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Pulling Water from the Air: The WaterMill
Geoff Manaugh, 3 Dec 08

I'm in London, watching snowflakes fall amidst early morning rain flurries, reading David Grann's new book The Lost City of Z, and getting ready for the Barbican event tomorrow night.

But there's an article in the Guardian today about the WaterMill, which "uses the electricity of about three light bulbs to condense moisture from the air and purify it into clean drinking water." The company, Element Four, imagines a future for their product involving everything from irrigation and personal thirst to peacekeeping and disaster relief. Perhaps it might even require an update to the atlas of hidden water – where the water supply is "hidden" in the sky itself.

[Image: A diagram of the WaterMill at work].

As the company describes it:

    The system draws in moist, outside air through an air filter. The moist air passes over a cooling element, condensing the moist air into water droplets. This water is then collected, passed through a specialized carbon filter and is then exposed to an ultraviolet sterilizer, eliminating bacteria.


    The WaterMill is installed unobtrusively on the outside of your home, using outside air, so it won't dry out the air you breathe in your home. And don't worry if your outdoor air is less than pristine – even if you live in a crowded city, the Watermill's filtration system ensures your drinking water will be clean and free of toxins and bacteria – more pure than tap water or even spring water.

You're basically drinking water from a dehumidifier, then.

According to the Guardian, the obvious – if extremely uninteresting – next question is: "are you crazy?" But it would seem that the next question might actually be one of large-scale climate-engineering and the future of urban design.

In other words, would it be possible to re-engineer a city's weather patterns through the judicious and geographically strategic deployment of WaterMills? What might happen if this were to occur accidentally, over time, and according to no particular plan?

Over the years, say, tens of thousands – even millions – of these machines are installed in a humid city like New York, Tokyo, or London, achieving imperceptibly slow local climate modification. The city goes into a drought, with very little rainfall as humidity disappears – and it's all because of a certain line of products that have been installed, gradually, home by home, over the course of a decade.

Sucking hundreds of thousands of liters of water out of the air everyday, and re-directing that water into the sewage system through the metabolic processes of human bodies, these machines inadvertently re-engineer the local climate.

I remember walking to a restaurant through almost unbelievable summer humidity after a night at Postopolis!, thinking that massive, solar-powered air-conditioning units installed atop Manhattan skyscrapers could flood the surrounding streets with downward winds of cooled air to avoid uncomfortable nights – but industrial-sized WaterMills might accomplish the same thing, sitting up there in the heights of the marvelous, stealing water from the sky. Anti-clouds. Black engines atop roofs prevent rainfall. Whole summer storms could be stopped before they form. City-wide, temperatures drop and the humidity falters.

The resulting fresh water is then sold to Spain.

So if designer climates are the future of urban design, something explored in the forthcoming BLDGBLOG Book, then perhaps the widespread use of WaterMill technology might be an interesting way to start. Convince enough people in one large building, say, or even one borough, to install a home WaterMill... and see if the local climate begins to change.

This piece originally appeared on Geoff Manaugh's website, BLDGBLOG.

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Of course it's possible, but that doesn't make it a good idea. "three to four cents per liter", with a daily production of 12 liters, is about $0.50 worth of electricity per day, $15/month. At California rates anyway, that's roughly 4kWh/day, or a constant load of roughly 166 watts: "three light bulbs" is three 60 watt *incandescent* light bulbs, left on 24 hours a day, every day. For comparison, my nothing-special refrigerator from Craigslist uses about $8/month. My chest freezer converted to a kegerator uses $3/month. My computer, external backup disk, 30" monitor, and desk lamp combined use about as much power as this watermaker... when I'm using the CPU at 100% for numerical simulations day and night. (numbers courtesy of the excellent kill-a-watt power meter)

Rainwater harvesting and graywater reclamation for non-potable applications will have a much bigger, and much more sustainable, impact on urban water usage. Utterly pure reverse-osmosis desalinized seawater is roughly 10% the price of Watermill water, even by the most expensive estimates, roughly 1% at the bottom end of the estimates, see this study by the State of California

It's pure greenwashed marketing fluff, positively comparable to only the grotesquely unsustainable straw man of plastic-bottled water.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 3 Dec 08

I agree with Zane and I was dismayed that this was so widely reported as some "eco machine". 4kWh per day is nearly 1,500kWh per year, a third of an average house's electricity consumption in the UK. It would cost £200 ($300) per year to run and emit 850kgCO2.

We have perfectly good water being pumped to our homes as it is.

Posted by: Scatter on 4 Dec 08

FYI.....An Atmospheric Water Generator (AWG), is a device that extracts water from humid ambient air. It is in laymans terms a refrigerated dehumidifier, but with UV lights and filtration all macro contaminants and biologicals are removed from the water to create the cleanest water on the plant.

Water vapor collected from the air is already filtered by mother nature. She has has already taken out 95% off the contaminants from the water in the evaporation and transpiration process.

Fun Facts:

1. Our planet holds at any given time 326 million cubic miles of water. Of this, 97% is saltwater and 3% is fresh water. Of that 3%, 99.3% is locked in ice.

2. Our air contains 4,000 cubic miles of water. If it were a lake it would be roughly the size of the Great Lakes combined and would be constantly refilled DAILY!.

With that being said, we could give an airwater machine to every one in the united states and still not scratch the surface of the amount of water in the atmosphere.

Thats all............

Posted by: Anonymous on 4 Dec 08

@Anonymous the problem with this device isn't the lack of atmospheric water. The problem is the huge amount of ENERGY required to wring that water from the atmosphere. It's energy that doesn't need to be spent, because we have these amazing things called clouds, that are solar-powered, and do it for us naturally. Additionally, if you did happen to live somewhere with no available fresh water, it would *still* be cheaper and easier to take seawater and make it into pure distilled drinking water. This machine is a con game. It will go nowhere.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 4 Dec 08

there has been a company out of Australia called airwater that have been doing this for years. It's really no major inovation. Prior to that, years ago, my dad would use the dehumidifier water for our garden. He even said to me, "you could drink this water, you know." as a kid of 10 and not having water issues at the time, the thought revolted me. What did I know back then?

Posted by: Thomas Jefferson on 5 Dec 08

Here in Buenos Aires, I often water my (small balcony potted) garden with the water from my air conditioner. I think it's probably possible to maintain gardens that lose very little water to the air, even in very arid climates; the trick will be getting enough sunlight and CO₂ in and then getting the heat and oxygen back out without losing the water. But you need to get the water into the thing in the first place, and replace what you do lose.

On the coast of Perú, or in the Atacama desert, you can probably desalinate seawater for such purposes, using reverse osmosis; if commenter Zane Selvans is correct that it takes one-tenth the energy of condensing it from the air, it's probably a better option. But most deserts are not conveniently located next to oceans. Water desalination will only help the Gobi or much of the Sahara recover unless it's piped through a long, expensive, and vulnerable pipeline.

So this might be a very useful approach for such regions, especially if the anonymous commenter is correct that the impact on air humidity is necessarily minimal. (I wonder if the energy cost and the air humidity impact are greater in very dry areas.) If I were going to use it here, though, I'd probably sterilize my air conditioner water with some bleach, or maybe H₂O₂ or a SteriPEN, instead of buying a new machine.

Posted by: Kragen Javier Sitaker on 5 Dec 08

I should have mentioned: or SODIS. Although I haven't had the courage to drink the SODIS water I've made so far.

Posted by: Kragen Javier Sitaker on 5 Dec 08

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