White Pine - The Sustainable Real Estate Journal

Sustainable Design Principles and Innovation,
Merging Building Technology with the Forces of Nature

Decentralized Modular Wastewater Treatment
An Interview with Dan Early

by Don Kulak

We live on a planet comprised primarily of water. Water accounts for approximately 60% of the human body. That said, we continue to contaminate and waste the very resource that is most crucial to all life.   According to a just-published United Nations report on the global water situation, “In 2015, three in ten people (2.1 billion) did not have access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion people, or six in ten, had no safely managed sanitation facilities.” It goes on to say, “…if the degradation of the natural environment and the unsustainable pressure on global water resources continue at current rates, 45% of global Gross Domestic Product and 40% of global grain production will be at risk by 2050.”

The problem goes beyond drinking water and basic sanitation. What about the reckless contamination of lakes, rivers and oceans from overflowing sewage and the like? The actual costs are astronomical. Studies have shown property values of waterfront communities increase or decreases significantly depending on water clarity alone. A one-meter distance either way substantially affects values, and therefore municipal tax revenue, loss of local business, etc. (See “Sustainable Real Estate – The Big Payback” for more) This is not to mention exorbitant health costs, and loss of demand for related industries such as boats, fishing gear, outboard motors, water skis, scuba equipment…

Those who continue to think, “it is the economy OR the environment,” may want to get their facts straight and rethink a blind servitude to the status quo. If money is the prime motivator to either act, or not act at all to a situation, then the scenario that exists today does not make any sense, because a lot of money is literally being thrown down the sewer.

Making matters even worse, our archaic water and sewer infrastructure is in dire need of repair and renovation. Ask the people of Flint MI. The whole concept of centralized water/sewer systems is inefficient, outdated, dirty and expensive, yet for the most part it remains business as usual, with its limiting belief system leaving little room for more creative, efficient solutions.

We recently interviewed Dan Early and Riggs Eckelberry at OriginClear, a relatively new player in the water management arena based in Los Angeles.  Their concept of decentralized, portable modular water treatment is simple, yet profound, given the industry’s predisposition towards centralization.
Architect Malcolm Wells said ” …A building should consume its own waste, maintain itself, match nature’s pace, provide wildlife habitat, moderate climate and weather and be beautiful. That’s a series of pass/fail evaluation criteria….” Originclear’s modules are a big step in that direction.

The bottom line is that these modules purify and recycle wastewater for secondary uses such as toilets, machinery washing, irrigation, etc. This not only saves water, but significantly reduces wastewater discharge thereby helping prevent sewer overflows and contamination of land and waterways.
The additional expense of long transport costs, including pipeline installation, maintenance and repair are also eliminated. More details about the systems can be found in our interview with Originclear, which follows.

Dan Early: Okay Don, the good news is that capability and the product line that you and I discussed last fall with 300 gallons per day at roughly 24 homes in a cluster system, that technology is out there and we are promoting and selling it.
We have just recently delivered one of those systems for a car dealership in Pennsylvania. They are doing a zero liquid discharge, meaning that they are collecting all their waste water from this new dealership and are treating that and are completely recycling it for toilet re-flush and for other secondary purposes.

So that technology I described to you last fall, this is just a variant or variation of that same technology. Same scale, same footprint, same general functionality, just we’ve added a couple extra features to it to take advantage of the reuse and reclamation regulations. That the reuse reclamation capability as it relates to Modular Water continues to grow and expand.

I don’t recall how much detail we may have discussed back last October, but at that time we were working on standardization around 2500 gallons per day, 5,000 gallons per day, 7500 gallons per day and 10,000 gallons per day advanced waste water treatment systems for this private sector, entry level waste water treatment and reuse market which would be single family residential, multi-use family, mixed-use commercial and those types of things. We have those product lines. We are moving them into the market and we are working with a number of consulting engineers that are making us Basis of Design and are specifying product.

One of the key functions is we’re heavily invested in and focused on the use of heavy plastics to deliver the tank. And the reason why I tell you that is that heavy plastic is the most durable of all of the materials of construction available to us today. That allows us to fabricate a waste water treatment plant in a factory setting and we can deliver it using emerging and advanced technologies so that when it arrives at the job site it is installed and commissioned.

Not only does the end user or the buyer have the benefit of these advanced treatment units but they also have the most durable tanking system available to them and that overcomes limitations related to concrete and steel that are highly susceptible to waste water corrosion which you’ve seen in the waste water environment. So that is definitely still moving forward and the emphasis on that is still really strong.

To answer your second question, what has happened or what is evolving since then is that in late December, early January, we started having enquiries from the craft brewery industry which is a niche commercial industry if you’re familiar with it.
That industry, those buyers are very, very intelligent. Very progressive in their thinking about their water footprint and their carbon footprint, so we have developed an advanced treatment system that allows us to treat brewery waste water in such a fashion that we can take a recycle and help offset and reduce the waste water demand for these craft brewers as much as maybe 80 to 90 percent.

In a lot of their instances, when they go through their brewing process and they dump their vats and they clean to prep for the next batch, they need a high purity water that they can then clean their tubs, or vats, and everything to prepare for the next round of brewing.

We have a technology, it’s just an evolution of our commercial systems and basically what is really beautiful about this is it takes our black water advanced membrane treatment technology and we add on a reverse osmosis advanced water filtration technology, which is a sister technology from our division, Progressive Water Treatment down in McKinney, Texas, and so by taking those two technologies and putting them together in a single product, we have the ability to provide this turn key solution.

You bring into the facility, set it up, pipe in, pipe out, power up and this system can treat brewery black water and brewery waste water, feed it into the R.O. system which will polish it and then we have, for all intents and purposes, a very, very pristine potable water that is way, way more conducive to reuse and reclamation for industrial cleaning and vat prep and vat sterilization and those types of things. So, they can get the vats ready for the next brewing process.
Well the next derivative that comes out of this is that same concept. Now, the craft brewery industry is kind of unique in that your flows are very small, at say a thousand gallons per day on the low end maybe up to as much as five thousand gallons on the upper end. Or at least relative to the technology capability, the way we deliver it.

There are some that do have higher flow rates. But what comes out of that, Don, is that technology, because we have developed the footprint and have developed the capability, now we can scale it up and we’re scaling it up for the agricultural industry because we have been contacted by pork producers out in the mid-west and the upper mid-west.
States like Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa where you have a heavy focus on pork production and pork farming and industrial farming comes with that type of application. Out there, their problem is different in that they don’t necessarily, they can use the water for reuse and reclamation, but the two things they need is to protect the environment so they want to take it one step further, in that because we have this R.O., this hybrid treatment process where you use the black water membrane filtration followed by the reverse osmosis polishing component, we can treat the water for reuse and reclamation inside the hog barns but now we are removing total dissolved solids, salts, other compounds and particulates that were making their way into the local environment on the farm lands and are creating ground water pollution issues both structurally and in contamination.

After 20 years or 30 years of onsite waste water disposal at these hog farms, the salts that are present in the waste water are binding with the soil structure and they are basically, for the lack of a better word, creating a pavement. The soil is getting very, very hard. They’re very constricted. Their hydraulic conductivity is limited. So, that is a major, major problem for onsite waste water disposal.

The second thing is the pollution element. Pollution in the form of nutrients which would be nitrogen or phosphorous. Those things are making their way into the environment. They are making their way into the ground water and they are in gross violation. Most of these farms now are in gross violation of the EPA ground water nitrogen standard of 10 parts per million for total nitrogen. So, this hybrid technology that we’ve developed allows us to do the same thing that we’re doing with the craft brewery industry in that we can reduce their total water consumption by to 90 percent. We can extract, remove, and side stream the problematic pollution particulates like total dissolved solids and nutrients in the form of nitrogen and phosphorous. And when we side stream


those we are able to concentrate those so they for the lack of a better word, they become a liquid fertilizer. It’s a valuable recovered recourse that these farmers now can sell to crop farmers who are buying these fertilizers, liquid fertilizers, and they can actually supplement. We’re very pleased with the progress we’re making there.

Don Kulak: Can I back up?  What remains after the black water filtration?

Dan Early: After the black water filtration there will be some organic solid, bio-solids, that are rich in carbon that you can use for composting and for land application. But the fertilizer component I’m talking about is the more problematic pollution element that is the form of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Don Kulak: Now, I understand that but you said you could create fertilizer and I’m just wondering where the fertilizer comes from. Is it a result of what’s caught in the filters? And that’s eventually turned to fertilizer?

Dan Early: Both.

Don Kulak: Where does the fertilizer actually come from?
Dan Early: Two places. Since we have this two part hybrid biological and reverse osmosis filtration process carbon and bio-solids are captured in the stage one membrane filtration system. The membrane bioreactors system. That is resource recovery number one.
Recourse recovery number two is going to be in the reverse osmosis polishing system where we’re able to extract and capture nitrogen and phosphorous compounds and can concentrate those in a side stream collection tank where we can concentrate those nitrogens and get those up to a pretty heavily concentration. So, it’s a two-part process.

Don Kulak: All right. Makes sense.

Dan Early: This is all inside a single footprint, single deliver method. It is not a combination of parts and pieces that you have to field assembly. This is a total engineered solution that shows up in a container. Pipe in, pipe out. It has an onboard control room.
It’s almost like practicing naval architecture. You walk into the control room. You got the control panels, you have all of your aeration and blower systems and those types of systems that run both, it runs the entire treatment process. It is the easiest of all available technologies. It’s the easiest one to deliver and effectively solve this very challenging problem facing the agricultural industry.
Well, my last comment is this allows us to go after confined animal feeding operations where we can treat those pollution elements there for larger animals. The beef industry. It has its application in the poultry industry. We’re really, really super excited about this.

Don Kulak: So, going back to that little subdivision we were talking about. Can they all basically create their own fertilizer from the waste water? I mean is that possible or is that a whole different animal that’s not an agricultural situation.

Dan Early: Can it be done? The answer is yes, you can do it. You can add this exact same complementary technology as a polishing element to the ends of the system we do for clustered residential subdivision treatment systems. You can do that. It will add a level of complexity and the one thing I will tell you is that agricultural regulations tend to be different than municipal or domestic regulations related to waste water treatment. There is a human health and safety issue related to pathogen infectors in municipal and domestic sewage that sometimes impede the development and implementation of advanced technologies like this. So could you do it? Answers yes. Can you mechanically do it? Yes.

Don Kulak: Okay.

Dan Early: We already practice a certain level of this in certain applications but it’s much more difficult at a municipal level.

Don Kulak: So you said that on an agricultural application, it reduces the water consumption by 90, 95 percent. In other words what you’re saying is the filtrated and treated water that remains at the end is okay for animals to drink? And it’s okay for watering crops?

Dan Early: Definitely okay for watering crops. You can discharge it to the environment. Not an issue there because we have prepped it and cleaned it sufficiently to eliminate the sodium binding, the salt binding issue with the soil. We’ve eliminated the nitrogen or the nutrient pollution element in the form of nitrogen phosphorous.
Where they’re able to reduce the water consumption is in the clean-up. They use a lot of water. Single use for washing down and cleaning the hog barns and the hog pens. Those types of things.

Don Kulak: Okay.

Dan Early: The farmer my have an onsite well. He’ll drill an onsite well. He’ll pull ground water out of the ground. He’ll flush his barns and clean his barns and that waste water goes into a series of settling lagoons and sewage ponds, manure ponds. From there it gets spread on fields or percolates into the ground. By implementing this type of system we are able to effectively reduce their water consumption by at least 75 to 90 percent. Now the drinking water. Can they drink what comes out of the polishing system? They can. They probably will continue to just use fresh water for drinking water but they’ll use the bulk for reuse and for cleaning the pig barns. The hog barns.

Don Kulak: Okay. There’s a building out in Seattle called the Bullet Center. It’s a real state of the art building and they say they can recycle all of their water and create potable water as a result. But they added an extra phase. In addition to the osmosis and the filtration they added actually two extra phases. They added UV and a small degree of chlorination. They’re still having trouble with the city because they’re real tough about drinking water for people and I can understand that, but according to them it’s as pure or better than any other city water.
Do you intend to even try or is worth your while to try to get some of your recycled water in these housing developments turned into drinking water?

Dan Early: When you put a reverse osmosis filtration system downstream of the blackwater wastewater membrane filtration biological process that we deploy, I mean for all intents and purposes, the water that comes out of that unit is potable, it will meet the EPA drinking water standards with every respect. And I will tell you, UV disinfection and complimentary or auxiliary chlorination, we actually provide those elements as well.
On the craft brewery industry, we have redundancy, we will polish and then we’ll go through a UV system and then the stored, the treated water will be chlorinated, so that you will have a chlorine chemical residual available, so that when you take that water that has been polished and filtered, and when you feed it back in for sterilization and vat cleaning it carries that disinfection capability with it.
So we already do that. That’s standard fare with our systems. With the hog farm, what we call the AgriSKID™, that’s what we call these Containerized Agriculture Wastewater Systems. With the AgriSKID unit we have that same functionality built in, because the pork industry has the same health concerns relative to the animals, as humans do relative to public health and safety for people. So we provide the same level of redundancy, the UV disinfection with a redundant chlorination, chemical chlorination capability so that if you have a bad day with one or the other, you always have a chlorination, disinfection and sterilization capability with you. So we do both of those things.
Can you drink the water out of this stuff? Could I take domestic sewage and clean it up and drink it? Yes. Can I take hog manure clean it up and drink it? Yes.

Don Kulak: Now with whatever agency that governs that, would they be okay with that?

Dan Early: Therein lies the issue. The regulatory bodies are very hesitant to approve and permit these type of applications because their responsibility is to protect the environment and to protect the public health and safety.
These regulators, these regulatory bodies at the federal, state, and local levels, they all need to get their brains wrapped around the capabilities of these technologies, the fail-safes and the safeguards that are built into these technologies, the monitoring and automatic operation of these technologies, such that you could use these things and be able to recycle the water for human consumption.
It can be done. It can be regulated. Bureaucracy, the wheels of bureaucracy, as everybody says, they turn very, very, very slowly. So it will take a while. I am starting to see adoption of some of these technologies and some of these components in certain regions around the United States. It’s just going to take a while to get there, and then there’s a stigma, there’s a public stigma that comes with it as well.