Ceramic Water Filters 101

By: Rachel Schmidt

Who am I?

Helllllllo Team!   I’m so excited to be writing a guest blog for H2dayO!  My name is Rachel Schmidt, and I know Ariel from our civil engineering days at good ole UVa (University of Virginia)!  We took many classes together and spent a summer working with families and slow sand water filtration units in La Gracia, Belize.  I have yet to meet Monique – but hopefully somewhere down the line!

South Africa

So let’s get to the good stuff… I’ve recently returned from a 9-month Fulbright Grant in rural South Africa. I was working to further develop and establish a Ceramic Water Filter (CWF) Factory.  The two big-picture goals include: 1) Get clean water into the community (along with awareness and sanitation education to help prevent disease), and 2) Revive a local business so the workers can produce a profit to support their families.

The Team

I worked with a large UVa-based team, led by Professor Jim Smith, as well as a sizeable University of Venda team, located in Limpopo Province, South Africa.   The multidisciplinary teams include students and staff from anthropology, architecture, biology, business, engineering, and nursing, among others.  We worked closely with a Limpopo-based women’s organization known as the Mukondeni Pottery Cooperative.  Together, these teams make up our newly founded organization, PureMadi – check it out here: puremadi.org…  Pure is for purifying water, and Madi means water in the local Venda language, Tshivenda!

Mukondeni Pottery

The Mukondeni Pottery Cooperative began over 25 years ago with a group of women coming together to teach ceramic skills and develop a small business.  Today, Mukondeni has grown to include 40+ women, a large building to work in, and an expansive outdoor display area (see Figures 1 and 2).  Due to poorly maintained roads and increased competition in the area, Mukondeni is finding it difficult to sell enough pottery to make a profit.  The ladies’ knowledge of ceramic artistry, current financial outlook, willingness to try new technologies, past relationship with the University of Venda, and local survey data resulted in the Universities approaching them to join into a mutually beneficial relationship.

Ceramic Water Filter Technology

Ceramic water filters originated in 1980, and were streamlined in the 1990s to be uniform in size (think flower pot shaped) and capability.  Laboratory and field-testing of CWFs has determined they are highly effective in reducing waterborne pathogens and disinfecting harmful bacteria.

Materials included for CWF production: 

a) Clay – found and mined locally

b) Water – provided by on-site borehole

c) Sawdust – provided for free by local lumber mills

d) Silver nanoparticles – provided by UVa team

Process to create CWFs:

1)       Dry clay and use electric hammer mill to grind clay into a fine dust

2)       Dry sawdust and sieve down to desired size

3)       Add fixed ratio of clay and sawdust into electric mixer, then add water

4)       Use hydraulic press to mold filters into uniform shape (see Figure 3)

5)       Allow filters to dry, and fix imperfections and rims

6)       Fire in wood-burning (or electric!) kiln – this allows the sawdust inside the filters to combust, leaving small pores in the media to allow water to filter through – thus handling the physical decontamination

7)       Perform the pressure test (make sure there are no cracks), and the flow rate test (to ensure water spends enough time in the media to be effectively filtered, but isn’t too slow to prevent usability!) for quality assurance (see Figure 4)

8)       Dilute silver solution, and paint onto each filter – this takes care of the chemical disinfection of the filtration process (see Figure 5)

9)       Prepare bucket by rinsing it out, drilling and inserting plastic spigot, and slapping on a sticker

10)   Place filter in the bucket, snap on the lid, and you’ve got yourself a ceramic water filter

 

Challenges

I reached a few major challenges…

1)       Language:  Tshivenda is a difficult language to learn, as it doesn’t translate well and includes noises I have never made before.  A few of the women spoke English, so we all gained patience and understanding while learning to connect and communicate effectively.

2)       Culture:  Communication was not only difficult due to the language barrier, but to the cultural differences as well.  On multiple occasions, I encountered vastly diverse cultural expectations, which often to led to severe misunderstandings.  These differences were difficult to cope with, until I recognized the situation and could work harder to stay transparent and keep folks updated.

3)       Roof:  The roof of the open-air factory blew off during a huge storm!  Luckily, no one was at the site or harmed, but it put a one-month delay on filter production.

4)       Press:  Two of the three filter molds dented during pressing, which left us with a multi-week delay to get them re-fitted and filled with concrete.

5)       Kiln:  The wood-burning kiln was very difficult to work with, and rarely reached 900C, resulting in unacceptable filters.  WOMP.  I was not able to master the balance of stoking, airflow changes, timing, or teach the concept well enough.  We ended up re-furbishing an old electric kiln that had been on site since the 90’s.

Wrapping Up…

All in all, my work in South Africa focused on structuring and perfecting the filter-creation process, ensuring that the women could produce filters independently, and helping them get their business off the ground.  I worked with the Cooperative Manager to engage additional stakeholders, initiate a marketing program, distribute our first batch of filters, and provide trainings for all of the women.   The Universities and I remain committed to Mukondeni for the long haul, even once we have reached an acceptable level of independent sustainability.

There you have it…. the super basics of starting and maintaining a ceramic water filter factory!  It was a wonderful experience in which I formed amazing friendships with these women, learned the technical nitty-gritty of CWFs, practically started a small business, and experienced living abroad!

Life Straw! Mini Water Purifier

My dream company to work for!! One day, one day… Check them out, absolutely incredible!!

Awesome Stuff To Buy Online

This is really neat invention that will allow you to drink water from questionable sources when you’re out on a long hike and don’t want to carry too much weight. It filters at least 99.9% of waterborne bacteria. This is very impressive but expected if you are filtering particles up to 0.2 microns.

Considering it’s only $25, it’s a great buy for anyone that likes be out in the wild for longer periods of time. You never know what may happen and water is a first priority. Although not the worst of the 7 enemies of survival, it surely will kill you the fastest and it is only a result of poor planning and preparation!

This lab instructor has balls enough to use this straw to drink from poo water! Watch Video

If you check out their Website, it looks like they have more plans than just using the…

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Innovative, creative, and simple ways to can water good enough to drink!!

Innovative, creative, and simple ways to can water good enough to drink!!

http://inhabitat.com/6-water-purifying-devices-for-clean-drinking-water-in-the-developing-world/

leadwater-537x393

Philanthropists shouldn’t just give money to charities

http://www.waterforpeople.org/assets/pdfs/rethinking-hydrophilantropy.pdf

This is a blog post about my favorite article up there ^^^^ (read it. memorize it. show it to everyone you know and discuss it in depth). In many ways, the article is talking directly to me.

“For instance, engineering students would not be allowed to implement a project in the United States, it is not clear why they are allowed, and even encouraged, to implement in developing countries.”

Yes, addressed to me.

I implemented a (water and sanitation) project in a developing country as an engineering student. I was encouraged to do so by family, professors, and friends. Everyone gave me such positive feedback when I told them about it. My father bragged to his co-workers that I was his daughter that was going to “save the world”. There were a multitude of (rather hefty) grants offered at my university for just these projects. There was even a major that was created in my time there that focused wholly on global development.

And yet, I did it wrong.

[Side note: I am not putting blame on anyone in particular, including myself; I believe the push for projects like the one I did is a systematic issue and a product of old thinking. I want to get the new, creative and effective thinking out there.]

—-

A Case Study: Our “Engineering Students in Belize” Project

  • built a large-scale (for 70 users) slow-sand filtration system.
  • installed 35 HydrAid water filters in a small, rural village in Belize.

We wanted to make it a sustainable project. We spoke to local government officials (even got them to come to the isolated village and sample the water. Once…), we spoke to the community “Water Board”, we organized a community-wide health workshop, we used PhotoVoice at the beginning of the project to see how people used water, we put up an anonymous message board at the local store where community members could ask us questions about the project and we could respond, we talked to everyone over and over (and over), we shared watermelons, armadillo, chicken, beans and rice, all manner of food to try and forge relationships. I went back to the community four times in total and lived there for 2 months during one summer. We worked with a group of local university students who we put in charge of continuing the project after we left.

But instead of requiring a financial contribution for the improved water systems we offered, we settled for “sweat-equity”. The recipients of the filters were made to participate in multiple user workshops. They didn’t pay us with money but with their time and attention. We had discussed charging for these filters but I will not go into the long, drawn-out story of why we gave them out, effectively, for free.

So there in lies the evil of the traditional hydro-philanthropists. They finance the project 100%. As Breslin notes in his article, giving out free services can distort the market. Furthermore, it can facilitate corruption. Certain governments have been known to allocate funds to improve the infrastructure of an area. When an NGO comes in and independently finances a project that improves WASH infrastructure in that area, the government officials will write off the community as “benefited” and pocket the funds.

A new(ish) initiative of requiring “sweat-equity” came to the surface in the WASH projects sector. NGOs and “well-meaning individuals” (like moi) thought that in the stead of cold hard cash, the fact that someone was willing to lay pipe or aid in the construction would demonstrate their commitment to the system and therefore ability to maintain it. Breslin argues that this is false. Just because someone helped lay pipes does not mean that they have the financial capacity to replace a pipe that springs a leak six months after the NGO has left. Breslin states that there needs to be a comprehensive set of sustainability metrics that a recipient community must adhere to, such as affordability of local spare parts. Looking at these metrics, the project I did adhered to scarce few.

That makes me pretty sad.

So here I am, working at a non-profit that does WASH projects in Africa. I learned a lot from my mistakes and I want to, no need to, carry that into my job now. I never want to be part of a project that does not strictly adhere to the sustainability metrics that Breslin argues for.

People shouldn’t just throw money at NGOs. The NGOs and implementing individuals should have to defend their proposed project before it is funded. They should have to consider all the sustainability criteria before implementation begins. Effectively, there needs to be a test as strict as the show Shark Tank for all entities proposing a WASH project.

Take-away: What the “hydro-philanthropy” sector needs is its own version of Shark Tank.

Side note 2: I am not, as it may seem, obsessed with Ned Breslin.
Ok… maybe I am a little bit.

Love from (rainy) D.C.!

a-say