.

The reclamation facility aims to address major growth expansions projected for the university over the next few decades, all of which increases the demand for water on the Storrs campus.

UConn is expecting a 33 percent increase in enrollment over the next decade and along with it new infrastructure, such as a technology park.

“We will demonstrate that our growth will be environmentally responsible and resource efficient,” Herbst said.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty attended the unveiling and said the facility is an “extraordinary example” of addressing environmental concerns that tie into economic growth.

“Ten percent of the power in the state comes from pumping water. If we are able to conserve and recycle water, we not only save water – a precious environmental resource – we save energy.” And creating cheaper energy “has an economic logic above and beyond that,” Esty said.

Jacqueline Wattles photo
UConn President Susan Herbst (Jacqueline Wattles photo)

The facility, which requires five full-time employees to operate, will treat about 230,000 gallons of water on an average day and up to 500,000 on peak demand days, though it is capable of treating up to 1 million gallons per day.

Ronald Gaudet, the interim director of utilities and energy management at UConn, said this system is the first of its kind on the east coast, and takes the idea from plants on the west coast and in Florida where “gray” or reclaimed water use is commonplace.

The water at UConn’s plant can be treated multiple times, and is fed back and forth between the reclamation facility and power plant by a series of pumps. The treatment process is three pronged: It undergoes microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet disinfection.

“At this point,” Gaudet said, pointing to a pipe pumping recently-treated water, “It’s drinkable.”

However, even though the treated water is clean enough to drink, there are significant obstacles to putting it in the potable water supply.

“There’s a series of permits and hurdles like that. Then you have to convince people to drink it,” he laughed.

Gaudet added that in some places out west, reclaimed water is put into the public water supply, but it’s not on UConn’s agenda. But there is infrastructure in place to use the reclaimed water for irrigation – such as to water the school’s athletic fields – and the new on-campus buildings will use the reclaimed water for things such as flushing toilets.

“But it’s ungodly expensive to retrofit existing buildings,” Gaudet said.

As for the daily operating costs of the plant, Gaudet says that’s difficult to gauge.

“We can’t put an exact number on it, because it depends on how you define electricity and cost. The university generates electricity for pennies, so it’s all relative and depends day to day,” he said.

The facility exists in a sort of energy loop: the reclaimed water is used to generate electricity, and a portion of the electricity is fed back to the reclamation facility to operate it.

But Gaudet says it’s done in the most efficient way possible. The roof of the water reclamation facility is fitted with solar panels that generate 30 to 40 megawatts of electricity per day, and the heat that radiates from the plant is recaptured and used to operate the building’s heat and air conditioning in a process that Gaudet calls “tank-thermal,” because of its similarities to the geothermal energy.

The remaining energy needs of the water treatment plant come from the very power generator the water is used to service. Gaudet said the power plant already saves the university hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.

“I would estimate if we purchased energy from external sources, our bill would be about $1.8 to $2.2 million per month. It costs us about $12,000,” he said.

But even though the water reclamation facility alleviates a portion of the potable water demand, UConn still faces a water supply problem.

The university’s drinkable water – which is drawn from the Fenton and Willimantic rivers – is the only public water supply system within a five-mile radius, meaning it serves parts of the neighboring town of Mansfield as well as the university’s dorms and classrooms.

Jason Coite, an environmental compliance analyst at UConn’s Office of Environmental Policy, said planning for the reclamation facility began eight years ago, but water supply planning for the university goes back over twenty years.

He said the Water Supply Plan and Environmental Impact Evaluation developed by the university and the town of Mansfield identified a need to increase the area’s supply of drinkable water by 1.93 million gallons per day over the next few decades.

A planning committee is currently reviewing three options that have been identified as “viable” to serve the additional demand. Each option involves partnering with a water supply company and installing underground pipelines to transport the water.

The alternative plans were vetted earlier this year in a public comment process, and Coite said the university’s board of trustees will likely consider the options at their August 7 meeting.