Water and Technology

Water and TechnologyNot long ago I heard about an interesting new product designed to make showering more efficient, reducing water use by 90% and energy use by 80%. The Orb-Sys or Orbital Shower is being developed by Orbital Systems in Sweden. The shower starts off with fresh water like normal, but instead of disappearing down the drain, the reclaimed water is collected in the base, cleaned and filtered to tap water standards. Then it is reheated a bit and pumped back up to the shower head for your continued enjoyment. I like any concept that can reduce our demand on natural resources in a way that people are likely to embrace. This might be one of them.

We should weigh the pros and cons of any new technology before adopting it on a massive scale. In a case like this when a product claims environmental benefits or that it is “sustainable,” a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) can help. The company claims reduced water and energy consumption, low maintenance and “Superior LCA” but stops short of providing meaningful details on their website.

Life cycle analysis is really just another way to tell the whole truth. If we ignore some of the impacts of what we buy or do, and only acknowledge the parts we like, we are not being honest. Historically, we know that can lead to the failure of products, markets and even entire civilizations.

I want to believe that this is a case where technology can indeed make a difference, but as much as I love technology and use it every day, I do not think technology alone will provide lasting solutions to our most fundamental problems.

What are the impacts of mining, petroleum extraction, refining raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, installation and the end of life of the product? The energy involved in all of these processes is known as “embodied energy” and is over and above the energy used by the device during normal operation. Some products are very high in embodied energy (aluminum and concrete are prime examples), which often means they also have a large carbon footprint.

The idea of “embodied water” is much the same since it can take huge amounts of fresh water to accomplish all of the steps mentioned above.

When a product’s useful life ends, what happens to it? Does it go into a landfill or has it been designed from the start to become part of the industrial “food chain” as feedstock for something better? This important concept is outlined in the book “Cradle to Cradle” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, and manifested through the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

Although the Southern Nevada Water Authority might argue the point, conserving water in the home is crucial to our future, especially in the Mojave Desert. Will products like the Orbital Shower help? Will it save enough over its life cycle to overcome its embodied energy and water, providing a net benefit?  More details are needed before we’ll know for sure. In the meantime, it is not the only solution.

I’ve been using an extremely low-flow adjustable shower head for years that is inexpensive and very effective and our home’s water is already heated with the sun. The point is that the benefit of any single product or strategy is always contextual. Rarely is anything a one-size-fits-all solution.

I’m excited by innovation and the intention of companies like Orbital Systems. I want them to succeed if their product proves to be truly beneficial over the long term. There are so many ways we can learn to live lighter on the planet. Perhaps the day will come when taking a long, hot shower with a gallon or so of continuously reclaimed water is the new normal. That certainly won’t hurt considering the precarious situation of the world’s fresh water supply. If it is good enough for astronauts in space, why not for the rest of us?