UTC adopts circular mindset to put brakes on water usage

UTC Aerospace Systems
The UTC site's Operations Director Diego Torres estimates that the investment in a reclaimed water system will be returned within one year.

Earlier this month, a United Technologies manufacturing facility in Santa Fe Springs, California, officially opened the valve on a new water reclamation project — one that will siphon off its draw on the freshwater resources there by 25 million gallons annually.

That’s a whopping reduction of 95 percent annually, enough to supply 228 households with potable water for consumption and other uses. The reclaimed water will be recycled through the 50-something-year-old plant’s cooling towers, which expel heat generated by a 64,000-square-foot production line that spits out the carbon friction materials used in civil and military brakes.

"By moving to reclaimed water, we will now be using the same system that many local municipalities use for public irrigation and landscaping," said Diego Torres, director of the operation, which is operated by UTC Aerospace.

The unit has seven facilities in California. Collectively, they have reduced their water consumption by 65 million gallons including recycling, xeriscaping with native plants and installing low-flow fixtures and toilets. But the Santa Fe Springs site, which employs about 130 people, is the first in the United States to take the leap of using reclaimed water for a mission-critical production process. 

The project first was proposed almost four years ago, after Torres had the chance to check out a similar system at a site operated by fellow manufacturer Air Products and Chemicals. It took nearly three years to plan, design and construct. "There were a lot of approvals we had to go through," he acknowledged.

The new system required the installation of new pipes (about 1,000 feet) by the Central Basin Municipal Water District to connect the site into the reclaimed water network. Central Basin offers a recycled water program that includes more than 80 miles of "purple pipes," two distribution systems and four pump systems.

While UTC Aerospace didn’t have to replace the existing cooling equipment physically, it did have to modify the chemicals used to control the biology of the water circulating through them. It also had to install specifically designated pipes to keep the system separate from the drinking water supply, Torres said. The water is cycled through the towers five times before it is flushed and returned back to the district for treatment.

According to the water district’s website, it supports about 300 industrial, landscape and irrigation systems through southeast Los Angeles county. Schools, landscaping companies, golf courses and other businesses are using the reclaimed water.

Cooling towers are one of the approved uses, although reclaimed water can support a variety of processes, including mixing concrete. "We do have other industrial customers, but far fewer are using it for this application than are using it for irrigation," said Jacque Koontz, engineering and operations manager for Central Basin.

While UTC Aerospace declined to disclose the capital investment this system required, Torres said the return in investment was justified in under one year. That’s in part because the reclaimed water costs about 20 percent less than using regular drinking water, he said. "It was not very difficult to get this through."

Projects of this nature still aren’t very common, partly because of the infrastructure commitment. But more U.S. municipalities are investing in water reuse systems.

As of September, more than 775 municipal projects were underway in 18 states — most notably California, Texas and Florida, according to data from Bluefield Research. For example, Austin Water reported in November that it had signed up the 100th commercial customer to its reclaimed water program — Google, BAE Systems and local retailer HEB Mueller are among the accounts doing this. It supports 50 miles of purple pipes; its first customer was a golf course, way back in 1974. Last year was a record year for installations.

Bluefield estimates the investment in water reuse systems at $22 billion between 2017 and 2027. "Without a doubt, California’s five-year drought has been a catalyst for recent project development. Utilities as far away as Georgia are seeking ways to mitigate water risk," noted the firm’s research director, Erin Bonney Casey, in a press release. "Utility customers are already facing higher water rates — up 25 percent since 2012 — and the prospect of stabilized water rates is unlikely without more efficient water supply management."

Bluefield estimates that reclaimed water costs an average of $3.60 per 1,000 gallons; compared with an average of $3.90 per 1,000 gallons for "traditional" water supplies. 

The research firm figures that the industrial segment accounts for about 41 percent of water reuse; related capital expenditures in 2016 were $7.9 billion. For perspective, the industrial sector accounts for about 6 percent of U.S. freshwater withdrawal, according to Bluefield estimates.

This doesn’t take into account individual investments or installations that companies are making themselves, such as the innovative "blackwater” recycling technology used by Salesforce at its new headquarters to slow the draw on San Francisco’s water supply by 7.8 million gallons annually. That’s a 76 percent reduction in the building’s water footprint.

The new Santa Fe Springs installations — which will be considered as a model elsewhere — are just one small example of how United Technologies is addressing water consumption. Since 1997, the company has tripled its business, while cutting its overall consumption by 62 percent. Its current water goal calls for the company to cut usage by 25 percent more compared with its 2015 baseline.