October 8, 2012

Fisher student helps Ohio State with conservation

Fisher marketing major Alec Janda, '14

Aparna Dial, director of Ohio State’s Energy Services and Sustainability, often has students drop conservation ideas on her desk. But when she tells them they need to do some more legwork to move their ideas forward, she usually never sees them again.

That’s what made Alec Janda, a freshman at Fisher, such a surprise. In 2010, the freshman business major called Dial after seeing her speak at fall orientation — that alone was a first for Dial. He wanted Ohio State to install a rainwater catchment system to do one of two things (or both): Mitigate storm water runoff and create a potable supply of fresh water for reuse by plants and people.

“In my 12 years here, Alec is certainly one of a kind,” Dial said.

Just weeks before starting school, Janda had been inspired when his father Scott took him to the American Rainwater Catchment System Association conference. Scott was interested in adding catchments as a side business to his chemical spill containment and transport company. Reusing readily available water appealed to the younger Janda, whose roots as an outdoorsman also makes him a strident conservationist.

“We have so many natural resource problems, and we talk about oil and energy and let’s build the next big thing and sink billions of dollars into it,” Janda said. “But rainwater catchment is the easiest way to solve the freshwater crisis and it’s relatively inexpensive compared to everything else we have to do.”

But during their first meeting, Dial showed Janda the utility budget, which is heavily invested in energy conservation.

“I told him we would love to do something about water, but I’m not sure we have the resource level to go there yet,” Dial said. “But then he comes back…”

“I don’t think they expected me to be as persistent as I was,” Janda said.

Janda, in fact, was completely invested in his mission. He became ARCSA certified, and during his second meeting with Dial, he brought a PowerPoint presentation of his ideas.

Janda also found a small local company, Rain Brothers, which could install a rain catchment system. Originally Janda wanted to put a system on a campus building, but Rain Brothers convinced him that the easier and less expensive installation would be on a smaller structure, such as a greenhouse, using a pipe and sediment and UV filtration system to catch the water and send it to bladders alongside the greenhouse.

“Maybe a building catchment system is a few years down the line still, but getting the foot in the door like this was a great way to spark that interest,” Janda said. “Hopefully in the future when we’re doing all these renovations and new buildings we can think about that.”

Janda facilitated all the meetings between Rain Brothers and the university, and he got permission from the Howlett Hall greenhouse director to use those structures for the project.

But the project still needed funding, so Janda applied for and secured a grant from the President and Provost’s Council on Sustainability in early 2011, about four months after he approached Dial.

“It was really refreshing for me to see this young man, who is 18 years old, drive this project from start to finish and how determined he was not to go away until something happened,” Dial said. “I’m really proud of him.”

With the money in hand, Janda knew the project would be a go, but he never realized it would be a two-year process. Since it was uncertain how big a project it would become, university engineers were brought in late to the game and were apprised of all the project’s aspects.

“Business always wants to get things done quickly, but it’s engineering’s job to say, ‘Hold on a second, let’s look at the plans and make sure everything is OK,’” Janda said. “It was a great department to work with. They did delay the project, but necessarily.”

When all the approvals were finally in place, Rain Brothers was so impressed with Janda, they hired him this past summer, and he was able actually see his vision through “down to screwing in the last bolt,” Janda said.

Sensors measure the amount of water collected and will be used as data to further a new water conservation effort on campus, which already includes smart irrigation controllers at Fisher College and the Oval that adjust water use based on soil moisture. Gary Lorei, a graduate student in Ecological Engineering, is now trying to secure funding for a catchment system for the Agriculture Engineering Building. Like Janda, Lorei’s ultimate goal is to turn rainwater into a campus asset.

At the Howlett greenhouse, about 2 inches of rainfall diverts 10,000 gallons of water to the bladders. The greenhouse will use the water to irrigate Howlett Hall’s landscaping. The water won’t be used on the research plants in the greenhouse, as originally planned, because other universities that collaborate on the research can’t replicate the cleaner water.

Janda, now a junior, said the entire experience was a lesson in patience and persistence, but most of all passion.

“With all the resources we have here at Ohio State, any student with an idea can find the right person to help them see that through to fruition,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to go find the opportunities.”