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!

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Creating a SUSTAINABILITY ecosystem

This post was inspired by this article. When I was reading it, I was thinking about the WASH (water access, sanitation and hygiene) sector. This is not a surprise because I am pretty much constantly thinking about it.

I thought, what would a sustainability [meaning, simplified: the ability of an installed water system to function after the organization that installed it has left] ecosystem look like?

“In the ocean, a reef provides a structure that protects fish, provides food, and creates an arena for marine plants and animals to live and thrive.”

Using this example, the installed water system would be the fish (…or would the fish be the person using the water system?). What would the surrounding coral reef look like for the WASH sector? The ocean would be funding (as in the water would be the money…?). The coral would be local government. NGOs would be seaweed. Maybe the WASH sector right now would look a bit like the Great Barrier Reef and its current deteriorating state (sad…). The coral (local government) is being destroyed, weakened. The seaweed sustains the fish in the meantime but it is not a reliable source of food.

In the real world though (getting away from my marine metaphor) my initial thought is that the “ecosystem” would look something like this (yes, biased view, because I’ve been helping develop it). This is a platform for WASH sector stakeholders to promote the provision of lasting water services. It could be an on-line platform such as sustainablewash.org. Or it could be a collection of organizations that give best practice advice for WASH project stakeholders. I also think WASH Cost and crowd-sourcing WASH data such as mWater and Akvo FLOW (FLOW is in development. Also I am planning a post about platforms such as mWater and FLOW) should be included in the ecosystem. They are tools that all stakeholders should be using.

As the article says:

Get the right people involved.

In this sector, that would mean promoting ownership by local government of water systems. It would mean getting donors to require long-term monitoring post project close-out (from when the grant agreement or contract is signed) of the system they are funding. One of the reasons that approx. 30% of WASH projects fail after 2-5 years is that the right people haven’t yet been involved in the sustainability dialogue. It’s donors and governments. They are the heavy-weights. NGOs will require monitoring of their systems if they are being required to by their donors.

In summary, there needs to be an environment (or ecosystem) in place that promotes WASH projects that actually last. Just what that looks like is to be determined. It something that I wholesomely intend to get to the bottom of.

 

Good night my WASH-y friends!

A-say

Should water be free?

Access to sufficient clean drinking water is a basic human right.

And this was only explicitly recognized in 2010 by the UN. Does that seem a bit late to you? (upcoming post about this issue soon — I wrote my senior thesis about it)

WHO (World Health Organization) defines “adequate access” as 20L/person/day within a 1 km distance. The factors that are addressed here are quality, quantity and distance of the user from the water source. This metric, however, does not engage with the issue of the cost of water.

I believe that clean drinking water should not be free. Ever. Never ever.

Let me break that down before you think I have no soul (I do think it should be free in short-term emergency mitigation situations such as in war time, at refugee camps and following natural disasters, what’s up Hurricane Sandy). I am a strong believer in the power of economics to influence human behavior. I am of the opinion that if you give something to someone for free, it will not be valued and maintained effectively by the recipient as much as if you had sold it to them. An investment will show a commitment to the product by the consumer. In this sense, I believe there should be flexibility in charging for water. Yes, it is a basic human right, but that does not mean it should be free.

Food is a basic human right. It is not free. Access to health care is a basic human right. It is not free (not in the US of A at least).

There should be boundaries though. I would not want to see a private enterprise come in, see an area afflicted by water scarcity and make a killing by charging ridiculously high rates for clean water because they have a monopoly on the only water source. I think making such a large profit off a vulnerable population is unethical. A classic case of the (perceived) evil engineering company coming in and robbing the poor is the “Cochabamba Water War”. In this historic protest, the contract with Bechtel was canceled due to a popular uprising. I honestly believe that Bechtel could have benefited the area (yes, this is speculation). They aren’t doing too well as it stands with the system people protested to keep:

But the results, in terms of access to clean and affordable water, are far more mixed. Half the homes in the area served by the public water utility still have no water service; many of those that do have service only have it a few hours a week. A decade after people shed blood in the streets to retake their water, the company that manages it remains riddled with corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency—a source of graft for the city’s mayor and the union that represents the company’s workers.

Governmental regulation and public-private partnerships can prevent exploitation from happening. Well-managed public utilities (shout-out to George Hawkins and his fantastic management of DC Water) can charge reasonable prices for water. A private entity can work with the public utility to increase efficiency. Utilities do need money to maintain their systems of water delivery after all! If they have help from the government in the form of subsidies they would be able to effectively deliver water and maintain their delivery system (old pipes!).

As I spoke about in an earlier post, giving out free water systems will not solve the water crisis. There needs to be a (reasonable) charge for a water system or a water delivery service. This can help ensure that the consumer has the income available to purchase spare parts for an installed system later on when it breaks. It also promotes conservation. You are more likely to conserve a resource you had to pay for.

Access to water is a basic human right. This does not mean that it is unethical to charge for it. You do go to the grocery store don’t you (well, not today, the grocery stores around here are certainly bare…)? Same idea.

I strongly disagree with this article.

Going to blow away in D.C.,

A-say