Such systems could help parts of the Central Valley with polluted wells and parts of the world where water is still scarce.
The idea is being tested by the Valley Water Collaborative, which has delivered free bottled supplies since last year to parts of Stanislaus and Merced counties.
The test system was installed in May outside the Esmar Road home of Martha Lorenzo and her extended family. Their tap water came from a nitrate-contaminated well before the collaboration took place.
“My grandchildren live with me, so we wanted to make sure they had safe water in the future,” Lorenzo said during a Wednesday morning visit from The Modesto Bee.
Their system produces about nine to 15 pints a day, enough for the drinking and cooking needs of a typical household.
Cheaper than bottled water
The collaborative got its unit from Source Global, based in Scottsdale, Arizona. It is one of many companies in the emerging field of airborne water. The brand name is Hydropanel.
A system like the Lorenzo family’s costs about $7,000 to $8,000, but pays for itself over its 15-year lifespan, said Colin Goddard, vice president of business development in North America. This equates to approximately $1.30 to $1.45 per day.
“It’s cheaper than plastic bottled water that you buy at a store or have delivered,” said Goddard, who called Wednesday from the Washington, DC area.
The collaboration provides its free water in an area bounded by the Stanislaus River to the north, the San Joaquin River to the west, the Merced River to the south, and roughly the Tuolumne County line to the east. The program is not intended for customers of public water systems, which already treat pollutants.
The effort began with nitrate, which can cause various ailments if ingested. It is funded by about $1 million a year in assessments on agriculture and other industries whose past handling of manure and fertilizer contributed to the problem.
A domestic well user can request a free test to see if it is polluted. Eligible homes can choose between water jug delivery or an under-sink treatment system that requires regular maintenance.
Both options work in the short term but are not permanent solutions, said Parry Klassen, executive director of the collaboration. He was present at the Lorenzo house to explain the water-air system, which could spread to others if proven successful.
Earlier this year, a state grant of $5.5 million allowed the collaboration to expand to 11 more pollutants. They are not yet eligible for the Hydropanel system, Klassen said.
Sunlight drives the process
The air still retains water – a lot on rainy or foggy days and a lot less in the summer valley heat. Source Global’s system is designed to operate in a range of conditions.
The devices are actually solar panels but with small openings where air is sucked inside. The sun heats the air as it passes through a membrane that extracts moisture. Trace minerals are added to give drinking water its familiar flavor and the micronutrients free of pure H20.
The condensed water is then piped into the house, supplying a kitchen faucet separate from that for dishwashing and other non-consuming uses.
The Hydropanel runs entirely on solar energy, including the photovoltaic cells that power the fans inside. It stores excess electricity in a battery so it can produce water at night.
Source has installed systems in over 50 countries with varying climates. They can be scaled for schools, hospitals and other large users.
“It’s not going to save the world by any means,” Goddard said, “but if it helps make sure people get clean water from a tap inside their house…then I think it’s a material advantage.”
This story was originally published August 5, 2022 7:05 a.m.