Outside UAA’s Engineering & Industry Building sit a small blue-roofed cabin and, next to it, a Conex shipping container.
They’re nothing special—yet. But when Professor Aaron Dotson and his team of graduate students finish working on them in July, the structures will be transformed into a prototype that could help people in remote areas live affordably in homes with running water and toilets that flush.
“In two months, this thing will be a functioning system,” said Dotson, who is working on the cabin-and-Conex project with UAA graduate students Cara Lucas, originally from Vermont, and Greg Michaelson, who’s originally from Palmer.
A sprinkling of communities remote from Alaska’s road system still live without running water, harvest lake and river ice and rainwater, and use 5-gallon “honeybucket” toilets, despite more than $2 billion in federal and state dollars being spent since the mid 1960s to provide basic water and sewer services. Now, with the state immersed in a budget crisis, those days of funding piped water and sewer systems are over.
The UAA team is one of three competing in the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge, which tasked innovators with devising an affordable solution for six rural Alaska test communities struggling to find ways to build and maintain home-based water and sewer systems.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation last year presented the challenge to teams from Alaska and Outside.
Dotson’s team must complete their cabin-and-Conex project by July 19. “We have to be up and running to start nine months of testing,” he said. “Then, we’ll be operating 24 hours a day. We’ll be ending formal testing in March.”
The professor added that the project comes in under the state’s cost ceiling, “and we are working during this phase to continue to reduce system cost.”
The goals: make the prototype easy to build, easy to use, easy to maintain, without the need for contractors’ assistance.
“You can see there’s tools out here,” he said, gesturing toward a screwdriver and work gloves. “All the tools we’re buying that we’re using to build this are included in our purchase price. The anticipation is, you get the Conex and you have everything you need to build it and maintain it. You don’t have to say, ‘Hey, where’s a screwdriver?’ or ‘I need a contractor to do this or that.’”
Launching the project
Dotson’s team began by visiting its assigned communities, Kipnuk and Koyukuk, to connect with people who live there, tour the communities and their homes, find out what they wanted and needed, and teach schoolchildren interactive lessons about water and sanitation.
Dotson, Lucas and Michaelson experienced primitive local amenities, firsthand, during their two trips last year.
“The team spent the night in Kipnuk’s tribal council office meeting room,” according to the project description. “The water was hauled from the washeteria and the toilet available was a honeybucket.”
Dotson’s team created a household water and wastewater system with in-home modules that enable homeowners to select modules that fit their home and lifestyle. The insulated Conex containers would house six plumbing systems associated with differing water qualities and two treatment systems.
“This Conex is going to be our treatment building,” Dotson said, earlier this month. “There’s a hole in it and there’s a hole in the house and we’re smushing them together and mating them. We insulated it; we plywood-sheeted it. The three tanks are going to be the three water qualities. All the plumbing will go out of this Conex and into the house.”
Drinking water will be hauled to the home from the village’s washeteria—its central watering point, he said.
A household of four drinks about two gallons of water each per day, he said.
“I don’t want to see the washeterias go away,” Dotson said. “It’s an important piece of community infrastructure that should stay there. You can bring 5-6 gallons of water home a day and pour it in the tank. In case you made it dirtier coming home, we refilter it and treat it with UV. So you fill this with water you’re comfortable with, we polish it and it is drinking water.”
Not all of the water coming into a home needs to be drinking-water quality, however, Dotson explained, so his team is assembling a system that recycles nonpotable water.
“You would be bringing home about 3 and a half gallons of water a day,” he said. “The easiest place to put water in the water reuse system is to take your bucket and throw it in the shower or take your bucket and throw it in the bin that collects all the washing machine discharge. You can bring home the same amount of water and get 58 gallons’ worth, is the plan.”
The cabin is outfitted with a shower, kitchen sink, bathroom sink and a washer-drier in one unit that condenses water out of the drier back into the house’s system, “so we can reuse the water from the wet clothes,” he said.
Everyone Dotson’s team spoke with said they most wanted a real toilet.
“This is our fancy toilet,” he said. “This is a toilet from Sweden. It’s a separating toilet that has two flushes and actually has two parts. When you pee, you pee in the front and solids go in the back.”
The water saved from urine flushes will be used to supplement shower water.
So what happens to the “solids”—especially in communities that don’t have a functioning disposal system for that kind of waste?
“Full flush is going to go into a keg—a real keg—that will hold almost a week’s worth of toilet flushes,” Dotson said. “Our idea was, if we could make everything that would be hauled into a size and a frequency that was tolerable, you could do it yourself or have a service do it.”
One keg will contain toilet solids, another will hold a gallon and a half a day of “concentrate”—“really, really strong greywater and urea, parts of urine you don’t want in your water.”
Why use the Conex structure? Why not contain the components inside the home?
The idea, Dotson said, was to house and ship everything to the village in the Conex and keep the system simple to maintain as possible.
“In our Conex is our core treatment system,” he said. “We have a big membrane that’s really expensive in comparison to everything else. We paid about $800 for a chlorine-tolerant membrane. We wanted to make it so that if someone did something inappropriate in their house like poured a bunch of oil down the sink or ended up shaving their head into the shower, it didn’t get into that building.”
All a homeowner would likely need to do in case of unforeseen “oops” moments is keep some filters on hand.
“Every fixture will have one of these,” he said, showing two filters. “This is a bag filter, which is essentially a sock that is 5 micron pores, and then this one is a 1-micron cartridge filter. Instead of breaking your whole system, the fixture you did something stupid in is the one that fails. You just change your filters and start over. Four dollars to change these two filters versus $800 to change the one out there.”
Dotson, Lucas and Michaelson are building the project themselves, without the aid of a contractor, he said.
“If two grad students and their advisor can’t make this,” Dotson laughed, “it’s not going to work in rural Alaska.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement