Experimental system makes toilet water reusable

Junior Alana Trombino has spent the last two months bathing and washing her dishes in recycled toilet water. But according to her, it’s not that bad.

“It’s really just like using any other water you would, there’s no difference,” she said. “I feel like it’s cleaner than normal water even. And I’ve never had an issue with it.”

Trombino has been participating in an experiment with a new system that turns toilet water into drinking water. The experiment is called NetZero and is being tested in the four-bedroom, four-bathroom dormitory in the University Village that Trombino shares with three other girls.

This experiment, however, is scheduled to end in December.

James Englehardt, an engineering professor who leads the project, said he and his team were asked to stop the project by James Tien, dean of the College of Engineering, because they didn’t collect “health data on the residents of the apartment.” Englehardt explained all the safety measures that were already in place, such as regular visits to the students and constant checking of the water, but the plug was still pulled.

Englehardt’s team is now trying to get other organizations interested in the project.

On Sept. 30, it was presented to a group of representatives from governmental and non-governmental organizations as part of the 24th New Generation Seminar, “The Realities of a Changing Climate: Meeting the Challenge.” Representatives from China, Vietnam, Indonesia and other nations came out to see this new technology.

Trombino is disappointed that the project is stopping.

“I think it has a lot of potential and I wish they could do the study longer,” she said. “If possible, I’d love to be a part of it for longer.”

NetZero began in 2012 when four students agreed to live in a dorm that was hooked up to the NetZero system. NetZero is run by a series of machines and pumps in the University Village Albenga Garage. It essentially takes the water used in the dorm, filters it and recycles it back into the building. The system also uses collected rainwater to help with the filtering process.

The system was originally conceived as way to deal with water shortages, according to Englehardt. The goal of the program is to perfect a totally self-sufficient, self-replenishing source of clean water.

“We use zero water from our city utility while the system is running,” said Eric Antmann, a graduate student in the College of Engineering. Antmann leads the project’s microbiology team, which checks the water for pathogens.

Since NetZero started, the four students participating in the project have used the water to wash clothes, dishes, and even themselves. The students elect to live in this dorm as part of special-interest housing.

Despite reassurances on the water’s quality, Englehardt and Antmann do not allow the students in the dorm to actually drink it for safety reasons. To help with this, the students in the dorms have two faucets – one is connected to the NetZero system, and the other is connected to the city water system. The NetZero water looks clean and smells chlorinated.

Englehardt said the water is drinkable, and both he and Antmann drank it.

Some students including biomedical engineering major Vishal Lakshmann are enthusiastic about NetZero. Lakshmanan analyzes the water to make sure it’s clean. She was a student of Englehardt’s and became involved with the project after he mentioned it in class.

“It will do great things for water quality and water management in general,” she said.

It remains to be seen if Englehardt will be able to find NetZero a new home. He does hope that this system will catch on.

For more information, visit miami.edu/netzerowaterdorm.