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Student receives EPA P3 grant for project to reclaim gray water from small businesses

Swinson_t.jpgBOONE—No one wants to pour money down the drain, but when it comes to gray water, that’s what many businesses do.

Bobbie Jo Swinson_t2.jpgBobbie Jo Swinson has received a research grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) competition to develop a miniature wetland system that could “clean” gray water for other uses. Swinson is a senior appropriate technology major at Appalachian.

water lettuce_t2.jpg
Water lettuce, which has long root systems, is one type of plant that might prove suitable for recycling grey water for other uses.

Jennifer Johnson, left, Dr. Jim Houser, Bobbie Jo Swinson_t2.jpgBiology graduate student Jennifer Johnson, left, and Dr. Jim Houser from the Department of Technology and Environmental Design are assisting Appalachian State University student Bobbie Jo Swinson, right, develop a miniature wetland system that could be used to clean gray water for other uses. Swinson’s research project is funded by an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Gray water is water from sinks, showers, bathtubs and washing machines that has not come in contact with water from toilets. And it has nowhere to go except into a town’s or city’s waste water treatment system for those who don’t have a septic system.

Bobbie Jo Swinson, an Appalachian State University appropriate technology major, has received a $14,988 research grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) competition to develop a miniature wetland system that could “clean” gray water for other uses, such as irrigation or to flush toilets. Swinson’s faculty advisors on the project are Drs. Jim Houser and Jack Martin from the Department of Technology and Environmental Design, and Dr. Michael Hambourger from the Department of Chemistry.

The EPA P3 competition encourages students to design creative solutions to sustainability challenges in the developed and developing world. Students work together on interdisciplinary teams, to design and build sustainable technologies that improve quality of life, promote economic development, and protect the environment.

Swinson’s inspiration for the project came from her job as a hair stylist in Boone.

“I really began to notice how much water we were using in the salon as well as the chemicals and hair products we were pouring down the drain,” said Swinson, a senior, after taking classes in sustainable water and wastewater management.

She began learning about living systems that were popular in the 1970s. “Living technology utilizes biological processes from plants, soils and substrates to clean water and make it available for reuse,” Swinson said. “My idea is to take this technology and see if we can make a gray water filtration system compact enough that it can be placed inside a building.”

“This project is motivated by the fact that maintaining freshwater is really important,” Houser said. “One of the key problems the world is starting to confront is running out of fresh water and the price to clean water.”

Seeing potentially usable water go down the drain also troubles Houser. “Currently, all water that comes from a building is mixed with the sewage from the building. There may be very little sewage being generated, but as soon as it contacts the gray water, the gray water becomes contaminated water and has to be cleaned at a waste water treatment plant, which is expensive,” he said. “That’s the current law. But it may be wise in the future to try and start thinking about separating gray water from sewage.”

Recently, the Town of Boone amended its Water and Sewer Ordinance to permit the use of gray water as a conservation method.

The research salon for Swinson’s project is Haircut 101 located in downtown Boone.

The research team will collect water from the shampoo bowls in the salon and analyze the chemicals and amount of water entering the waste stream. They will then run the salon’s gray water through a living system modified from a system originally constructed as part of the university’s biofuels project at State Farm Road.

Swinson is working with students from several different academic departments on the project, including chemistry, appropriate technology and interior design.

Phase 1 of the EPA P3 grant involves researching and developing the sustainable design and providing proof of concept feasibility. In April 2012, Swinson and other Phase 1 recipients from across the U.S. will compete for a second round of funding that would enable the interdisciplinary team to implement the design at Haircut 101 and demonstrate a creative alternative to treatment of gray water at a waste treatment plant.

“Passing the gray water through this constructed wetland purifies the water,” Houser said. “We will test the water before and after it passes through the living system to see if contaminants are being removed. Toxicology studies on the plants will allow us to see at what point they are negatively affected.”

Swinson hopes to turn what she learns into a full-time career.

‘I would like to get involved in water quality management, creating artificial wetlands, and promoting their use in small businesses and homes,” Swinson said. “It’s not the path I envisioned when I started studying appropriate technology, but I realize now that water is a very important resource that we can no longer use and abuse. We must take care of this finite resource by recycling as much as we can.”