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$62 Million Water System Upgrade Will Bring Softer, More Filtered Water To Penn State

It isn’t just you: Penn State’s water is whack. Penn State students living on campus will be able to toss out those BRITA filters this winter, though. OPP will start operating a new water treatment plant this January including distribution system upgrades, a project with a total budget of $62 million.

The new Water Treatment Plant will provide better filtration processes to protect the University water supply from current and future contaminants of concern. A byproduct of this project is central water softening.

Maybe you’ve noticed how unhealthy your hair becomes after a month in State College or maybe you’ve gone through three showerheads in the past year in your apartment. Maybe you’ve even developed unexplainable dry skin and/or acne. This is probably because the water in State College is extremely hard (If you don’t know what this means, take CHEM 111.)

Unlike many other schools, Penn State operates its own water system that is separate from the surrounding community’s. The water system supplies an average volume of 2.4 million gallons a day, but water usage at University Park can peak to about 6 million gallons per day when campus is at its busiest (like a football weekend in September).

As of right now, OPP uses an average of 868.5 tons of salt per year to treat the hard water problem in some buildings. After the salt is purchased, employees then have to dump the bags of salt into the softeners scattered across campus, which is an all-around cumbersome process.

Additionally, any salt that gets added to the water will eventually go to the wastewater treatment plant where it is treated and then is land applied at the spray fields, which is a resource unique to Penn State. The treated water is sprayed onto an area of land that covers 600 acres (called The Living Filter). The water then percolates down through the topsoil. It takes about one year for it to return to the wells after it is land applied.

This is a process that has occurred at Penn State since the 1960s. The added sodium from salt softeners is slowing down this cycle in the sprayfields. Continued usage of salt on campus could negatively impact this unique irreplaceable natural resource. The change to barrier softening is a necessary responsibility of the university as stewards of The Living Filter.

When water is treated with nanofiltration as it will be at Penn State, a huge amount of water is typically wasted (about 20%). This wastewater will be piped to the wastewater treatment plant where it will be treated and land applied back to the The Living Filter and recharge the groundwater supply.

The new water treatment plant will use nanofiltration to strip the hardness out, instead of exchanging it with sodium. Only a portion of the water will go through this nanofiltration before it blends back in to make a softened level of 125 milligrams per liter, which is fairly soft and a reduction of 2/3 as a whole. If water were to be softened to zero milligrams per liter, then the water would become corrosive to piping. If a researcher wishes to soften water to zero milligrams per liter, then he/she will now need to install a reverse-osmosis or similar barrier type system rather than salt softening, per a new policy.

The use of the nanofiltration system will lead to a 67% reduction in salt usage at point of use softeners in campus buildings, dropping the average from 868.5 tons/year to 268 tons/year. A remaining chemical risk that the University Park operations currently faces is the gaseous chlorine stored near the well fields. The new water treatment plant will eliminate the use of gaseous chlorine. Chlorination will now be done with liquid sodium hypochlorite. Additionally, the water treatment plant will provide new shop space with meter calibration equipment to improve meter accuracy and to more accurately track water usage.

Renovating the whole water system costs a steep $62 million — probably because the system hasn’t been upgraded since the 1960s. Most of the money is coming from the Commonwealth.

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About the Author

Katie Klodowski

Katie is a senior from Pittsburgh, PA and a retired editor at Onward State. Currently, she works as a staff writer. True to her hometown, she is a fan of Steel City sports but also uses her ballet and music training to be a tough critic of all things artsy. The fastest ways to her heart are through pizza, sushi, and a solid taste in music (this means no Taylor Swift). To be constantly razzle-dazzled, follow her on all social media forms at @KatieKlodowski

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