Water. It’s something people use without thinking about. Turn on a tap and it flows out a faucet. Pull out a plug and it goes down the drain.
But for Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant, water, and it’s constant companion, wastewater, is something that requires a lot of planning.
“Water and wastewater are linked at Penn State,” said OPP design and construction project manager Rachel Prinkey.
And that’s a lot of liquid. Penn State goes through 550 million gallons per year. Can’t wrap your head around that number? According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a million gallons is enough to fill a ten-foot-deep swimming pool the size of a football field. To get to 550 million, you would have to replace the Beaver Stadium field with that pool, plus every NCAA Division I football field in the country, five times.
That’s why Penn State is in the middle of making big changes to the way water is received, and taken away.
Some of it has already started.
“We noticed in about the last decade that we were getting huge spikes of turbulence in heavy rains,” said Prinkey. Four years ago, they had a boil water notice.
That made the university look at incorporating a water treatment plant into its well-fed system.
“All of the different development in the area has affected how fast water gets into our wells,” Prinkey said.
The new system will incorporate micro-filtration, activated carbon and water softening. That’s a response to something the university is flooded with: scientists.
“Another piece that came into this, we have very hard water in our area. Our researchers have been tracking an increase in salt and sodium that are released from softeners,” Prinkey said. “It’s affecting the ability of the ground to act like a sponge and creating a very molecular-level resistance.”
By using a different kind of water softening, a barrier method that works almost like reverse osmosis, the university will be able to stop spending money on salt and adding tons of those extra minerals back into the water table.
“We put over a million tons of salt a year into softeners on the University Park campus alone. We will be able to get rid of that salt,” said Prinkey.
Earlier in 2015, work started on the water towers, the huge repositories around University Park where the water that supplies every dorm, hotel room, dining hall, restaurant, laboratory and restroom is stored.
Water pressure on the campus is less than impressive, and not surprising. The system dates back to the 1930s. Trying to increase its eco-friendliness, Penn State tries to use low-flow fixtures but those require higher water pressure to function properly. Improving the towers will allow that to happen.
“We are raising the hydraulic grade and operating in a bigger band of water,” Prinkey said.
The changes include razing the tower behind Stuckman building and replacing it with a better, higher tower with a similar volume. The golf course tower was raised 16 feet with the help of six cranes.
The increased pressure will not only help for emergencies like fires, Prinkey said, but on a day-to-day basis, will increase the efficiency of the entire system.
Then there’s the other side, treatment of the water after it’s used.
Penn State’s wastewater flows to a plant on University Drive near College Avenue, and has since 1913. For about 40 years, after it is treated, it has been sprayed onto a field near Toftrees to recharge the groundwater.
An improvement to the wastewater plant will also allow it to produce Class A reuse water, which will be stored in the water tower by Nittany Lion Inn. That tower is being taken offline until that time.
“There is no one like us in Pennsylvania. Everyone else uses stream discharges,” said Prinkey “Just the fact that we have been recharging our own groundwater table since the ’80s is amazing to me. When I think about what we did for our environment locally, and we made that decision decades ago.”
Overall the improvements will cost about $61.6 million and are expected to be completed in November or December 2016.
According to the university, it is all part of an overall plan to move forward.
“The quality of our infrastructure is critical to the overall success of the university. Without dependable sanitary, water, electric, gas and steam services, Penn State could not provide quality educational spaces and effectively perform its mission,” said Steve Maruszewski, OPP’s assistant vice president.