UNR water recycling effort thwarted by OSHA

RENO " An effort by the University of Nevada, Reno to recycle water used in an air conditioning system for irrigation has been thwarted by state occupational and health officials because of concerns over a pump.

University safety officials said the pump would have allowed the campus to use 600,000 gallons of water annually to water landscape instead of sending it down the drain.

But UNR was ordered to remove the pump last week because Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials said it violated a code that prohibits any nonessential equipment in the room that houses the air conditioning system that cools the Joe Crowley Student Union building.

John Sagebiel, UNR manager of environmental affairs, said the disagreement is over the intent of a building code.

"The (OSHA) inspector is hinging everything on this one word in the code that says you are not supposed to have 'nonessential' equipment in chiller room," Sagebiel said. "The reason is there is a potential safety issue in chiller rooms."

The chiller room at the student union houses the huge industrial air conditioner, which contains refrigerant composed of stable chemical molecules that are potential asphyxiates, he said.

"So we have to have leak detectors in the room and the room has to be ventilated. It's all for safety, but this pump doesn't put anyone in the building at risk," Sagebiel said.

"This pump is a tiny little thing," Sagebiel said of the beer keg-sized apparatus. "It's a pip-squeak pump."

The whole issue might seem trivial, but it's the university's job to educate, he said.

"We need to be sending the community and our students a message about how we need to be living, and this pump is one example of how we could do that better," Sagebiel said.

The student union, known by the nickname "The Joe," opened last fall. Construction was financed with funds from students, who voted to pay a special fee.

Jason Geddes, who represents Reno on the Board of Regents that oversees Nevada's higher education system, had been employed by the UNR Division of Environmental Health and Safety when the water-saving plan was developed.

"We were happy with it, the architect was happy with it and the pump didn't pose any safety issue, but OSHA ordered us to get rid of it," Geddes said. "I think it is unfortunate because basically you have a rule that got in the way of creative thinking."

Geddes said the university unsuccessfully appealed OSHA's decision.

"But OSHA is the only one you can go to if you want to appeal an OSHA decision," he said. "And they did not want to discuss what other ways we could have done this. So it came down to, 'You get rid of the pump or you do not get a permit."'

It cost about $60,000 to put in a cistern to collect the condensation from water towers used in the air conditioning system and for the pump to circulate the water through drip lines to planters outside the student union, said John Walsh, student union construction project manager.


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