Seeking Clarity

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Access to clean water is one of the most basic requirements for maintaining human health and one of the most challenging issues in the developing world. In India alone, more than a billion people have limited access to clean drinking water. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.8 million people die each year of preventable diarrheal diseases, many of which are blamed on water contaminated with bacteria, viruses and parasites. Although many forms of water purification technology are available, a good number of them require a large upfront investment and an expensive infrastructure of pipes and treatment systems.

The problem is particularly challenging in remote areas and in poor communities, but Bothell-based HaloSource has arrived at a small, cheap solution by manufacturing patented water purification technologies that are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for long-term use. The company is active in several markets and has recently seen growth in India, China and Brazil, where it focuses on increasing access to clean water.

HaloSource’s HaloPure system is based on bromine, a halogen in the same family as chlorine and iodine. The company manufactures tiny beads with a halogenated coating. These beads are then placed in a cartridge, and when water flows through it, contact with the large surface area of the beads kills bacteria and viruses on contact. To meet varying international standards, devices manufactured by HaloSource can kill 99.99 percent of viruses and 99.9999 percent of bacteria. Its cartridges can be added to a gravity-fed water canister, which is the most common in-home filtration technology in the developing world. The canisters usually include a ceramic filter that removes particles and cleans out some bacteria and parasites. Adding a cartridge reliably kills any bacteria left behind by the filter, and takes care of viruses such as polio and rotavirus.

The beauty of this setup is its independence. Cartridges require only gravity—no electricity, no plumbing—and one bead-filled vial (some as small as a double-A battery). The unit will last a family of five about six months, processing 1,500 liters of water. In India, a system currently costs between $40 and $60, making it accessible to the nation’s middle tier—about 400 million people—says CEO John Kaestle.

Founded by Jeff Williams in 1998, HaloSource started with 120 angel investors and a dozen staff members whose goal was to commercialize a discovery by S. Davis Worley of Auburn University. Since then, the firm has focused much of its energy on emerging markets.

“The common theme as to why [the initial investors] decided to support the business was the potential of the technology to significantly impact billions of people’s lives,” Kaestle says. By the end of the year, HaloSource expects to have more than 200 employees and major contracts in India, China, Brazil and the United Kingdom. In fact, Kaestle announced recently that its system has been approved in China, making HaloSource the owner of the only disinfection technology to receive approval there.

HaloSource also manufactures products intended for recreational water safety (pools and spas) and environmental remediation (treating storm water and runoff from construction sites). The company has fabricated natural biopolymers in the lab that cause particles in dirty water to clump, making filtration easier and faster. But Kaestle is most excited about the firm’s success at learning to build in emerging markets. “The regulatory hurdles were huge,” he says. “It’s taken a lot of resources and time.”

HaloSource first partnered in 2006 with Eureka Forbes, a major, Mumbai-based marketer of water purifiers. HaloSource also works with between 40 and 50 major consumer-device manufacturers. Kaestle says some of these partners distribute ready-to-use devices made by HaloSource, while others buy key components, which they place into their own products. “There’s no such thing as a standard partner,” Kaestle says. “When you’re a little company and you’re trying to commercialize, you try a lot of things. Some work and some don’t. We’ve learned a lot, and changed a lot.”

The complexion of the business is one thing that has changed remarkably, shifting from mostly microbiologists and chemists to sales professionals and marketing experts. But there are still plenty of white coats and test tubes in evidence. The Bothell facility has a full set of laboratories and everything is tested there first before going on to outside certification.

The only lab without windows is the virology lab, where researchers test the effectiveness of HaloSource systems against viruses to ensure that the units meet EPA standards. “That’s where the really nasty stuff is,” says Andrew Clews, vice president of marketing and product development. “I have no desire to go in there.”

Water issues are expected to become only more troubling in the coming years. A study by the Cass Business School in London predicts a decline in clean water access in both developed and developing countries beginning as early as this year, due to climate change, population growth and pollution from industry, agriculture and warfare. By 2050, researchers expect countries worldwide to be in the throes of an economic crisis brought on by water scarcity.

Clearly, something has to change, and some people are pointing to the sustainability of small-scale commercial solutions. PATH, a Seattle-based nonprofit with a focus on global health, is in the midst of a five-year study designed to uncover the best possible methods for using commercial markets to distribute water treatment devices sustainably. HaloSource’s technology may be part of that plan. Although PATH declines to talk about it, most assume its partnership involves matching HaloSource technology with an appropriate distribution system for impoverished communities.

Kaestle also sees applications for HaloSource technology in natural disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Japan. The company is already collaborating with a leading nongovernmental organization whose name it can’t reveal. “There are a number of differences between water needs in an emergency response situation and water in a semi-potable situation,” says Clews. “We’re working on those types of products.”

While it’s tempting to imagine clean water someday gushing from taps in communities where there was once no source of safe drinking water, the truth is that point-of-use (POU) water treatment of the sort HaloSource provides may be the most realistic way to address water quality issues. A successful POU system makes complex water-treatment infrastructure unnecessary, and to Kaestle and Clews, that’s as it should be.

“Between global warming, human development, industry and agriculture, we are running out of safe drinking water,” Clews says. “And the cost of building infrastructure is enormous.” For example, the price of rebuilding a water treatment plant in Longview, was recently estimated at $52.6 million, and the Brightwater treatment plant currently under construction in King County was budgeted at $1.8 billion but is expected to exceed that figure because of complications.

“Even if we had the money, it would be decades before anything was finished,” Kaestle adds. “The challenge of replicating the first-world model [of water treatment plants] is massive.” Massive and perhaps wasteful. Kaestle points out that only 3 percent of the water used in Seattle is for drinking, yet all of it is treated to potable water standards. Which makes it even more imperative that, for there to be drinkable water everywhere, the cost of treating it must amount to a drop in the bucket.

Catching the Green Wave

Catching the Green Wave

Eco-savvy developers incorporate ways to mitigate stormwater pollution.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Seattle’s 84-year-old Aurora Bridge is built with steel downspouts that dump 3.2 million gallons of untreated rainwater directly into the ship canal between Lake Union and Puget Sound every year, something that bridge designers in the 1930s probably never considered to be a problem.

The CoU Project, named for the Fremont neighborhood that calls itself the Center of the Universe, is tackling the bridge runoff in its design of the Fremont Office Building at 34th Street and Troll Avenue. Situated in the shadow of the Aurora Bridge and two of its downspouts, the project broke ground this spring and is scheduled for completion next year.

Early in their planning discussions, the developer Stephen C. Grey & Associates and the civil engineering firm KPFF decided to catch the water from the downspouts and filter it. Their design includes a stepped system of six bioretention cells, or rain gardens, in the public right of way along Troll Avenue beneath the Aurora Bridge. The roadway’s 15-degree incline poses an engineering challenge, but KPFF designed a system that diverts outflow from the cell above to the cell below. This way, each cell receives enough water to keep the gardens’ plants healthy without irrigation while also filtering rainwater. The last cell sends the filtered water into the ship canal. 

Water runoff from hard surfaces is the largest contributor to pollution in Puget Sound. This isn’t just rain we’re talking about. As it drains from pavement to the sound, the water becomes contaminated with motor oil, gasoline and a variety of heavy metals. 

Striking research by Professor Jenifer McIntyre at Washington State University (WSU) has demonstrated that untreated stormwater runoff from State Route 520 can kill salmon in just a few hours. Salmon are considered an indicator species because their sensitivity to environmental toxins shows how the toxins might affect the health of other species, including humans. Filtering the stormwater through a mixture of sand and compost absorbs the toxins and allows the fish to survive.

The biorentention cells in Fremont will accomplish the same thing in a remarkable example of public/private partnership that has come up with a creative solution despite potential obstacles. The developer and the engineers needed to get cooperation from both the Washington State Department of Transportation and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) even though they will receive no financial benefit by keeping vast quantities of untreated water out of Lake Union.

“Very few private developers are willing to do this sort of thing,” says Jeremy Febus, KPFF’s civil engineer in charge of the CoU Project. “It’s a big undertaking.”

The COU project will divert about 6,000 gallons of runoff per year, or the equivalent of 16 gallons a day. This isn’t a staggering amount, but Mark Grey, principal and property manager at Stephen C. Grey & Associates, believes it is only the beginning. He says his company has in the pipeline projects that will filter more water and he hopes other developers will be inspired to jump on board to address the issue on a regional level.

The Seattle 2030 District, a public-private collaborative working to create a groundbreaking high-performance building district in downtown Seattle, has developed guidelines to encourage developers to take action on stormwater management, which is becoming a greater issue as climate change leads to more days per year of substantial rainfall. Heavy storms overwhelm existing water-treatment systems, causing untreated water to overflow into local waterways.

District guidelines require newly constructed buildings to keep stormwater discharge 50 percent below the current district average in their designs. Existing buildings must implement retrofits to achieve the 50 percent reduction by 2030. Although the guidelines only affect buildings within the district — 11 neighborhoods in and around downtown Seattle — other communities are taking action as well and coming up with their own site-specific solutions to stormwater management. 

The Sheraton Seattle downtown is finishing the design on a project that will divert rainwater from its roof to a storage tank for filtering, sanitizing and ultimate use in the hotel’s laundry operation. The Sheraton is working with Seattle-based Herrera Environmental Consultants on the filtration and pumping system design and is evaluating bids to find a certified mechanical contractor to complete the work. The goal is to install the system by this fall. 

Rodney Schauf, director of engineering at the Sheraton, believes Starwood Hotels — Sheraton’s parent company — may follow suit with similar efforts to reuse stormwater in its properties nationwide. The result is attractive from financial and environmental standpoints, as it allows the hotel to buy less water from the city. 

Seattle’s little wing Office Building on Sixth Avenue houses the administrative offices of the EMP Museum and demonstrates that creating a green infrastructure doesn’t necessarily cost more money than more established methods and can actually save money. Vulcan Inc., the property owner, is one local developer taking a lead in implementing environmental consideration into its designs.

 The Little Wing design includes a sloping green roof that filters rainwater and also keeps the building cooler in the summer. Runoff from the roof is filtered and either stored in a 9,000-gallon tank for later use or distributed immediately into the building to supply the sewage system.

Theoretically, the system can save up to 89,000 gallons of water per year; actual data show results closer to 60,000 gallons. Installing the green roof and outdoor storage tank for about $180,000 eliminated the need for an underground detention tank and a secondary storm/sewer discharge connection below the street, which would have cost about $250,000. 

The Little Wing building is also Salmon-Safe certified, which means it has met a list of performance requirements that aim to minimize the impact of urban development on the environment and enhance salmon habitat. Standards cover stormwater management, water use, water quality protection and more. Vulcan’s aim is to certify all its properties as salmon safe.

Over in north Bothell, Clearwater Commons, a small, eco-friendly residential development, has a goal of achieving zero discharge. All stormwater is infiltrated on site. The houses stand on pin foundations so rainwater that isn’t sent to cisterns flows underneath the buildings and soaks into the ground, making the houses look more like cabins in the country than suburban homes a quarter-mile from a main road.

None of the houses have basements or garages. The “road” running down the center of the development is made from drivable grass — square bricks with greenery growing between them and sand underneath — and is intended primarily as a pedestrian path with access for emergency vehicles. Residents park their cars in a lot at the front of the development, much of which is covered in permeable pavement.

Permeable pavement absorbs rainfall that would otherwise flow into storm drains, but it suffers from certain drawbacks, such as not being durable enough to be used on heavily traveled roads. Collaboration among the Boeing Company, WSU and the Washington Stormwater Center led to a pilot project using discarded carbon-fiber composites from aircraft production to develop a stronger alternative to existing permeable pavement. Initial testing suggests the material absorbs water efficiently and does a good job of filtering toxic chemicals. More research is needed before such a product reaches the market. 

Meanwhile, projects like Little Wing and the Sheraton that reuse roof runoff have the double benefit of helping Puget Sound while saving on water bills — the green roof of Audi Seattle’s new showroom in the University District recycles water that’s used to wash cars — but local regulations make such recycling impossible in many cases.

The CoU Project, for example, is prohibited from recycling the Aurora Bridge runoff for use inside the building because the runoff falls onto public property and cannot be diverted to private use without first going through the municipal water system. SPU maintains ownership of stormwater that empties onto publicly owned land, including rights of way in front of private buildings.

While some business owners are resistant to change and may not be eager to invest in new technologies to address stormwater management, tighter regulations may force them into action. As stricter national regulations based on the Clean Water Act trickle down to states and cities, local businesses will not have a choice whether to control stormwater discharge. Rather, they will have to decide just how to do so.

The Sheraton’s Schauf offers this advice to building owners: “Start out with an open mind and get creative about what can be done. There are ways that aren’t expensive that both save costs and limit the impact on the environment.”