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Pitt taps free water source for savings

| Monday, July 30, 2012, 12:06 a.m.
Tim Havics, area coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh's facilities management (right) takes a look down into the aquifer underneath the Sennott Square parking garage while John Settles (top) from the grounds crew holds the lid Friday July 27, 2012.
James Knox  |  Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Tim Havics, area coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh's facilities management (right) takes a look down into the aquifer underneath the Sennott Square parking garage while John Settles (top) from the grounds crew holds the lid Friday July 27, 2012. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The University of Pittsburgh's water buffalo supplied by the aquifer underneath the Sennott Square parking garage sits parked at the garage Friday July 27, 2012 on the Oakland univesities campus.
James Knox  |  Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The University of Pittsburgh's water buffalo supplied by the aquifer underneath the Sennott Square parking garage sits parked at the garage Friday July 27, 2012 on the Oakland univesities campus. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

What was once an inconvenience for construction workers at the University of Pittsburgh's Oakland campus has turned into a mild cost-saving venture for the school.

Workers were digging the basement of Sennott Square on Pitt's Oakland campus about a dozen years ago when they hit an aquifer.

“When you dig and you're doing construction below the land surface, you're going to run into water,” said Dan Bain, a geology professor at Pitt.

In order to remove the water, workers built a pump system that Pitt employees now use to fill a 300-gallon tank that proclaims “Free water from the Oakland Aquifer.”

Pitt grounds crews move the tank around campus as needed to water flower baskets and plants that don't have a nearby water source .

Tapping the aquifer for 55,000 gallons of water saves Pitt about $900 annually. Ground crews at Pitt return to the 15-foot well twice a day to fill the tank, a process they say is simple.

“We have a sump pump in there that pumps it into the tank,” said Tim Havics, an area coordinator with Pitt's Facilities Management team. “It's like filling up your car with gas: You put the hose in the tank and you flip a switch.”

Bain said an aquifer is an area in the bedrock with slightly larger gaps in the soil than usual, allowing water — but not bacteria — to flow deeper underground than it would otherwise.

The Oakland Aquifer runs from the Hill District to Schenley Park, with water emerging at the Monongahela River or near Panther Hollow Lake.

Shallow aquifers are especially common in the Pittsburgh area, Bain added, and some basement dampness in the region is caused by aquifers.

The well in the lower level of the Sennott Square parking garage is similar to those found on rural properties around the country.

“A lot of people drink aquifer water without decontamination. Most rural residents have a well, so they're actually using a well for all of their bathing, all of their dishwashing, everything,” said Bain, who takes his groundwater class to the aquifer.

The university has no plans to draw drinking water from the aquifer, as the water can develop various tastes from running through the soil.

“You can drink it,” Bain said. “It's just not what we want to drink.”

Adam Wagner is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7956 or adamwagner@tribweb.com.

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