Plumbing’s role in our planet’s energy future

By: Alden Arnold

In the spirit of the sharing of unique experiences that shape the plumbing industries in our respective nations, the following essay won second place in IAPMO’s annual Scholarship Essay Competition. First introduced in 2009 and open to all high school, university and trade school students, the competition has elicited entries from all over the world. Written by Alden Arnold of Terry High School in Terry, Mississippi, it is the next in a regular series of similar articles that will run in this magazine.

Benjamin Franklin said it best: “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” According to the World Resource Institute, 97,5% of all the water on earth is salt water. Fresh water makes up only 2,5% of the water and less than 1% of the world’s fresh water is available for human consumption. Unfortunately many do not appreciate the direct connection between energy and water.

For example, the electricity industry in the United States is second only to agriculture in the use of water in the nation. Moreover, 190 million gallons of water are used each day in the US for the production of electricity from fossil fuels. This should be no surprise if you consider that more than 80% of energy consumption in the US comes from the use of fossil fuels. Furthermore, the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that about 8% of the US’s energy demand is used to treat, pump and heat water. Thus, energy and water is intimately connected.

There are several challenges that face the world regarding energy consumption. Water demand stands out as one of the greatest challenges. The scale of supply and demand is at work. Population growth factors are placing increased demands on water, creating shortages. Considering the scarce availability of water, the demand of energy and human population growth factors, we are facing a major crisis without drastic ingenuity to meet the ongoing demand of energy and water consumption. For centuries now, irrigation methods have been at the forefront of industrial change.

Today’s challenges will redefine the plumbing and mechanical industries and revolutionise our usage of renewable energy sources.

The future of the plumbing and mechanical industry for the conservation of energy lies in the use of renewable energy sources. One of the greatest available sources of renewable energy lies in the earth. Geothermal energy provides the greatest bridge to long-term gains in reducing worldwide energy consumption by lowering our demand on fossil fuels for energy production. Geothermal is the use of thermal energy stored in the earth. Geothermal units have been shown to be cost effective, dependable, serviceable and most of all, energy efficient. Data provided by the US department of energy indicates the environmental impact of 100 000 homes being converted to geothermal would be the equivalent to eliminating auto emissions from nearly 60 000 cars. Current estimates of geothermal heating units in the US produce an annual savings of 5,2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity usage, reduces fossil fuel consumption by 26 trillion British thermal units (BTUs) and eliminates nearly eight billion pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The geothermal units are shown to reduce the reliance on oil imports by millions of barrels annually.

Hot water can be a by-product of geothermal units. This will help reduce energy costs for homeowners. Plumbers who understand the benefits of geothermal can help change the delivery of hot water to be used for daily activities such as showers, dish washing and laundry. Geothermal units will provide hot water during the heating and cooling mode of operation. These units can also be installed for use to heat pools or spas. According to data provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, an estimated 12% of all hot-water used in a typical three-bedroom, two-bath home is wasted. Typical waste was estimated to be 3 000 gallons a year. This coincides with a recent press release on 6 January 2014, by the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), which indicates new standards for the insulation of hot water piping in new buildings to combat hot water waste. The NRDC estimates this new standard can reduce waste of water and energy consumption by 15-30%.

Water re-use should also be incorporated in home and building construction. Using rainwater and sewage recycling are ways society can help preserve our energy sources. New technologies for rainwater harvesting are needed to make this effort sufficient and sustainable for home owners. The plumbing and mechanical industry should work with municipalities and neighbourhood associations to harvest water that flows on streets. Rain barrels, roof collection or cisterns are also effective ways society can work to reduce domestic water use. These methods will help to conserve energy.

Finally, it is estimated that the sun delivers more energy in one hour than the entire world uses in a year. It is thought that the sun delivers in one year twice the amount of energy that will ever be produced from all of earth’s non-renewable resources combined. The plumbing and mechanical industry should lead in the installation of solar water heating systems for industries and homes.

In closing, you can’t have one without the other. Water and energy are the future of the world as we know it. Failure to engage the dilemma of declining fossil fuels, water supply shortages and increasing demands on energy is a recipe for disaster. The plumbing and mechanical industry is positioned to help society harness renewable resources for the preservation and advancement of mankind. Mark Twain said, “Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.” I say, if we don’t provide ways for moderate water and energy consumption, everybody will be hurt.