By Anderson Boyd, Mackenzie Drake and Kylie Fitzpatrick
When Markus Hogue taps his iPad, the ground moves.
Eight sprinklers shoot from the manicured lawn of the Belo Media Center, spraying water in a semi-circle over the verdant grass.
Hogue, irrigation and water conservation coordinator for University Facilities Services, taps the glass screen again, and the sprinklers disappear, leaving only wet spots on the surrounding concrete as evidence of their existence.
The iPad is connected to a central computer accessible from anywhere on campus, and acts as a mobile command hub for Hogue. It is part of a large-scale irrigation system overhaul that has reduced its water usage by 66 percent, Hogue said.
“We’re saving the University $800,000 a year,” Hogue said. “We’re hoping to save [water] at a hundred million gallons a year [as well].”
This irrigation overhaul is a main reason University Facilities Services is nearing a 20 percent reduction in water and energy usage, a goal originally set for a 2020 completion. Announced in 2012, the goal sits at about 80 percent completed, according to Patrick Mazur, technical staff associate for Energy and Resource Conservation.
Because the project uses 2009 as a baseline year for comparisons, Mazur said a plumbing retrofit of education and general, or E&G, buildings done on campus and at the J.J. Pickle Research Center in 2008 does not officially count toward the project. Data supplied by Facilities Services shows an estimated $2.5 million saved from the plumbing retrofit, which saw 2,220 low-flow toilets and 592 china fixtures installed between 2008 and 2009.
Mazur said Facilities Services only retrofitted E&G buildings because other departments such as University Athletics and Division of Housing and Food Services operate as their own autonomous entities, known as auxiliary enterprises. This means they have their own budgets and receive their own bills for water and energy usage from the University power plant. Mazur compared it to running a hotel.
“They really have more of an incentive, quite frankly, to use less [water and energy] because they get billed, just like you would at your house,” Mazur said. “Since they pay directly for their water usage it’s in their best interest to keep things minimized.”
The University buys 95 percent of its water from the City of Austin Water Utility, with the other five percent recovered through French drains in landscaped areas and through collecting condensation off of air handlers in the cooling stations. Mazur said there is some talk of harvesting rainwater from campus roofs to further reduce water used for irrigation, but only the Belo Media Center, Student Activity Center, Kinsolving and Jester West dormitories and the Biomedical Engineering building currently have useable collection tanks.
Utilities and Energy Management, responsible for maintaining the University power plant and cooling stations, uses about 50 percent of the water on campus. Ryan Thompson, maintenance manager for Utilities and Energy Management, said the department uses reclaimed water supplied by the city in their cooling stations because it is a quarter of the price of potable water, which saves the University money in the long term.
“These [cooling towers] are the biggest water users on campus, so our goal was to use the city’s reclaimed water which is a cheaper less energy intensive water source,” Thompson said. “It saves us the money and its more sustainable in the long run for the community.”
Mazur said there is no immediate conservation project as of right now. Current conservation efforts include buying new laboratory equipment such as vacuum pumps and pipette cleaners that better conserve water, since science labs and related buildings consume more water and energy than non-science buildings.
The University produces its own chilled water, steam and electricity, according to Mazur. It even sits on its own power grid, which can be used as backup in case the city’s main grid fails.
“We are completely autonomous from the city of Austin. The water is the only thing we don’t make on campus, with the exception of the recovered water,” Mazur said. “But we want to be good stewards and not waste unnecessarily. It costs us, it costs money to buy that water; it’s foolish to let it go down the drain.”