Middle schoolers learn water-saving lesson Students collect data in conservation study

April 17, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

After collecting data on various water-saving devices for the last several weeks, 12-year-old Chris Cruickshank has a little advice for county residents.

"Conserve water," he says. "Because you are using a lot."

Until he took part in the county-sponsored study with 75 other Howard middle schoolers, Chris, a seventh-grader at Owen Brown Middle School, had no idea how much water he and his mother used each day.

He assumed they were consuming between 5 and 15 gallons. He discovered they were using 120. "Can you imagine drinking all that?" he asks.

Chris and fellow middle schoolers across the county have been evaluating water-saving devices installed in their homes by an Alexandria, Va., water company. The evaluation is part of a $210,000 study undertaken by the county government.

The county wants to know whether it makes economic sense to reduce water supply and wastewater treatment costs by helping residents in older homes improve existing plumbing fixtures -- primarily toilets -- with water-saving devices.

Low-flush toilets now required in new homes use about 1.6 gallons of water per flush -- as opposed to about 7 gallons per flush with older toilets. The county is exploring the idea of offering rebates to help owners of older homes convert to the water-saving toilets.

In other municipalities where that's been tried, "it has been very cost-effective," said James M. Irvin, the county director of public works. "The payback has been remarkable in terms of the savings of water per household."

When asked to survey a representative number of families using water-saving devices, John Schaefer, the county engineer in charge of the project, looked to the schools to help collect data. "There are lots of advantages to involving school kids," he said.

Penny Zimring, who coordinates the county's gifted and talented programs, and Barbara Kleinknecht-Hall, who teaches at Owen Brown Middle School, agree.

"This is just what we should be doing -- solving real problems using students as part of the study," said Ms. Kleinknecht-Hall.

"It was a wonderful opportunity to collect real-life data and analyze it," said Ms. Zimring, adding that participation was not not limited to gifted and talented students.

Before getting their feet wet, the students did a little pre-testing to decide which of three water-saving devices they wanted for their showers.

The Virginia company gave the students the various shower heads and sink aerators and installed them free. They were not given low-flush toilets, but were asked to keep track of the number of times each toilet in their homes was flushed.

Managing the data was no easy task, said Elise Ayeh, 12, an Owen Brown Middle School seventh-grader. She would have to keep track for her mother, she said, because her mother often would forget to enter data on the spreadsheet the students developed.

Students and their families also were asked to note every time a sink was used, dishes were washed, the laundry was done and the shower used. They had to check their water meters and compute the number of gallons used.

The second part of the study involved putting the water-saving devices on showers and spigots and recording the results.

Students using public water have completed their study. Those on well water in the western portion of the county have completed the first part of their study and are only now having water-saving devices installed.

For 13-year-old Kelly Vance, an eighth-grader at Glenwood Middle School, the recording task has been complicated by the special meter that was installed to compute the amount of well water her family uses. The meter measures water in cubic feet rather than in gallons, so Kelly has to multiply each cubic foot by a factor of 7.48.

Kelly, who has just completed the "before" portion of the study, found the results -- especially the amount of time family members spend showering -- interesting, if not a little embarrassing. She takes the longest showers of anyone in the household -- about 20 minutes, she said. Her 8-year-old brother, Sean. takes the shortest, about three to five minutes.

"But I'm the only one [in the family] with long hair," Kelly explained.

Kelly said the recommended period for a shower is five minutes. She had been given a sand-filled hourglass that was supposed to take five minutes to empty. "But I timed it and it runs out in three minutes and 17 seconds," she said.

Most students say they like the new shower heads because they offer a variety of settings -- including one called massage -- without any noticeable loss in water pressure. In fact, they like them so much that perhaps the only way to curtail long showers is to have a timed cutoff.

"Since we don't have to pay for the [well] water, the only problem is if we run out of hot water," Kelly said.

But Chris, the Owen Brown seventh-grader, doesn't think that having to pay for water -- as Columbia residents like his family must -- will lead to shorter showers.

He takes five-minute showers on school days, but 15- to 20-minute showers on weekends.

"I know I should use less," he said. "But I like water a lot."

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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