• WaterHub to help substantially cut down on utility water use on Emory campus

    By: Brian Monahan


    DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - Water is a precious commodity in north Georgia. Metro Atlanta relies on the single smallest watershed for drinking water purposes in the country.

    The region lacks significant ground water sources and is frequently stricken by periods of drought.

    Last spring, a first of its kind, in North America, water treatment facility went online at Emory University.

    Brent Zern, assistant director of energy at utilities at Emory, says it’s the largest decentralized, natural system in the country.

    Reclaiming wastewater is not new. Cities and counties across the country chemically treat wastewater and return it to their systems for non-potable uses.

    At Emory, “instead of using a very chemically intensive treatment process, we’re using a very natural, biological process,” Zern said.

    The greenhouse called the WaterHub is full of plants chosen specifically for the size and structure of their root systems.

    Plants sit atop huge tanks filled with wastewater diverted toward the facility from DeKalb County’s system.

    “What we see at on the surface is really just the visual. It kind of gives that wow factor but all the magic is really happening underneath in the root systems,” Zern said.

    In the water below are microorganisms, or “good bugs,” as Zern calls them, that anchor to the root systems of the plants and an additional mesh latticework. It’s the “bugs” that clean the water.

    “They consume the organics and contaminants out of the wastewater,” Zern said.

    Once purified, the water meets standards for non-potable use. The water is used for heating and cooling applications on campus, and soon toilet flushing.

    When WaterHub is fully operational this fall, it will account for 90 percent of the utility water use on campus and reduce Emory’s total water use footprint by 40 percent, a water savings of nearly 150 million gallons a year.

    With drinking water supplies strained in the area, Emory will use little for utility use.

    “We’re offsetting good county drinking water with this reclaimed water,” Zern said.

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