The Solution to Flint, MI’s Water Problems

Unless you live in Detroit, you may not know that they actually already HAVE three FabLabs operating there. I only know this myself because last year, when the city of Detroit was having their water crisis, I contacted all three with an offer. The offer was this:

Let’s build a prototype atmospheric water condenser to prove the concept. Once it’s up and running, we could hold workshops to teach people how to make their own. I’ll pay for the development of the first one.

No takers, and I live too far away to just pop up there for a face-to-face visit.

Eventually, the problem got more-or-less sorted out, but now, Flint is having water troubles. The same offer still stands. If you live in the region, and can stop by any of the area’s three FabLabs, please do so. I’m happy to pay for the prototype’s development.

Several options here. We can go the off the shelf, DIY route, making use of a modified, store bought dehumidifier See THIS LINK.

We could start with the off the shelf idea, but try to get the cost down by sourcing the material from area thrifts and junkyards. (The estimated cost of the DIY project is ~$300, but we could likely reduce that by two thirds with a bit of applied creativity)

Or we could create a solar powered one (which may not be as efficient this time of year) (PDF’s attached to this post). Any of the three existing FabLabs in the area would have all the tools and equipment to make this happen locally. No need to wait for government intervention. No need to ask anybody’s permission. Let’s build a couple and test ’em out. Then, when we get a model we like, that delivers good results, let’s start holding workshops to teach people how to make one just like it, and let’s help ’em source low cost (or free) parts to make that happen. This is EXACTLY the kind of problem that I’m designing Play the Planet to address. Sadly, until the system is ready, I’ll have to resort to working through proxies, but the day’s coming when stuff like this won’t even make the news, because the Holon system will simply identify it and fix it.

___solar powered atmospheric water generator, A

__ atmospheric water generator, B

A third idea would be to start with a greenhouse or basement dehumidifier, which collects unfiltered water, and rig a hose and a pump to pump the water to a simple, low tech sand drip filtration system and something to catch and store the filtered water. Lots of different ways to approach the problem.

Design Goals
We should keep the following three design goals in mind.

First and foremost, the matter of price. We want to keep the per unit COST of the thing as low as we can, remembering that we’re building the prototype so that we can use it as a guideline to hold workshops for the people in Flint can build their own. We don’t want this to be a financial burden on them, as that simply trades one problem for another. Low cost = accessibility!

Second, simplicity – again, the idea here is to make something that can be easily replicated by people of various skill levels at workshops. Simpler is always better.

Finally, quantity…total daily output. While the typical American household uses 80-100 gallons of water per day, much of this is tied up in toilet flushing, which we don’t particularly care about. In terms of cooking and drinking, our goal can be significantly more modest…if we shoot for an output of 5-6 gallons per day, that should meet the needs of just about every impacted household.

Many dehumidifiers measure their output in pints. 8 pints to a gallon, so we’re looking for something that can extract and filter between 40-48 pints per day. If we can get more without increasing the cost of the thing, so much the better.

Scope And Scale
The City of Flint has 41,017 households. ( )

Half of those are experiencing some level of water contamination, which gives us a total need of 20,509 units to fix what I feel is the most important dimension of the problem (people getting sick because they’re drinking and cooking with contaminated water). Or, if you want to focus JUST on the homes with contamination above the EPA’s guidelines, that’s one in six, or a total of 6837. This is an utterly manageable number.

Note that most of the work would be done by the folks experiencing the water problems, but the number is important in terms of figuring out how many resources we’d need to source in order to help them fix the problem for themselves. The bottom line is, if the resources we spent to deploy the Red Cross and National guard to deliver a short-term fix (bottled water) had instead been deployed to do this, the problem could have already been permanently addressed.

Sourcing The Materials
Much of the stuff we’d need to build these could probably be found at the local landfill/junk yard/ scrap yard. Failing that, we could resort to Craigslist’s free section, look for equipment for sale ON CL, hit local thrifts, get in touch with area churches to promote equipment drives, and contact local businesses that might be looking for a tax write off and would be willing to make a donation of some materials. Given the number of units we’re talking about, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that the combined impact of all those efforts wouldn’t provide us with more than enough materials to make this a reality, to say nothing of the fact that at least some of the households in question will already HAVE most of the materials we need just lying around.

EDIT: Can’t find the link for the third FabLab – they may have quietly disappeared since I last looked, but here are the two that ARE still up:

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