Monday, December 16, 2013

Slow Sand Filters for Leyte??

The recent typhoon carnage in the Philippines was a replay for me of the earthquake in Haiti. Once again, the ensuing chaos resulted in an international effort to rush much needed food, water, and shelter into an area devastated. Once again, I have urged getting community sized slow sand filters placed into remoter areas so that not only would people have water for the next days or weeks, but for years to come after the disaster relief efforts have waned.
This time was different though from Haiti in several important ways.

  • For several years, Blue Future has supplied 1800 gpd filters to Mindanao. This has resulted in not only awareness of these systems there, but also a group of people who understand how they work and how to install them.
  • Blue Future has an excellent partner in Manilla who can supply the filters, loaded with media, and delivered ready to go to villages in need, virtually anywhere in the Philippines.
With these human and logistical elements in place, there is the capacity to get dozens of these water treatment solutions to those in need, not just for today, but for years to come of safe water availability.

We can get 20 filters, delivering 5 gallons per day per person, for over 6,000 people for $26,000. But, as is always the case, we need organizations to step forward and take on this initiative. If your organization wants to make a long term difference for the people of the Philippines now, please get in touch to discuss. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Humanitarian Efforts are like Beer and Yogurt

Embarking on a humanitarian effort in developing countries is a little like my first experiences with beer and yogurt. When I was a kid, I'd see these TV ads with a local bodybuilder talking about Yogurt and what a great thing it was- so creamy, so healthy. Beer ads always showed someone having a good time with friends, or taking a refreshing break on a hot day. I couldn't wait to try these divine products. Then I did. Yogurt was horrible. Sour, mostly. Beer was worse- bitter and loamy. Yuck. Any person is faced with a choice at this point- swear off em forever, or readjust your expectations. I ended up adjusting my views of both yogurt and beer, and enjoy them to this day.

My first experience with a humanitarian project in a developing country was with a group travelling to Nicaragua during the war there in the 1980s. We were all pumped up to go develop a health clinic in a town sorely in need of one. Our first casualty was at the airport in San Francisco. Dawning on people what we were doing and getting ourselves into, we had a defection at the gate. Once in Nicaragua, things were seemingly OK, at first. The people treated us really well. We worked hard and partied hard. A certain amount of tourist diarrhea and cock roaches as big as my shoes, but hey. About a week into our visit, several of us went into the capital Managua to buy paint. When we got back to our town, it was in an uproar. An ambush by the Contras, US supported rebels fighting the Sandinista regime, had attached the mayor's car on her way back from a neighboring town. She was fine, but our crew wasn't. The reality of what we were doing sunk in hard. The next day,a large contingent was headed for the airport home. I stayed, by the way.

Almost without exception, people I have met over the last 25 years start with a fairly pure and hopeful vision of what it will be like bringing people safe water and sanitation. Given enough money and technology, we can save the world. Then comes reality. Language barriers and misunderstandings. Community groups with conflicting goals and agendas. Technologies not well suited for uses. Lack of qualified people to maintain things. Lack of community participation and buy-in.

This is where that old yogurty bitter taste becomes evident. Then you must choose- abandon your efforts, or adjust and get to work. The one thing for sure is water and sanitation interventions in developing countries are never simple in-and-out propositions. To be effective and sustainable, these projects require, careful planning, intense listening,  innovation, and a sustained effort, in order to make sure that they are still effective for the next generation.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Assessing the Need

Frequently, people call me and ask for a solution to their water problem. Many times, the first thing they say is they have so much flow from their spring or well, as if that was enough information to design a water system. It's a little like saying "I have $250 to buy gasoline, what kind of car should I buy?" Obviously there are a number of questions that must be answered before you buy a car. How much does it cost? What do I need a car for? Do I need to haul materials? Do I have kids or large pets? Do I have parking? Do I have enough income to pay the payments and lots of gasoline for a big engine.

It's the same with a water system. The wise way to design a water system is from the use back to the source. Such questions as:

  • How many people are going to use this water?
  • Do they have water to their homes, or do they have to carry it? (makes a big difference in how much needs to be produced)
  • What is in the water? Bacteria? Giardia, Iron, Hardness?
  • Does there need to be water for growing plants or livestock?
Once these questions are answered, you can calculate how much water you need. Then you can look at your supply to see if there is enough. If there is, you can start the next series of questions- the design questions. 
  • Do you have gravity feed or do you need to pump?
  • Do you need to treat the water for contaminants?
  • Do you need to store water to even out the demand?
If there is not sufficient water available for your needs, you need to find an additional source, or cut back you requirements. 

Then you can start looking at specific features such as placement of equipment and what kind of equipment. You can calculate pipe sizes and storage volumes. You can design wells or spring boxes. 

The point is, without knowing your needs requirements in terms of quantity and quality, it doesn't matter how much water you have available. You may be buying a Honda Civic, when you need a Ford-150. Or vice versa.

(this is one subject that will be covered in detail in the book- Providing Water)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Container Shipping Slow Sand Filters

It's surprisingly affordable to ship community slow sand filters overseas by container. We can get six 8' diameter slow sand filters capable of treating 43,000 gallons per day into this 20' container. Total shipping to Africa from Bellingham Washington was about $4,000
Here's how we do it..
First, we bundle and load the lids

We load the first filter up to the edge of the container opening

Then, we load the next paper cup fashion by sliding it into the first tank. A bit trickier than it looks. We repeat this until all six tanks are loaded.
Finally, we add the control tanks with all fittings and documentation enclosed
Unpacked and placed into operation in this African community after travelling thousands of miles across oceans.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Filters in Mindanao

So many times people feel overwhelmed with the world's problems and just feel they can't do anything about it. Well, don't tell Thomas Schneider that. Thomas works as a janitor at a school in the mid-west. He called me one day last winter saying how he often thought about people in faraway lands not having access to safe drinking water. He though about researching water treatment with the idea of making something and then finding people with the need and sending it to them. In his search on line, he found Blue Future Filters. He called  me and asked if it would be possible for him to buy a filter and have us find a good home for it instead of him having to reinvent the wheel on his own. I assured him that I am in contact with a number of small organizations always trying to find funding for safe water systems for people in need in their regions of activity.
After I got off the phone, I contacted folks I have worked for before in Peru and the Philippines and got a quick reply.
If you haven't followed it, Mindanao, the large island in the south of the Philippines has had devastating typhoons in recent years. Theses storms wipe out infrastructure and create torrents of polluted water and accompanying disease. Some filters Blue Future has supplied in the past were the only sources of safe water for whole neighborhoods.
Blue Future works with local organizations and with a company in Manila who supplies us with the tanks using our design and components.
I recently received the pictures shown here of the neighborhood and some residents who just took possession of the new 1800 gallon per day slow sand filter that Thomas provided.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Offending the Spring

or, how to keep spring production continuing.

Springs are like teenagers. They need encouragement, nurturing, and minimal push-back to keep them from running away. It's important when you want to develop a spring to not inhibit it's flow in any way. As we all know, water finds its own way. If you push water, it goes around you. If you dam up a spring to collect the water, it will find another route to come out or disappear entirely.  It is also important to safeguard the spring water from surface contamination, kind of like parental controls on the world wide web.
There are a couple of common ways to develop a spring. The most common way is to build a spring box. This is usually out of concrete, but any variety of other materials could be used so long as it can be secured from contamination. Water enters the spring box from a porous surface into the hill from which the spring emerges. This can be made by building in perforations in the concrete, or building a block wall with big openings between blocks. The important thing is to make sure that the outlet from the spring box is set at such a height that water does not accumulate above the spring source which would cause back pressure.
The other common method is to drive a perforated pipe into the hill and spring and capture water that way. Concrete grout is used to seal the pipe where it enters the hillside. Horizontal well drillers put these in all the time and they are quick and clean.
It's also important that you put an overflow in the piping after the spring box or spring pipe. This allows for times when you aren't using all the spring water, but don't want water to back up into the spring box.
Helpful hint. Oftentimes springs can be located by the presence of woodwardia ferns

Monday, June 3, 2013

Rope Pumps

One of the most interesting pumps I have seen for pumping water from depths that a a suction pump can't manage is the rope pump. By cranking the bicycle wheel, a continuous rope extends down into the well and back up through a PVC pipe. What allows the unit to pump are rubber gaskets on the rope at intervals, held in place with knots. When the rope enters the pipe, it lifts a column of water which then exits the pipe through a tee fitting above the well cover. Brilliant, simple, and manufacturerable almost anywhere.
The book, Providing Water, contains many such innovations appropriate to developing countries. Drawing by Xan Blackburn (

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Providing Water, Book Update

Nine days left on the Kickstarter project- to assemble a Field Guide for Providing Water. I receive calls regularly asking various questions as diverse as spring design to how much storage is needed, and everything in between. This book will be a summary of my experience over the last 25 years in the US and with groups in 20 countries. This book allows people working in developing countries, as well as rural Americans, to find solutions without having to reinvent the wheel. It is also one of the very few books that emphasizes appropriate technology. A few more backers of this project will get it off the ground and flying.
Providing Water, A practical Field Guide

Friday, May 17, 2013

Climate change and Water Scarcity

And why we need to change the way we design for water and wastewater

A recent opinion piece in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat   talks about Amy's foods needing to expand and the City of Santa Rosa wanting a $31 million water and wastewater permit fee. Amy's, one of my favorite packaged food companies, is expanding rapidly and needs a larger manufacturing plant which they anticipate will require 12 million gallons a month of water and resulting wastewater. The city says they have to expand water and wastewater facilities for this kind of demand, and want Amy's to help pay for this. Back in the last century, battles like this would rage, companies would move, cities would back down, and the taxpayers would be in an  uproar.
But here's the thing. This isn't 1950, nor even 1980. We are in an age of increased population and demands on water as well as requirements to clean up discharges into precious water resources. Then, you pile on top of that climate change, rising sea levels, increasing salt water intrusion, and it is necessary that we rethink our water use and wastewater production radically.
A couple of years ago, I was hired to do research into methods of providing water and dealing with waste streams for a planned community with the following rules- no aquifer depletion, no discharge of wastewater, and rainwater to be the sole source of water.
You'd be surprised to know how much you can do with those constraints. Capturing rainwater through porous materials and storing in huge underground self supporting structures, complete recycling of wastewater leaving only solid residues, using biological treatment systems that don't have high energy or chemical requirements. It's all available now.
If Amy's were to use these approaches, they could not only reduce their usage, and therefore their bill, but also not strain existing water resources, and help the planet. And I bet  it would cost less that $31 million.
Of course, this also requires major changes in how the regulatory process works, and a big change in the engineering mindset that relies on last century technologies and approaches to 21st century problems.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

River wells

The drawing above is representative of the type of illustration the Field Guide will use. Since the book will be available in ebook and paperback format, this type of illustration is more readable in ebooks, especially the  black and white versions. The drawing depicts a river well, one form of a structure to take water from a stream or river, or pond for that matter. Surface water sources often have algae and seasonal high turbidity and sediments. By digging a shallow well a few feet away from the water edge, filling it with gravel and then placing a perforated vessel in the middle of the gravel, most of the algae and sediments problems are solved. The gravel layer extends above the water level so that the well does not become a breeding ground for mosquitoes  A pump can then be placed in the perforated vessel and operated without concern for the pump being plugged. This is an example of the kind of information available in the Field Guide. The book is scheduled for publication May 2014. Please click on the link above or in the side bar, to follow this project. Thanks!
(drawing interpretation by Xan Blackburn from a photograph)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Flying over Sumatra as Mr Jacob

In my work with water, lots of interesting stuff happens. The following is one such episode. The book project (Providing Water) contains many more. 
After the 2005 Christmas Tsunami, I got a contract to supply 200 slow sand filters to decimated villages along the west coast of Sumatra. We assembled these filters in a week working 12-15 hour days in the shop in Santa Rosa California. Fedex flew the filters to Indonesia for free, several pallets worth. There was also an urgent need for training of the people in Indonesia who would be setting the filters up in the villages. So, I went. If you’ve never flown from the US to south east Asia, let me tell you, it’s one long trip. 24 hours after getting on the first flight in Seattle, I disembarked in Medan, Sumatra. A  little worse for wear, I was met by the US team that was handling the filters and informed that they were grabbing a puddle jumper flight to Banda Aceh to speak with members of the team there. They wanted to know if I wanted to come with them, or go on to the hotel to recover from my long flights from the States. Banda Aceh was off limits to everyone due to the conflict between Islamic Jihadists and the government, but a truce was in effect because of the public health catastrophe that was the Tsunami. I didn’t even have to think about it, of course I wanted to go to Aceh. The departure “lounge” was in a state of pandemonium with people trying to get in to effected areas. There was no way to get a ticket to the flight which was leaving in 30 minutes. That’s when one of the Indonesian team members held up his finger indicating for me to wait a minute. He disappeared into the crowd and returned a few moments later with a boarding pass for me. I looked incredulously at the document as we all started heading through the queue to board when I noticed that the document was in the name of Mr. ES Jacob. My turn in the line came, the woman took the boarding pass without a second glance and sent me  on my way up the steps. What followed was an adventure for another time. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Want Access to my 25 years in the field experience?

Well, here is a simple way to do that.

 First, go here
Take a look around, then support the project, according to your desire and requirements. For $10, you will get an ebook copy when it publishes in April 2014. Other options include a paperback copy and even a discounted rate on a water system design fitting your requirements. I will be regularly posting progress, and I highly encourage feedback from all of you regarding content and what you would like to see in the book.
My intention is to make this book a relevant resource for development workers, disaster planners, relief workers, as well as engineers, and do-it-yourselfers.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Making Water Treatment Consumers Dependent on Technology

or, why you don't see more slow sand filters out there

The traditional water treatment industry has done a great job in promoting their products as the only alternatives to your water treatment issues. This has led to a marketplace full of products that have attached revenue streams. Not so much planned obsolescence as planned dependency on replacement components and mystery chemicals and media blends that require you to have an ongoing financial relationship with your supplier. It's a business model, not a water treatment model.

But, it doesn't have to be that way. In recent years, membrane filtration has been all the rage for basically any  problem you can imagine with water. Ultra-fitration, a membrane technology, is pitched as THE solution to surface water treatment. If you look up the regulations though, ultra-filtration isn't listed as one of the approved technologies- it's an alternative technology along with bag filters, cartridges etc. One technology that IS listed as an approved method for treating surface water according to the Surface Water Treatment Rule is also one of the simplest and easiest to maintain- slow sand filtration. And no revenue stream. Once you put ssf in, you maintain it yourself, or hire someone to do it, but you're not joined at the hip indefinitely  with your supplier. It's easy to understand why the water treatment industry has not been so interested in slow sand or related more natural systems- no ongoing revenue stream.
Simple biological and physical processes are also great for wastewater treatment and removing metals from groundwater.

Membranes are good at treating brackish waters and seawater, but that is the only area where they excel  except in creating a gee whiz factor for engineers and a positive ongoing revenue stream for chemical manufacturers who need to supply all the chemicals required to maintain the membranes. Membranes also waste a lot of water, a problem in an age of shrinking water availability. Membranes should not be the go-to technology for all uses.

The present situation will remain until industry changes the business model which requires an ongoing revenue stream in their designs. There is plenty of need out there. A company selling slow sand filters or related technologies could be selling globally and never run out of new business. The other change agent- educated consumers expecting technology to be more sustainable and less wasteful.

above: a fancy shmancy ion exchange unit.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Hard water? You're in luck.

Several times a year, I receive requests from people to do something about their hard water. The softener companies have done a good job at making hard water a real bad thing in people's minds, unfortunately. Check out the quote below from EPA, and you'll see why this perception is unfortunate. This is not a lone or maverick report. There have been dozens of studies looking at hard water and cardiac health over the years, and they all say the same thing- hard water is good for your heart. don't let anyone tell you different.

"Lower cardiovascular death rates were found in populations where the water supply contained relatively high levels of water hardness or calcium and magnesium compared to populations in areas with low levels. This protective effect was found for populations throughout the world, especially when country-wide studies were conducted."

Calcium and Magnesium may be annoying in pipes, boilers, and water heaters, but they are essential for the human body. Be careful about taking them out of your water and replacing with Sodium, which is what happens when you use a softener that uses rock salt to regenerate.

Rebecca L. Calderon 
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 
National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory 
Research Triangle Park, NC, USA

Friday, March 22, 2013

International Water Day

It's International Water Day, and  World Walks for Water events are happening all over the world to make people conscious of the fact that in many many parts of the world, people, mostly women, have to walk for kilometers every day to get water. It's a time to contact representatives and demand action to make safe water available to everyone, no matter who they are or where they live.
In the US this applies also. Contact your Congressional or Senate representative and express your concern that everyone in the United States should have access to safe water and sanitation.

Friday, March 15, 2013


According to a study by the Association of General Contractors,  ( the sequester mandating mandatory reduction across the board to discretionary spending will remove over 100 million dollars from rural water and waste-water funds.

These funds take the form of state loans to small utilities trying to make their water and waste-water systems meet federal regulations. Taking the funds away makes rural citizens less safe from the threat of water borne disease.

The EPA, in establishing rules such as the total coliform rule and the surface water treatment rule as well as supporting research into affordable water and waste-water treatment technologies, has attempted to address the discrepancy between access to safe drinking water for rural citizens on par with residents of cities.
Even for small systems, a rural water treatment system to ensure potability can easily cost over $100,000. In these days of almost impossible loan availability, these small systems have had only one recourse, repayable loans from the states. The sequester takes that availability for many communities off the table, denying them access to necessary improvements and upgrades.

It's very disappointing that there are elected officials in Congress willing to put these rural citizens at risk because of a political agenda.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The perfect is the enemy of the good- Voltaire

I  cringe whenever I read about somebody talking about or promising “pure” water. Pure water, H2O with nothing else in it, is hard to make. it requires lots of energy, usually chemicals, usually has a waste stream, or in the case of solar distillation, requires lots of real estate. Pure water is necessary for a few chemical processes, some industrial applications where any contamination is a problem. Drinking water? No. I repeat, no. Our bodies do just fine with some calcium, some magnesium even many other things commonly found in water. What we don’t want are pathogenic organisms and certain specific compounds that we know to be dangerous. 
So what is wrong with producing “pure” water? It can only be good right?, Well, no. Here is the problem. Most developing country communities, and in fact most rural communities in the US, don’t have the resources, either human or financial to operate the complex systems required for “pure” water. So when we tell these people we think they should aspire to “pure” water, we are in essence telling them they can have nothing at all, because “pure” water systems are beyond their reach.
We should be assessing their abilities both financial and human and suggest water and wastewater treatment that meets their needs, not our expectations or neurotic fantasies about purity and perfection.  In this way, we give them service- safe water that they can maintain and afford. This is not compromise. This is relating to the world that is.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I finally figured it out in a way I can articulate. The above drawing shows the four elements that must be considered for any technology to be implemented sustainably in any society. You can safely ignore these principles if your chosen technology is entirely disposable, not requiring maintenance, because that is what it will be.
Local social infrastructure- The end users of the technology have to be involved and accepting.
Local technical infrastructure- There needs to be the technical expertise to operate, maintain and repair the technology locally. If there is no technical expertise close by, when the system fails, it will be quickly abandoned.
Local financial infrastructure- There has to be local availability of whatever finances are needed for parts, labor, consumables to keep the technology functioning.
Local consumable/energy infrastructure- If a technology requires consumables or power to operate, these must be locally and reliably available.
These factors can be used to evaluate whether or not a technology will function sustainably in a community. For instance, If a water treatment technology is planned for a remote community of hunter gatherers, if there is no financial support, no ability to maintain stocks of chemicals and no technical expertise available, it makes no sense to implement a technology that requires these things. If an affluent community in the US has the desire for a highly technical system, has local technicians, the financial reserves for maintenance and supplies, a constant energy source, then that community has many more possibilities for technology choice.
This doesn’t mean one technology is better or more effective than another, only that one technology that works well one place, can utterly fail somewhere else if the above conditions are not considered and resolved successfully.
If the choice is to simply supply a technology and walk away, as many development projects do, the project is assured of failure.