New England’s tallest building turns to central RO system
Following positive feedback on its central reverse osmosis (RO) drinking water systems in large commercial buildings, Atlas Watersystems, Inc., was determined to reach higher—up 62 floors, to be exact. It took 15 years and multiple property manageament companies to get Boston’s Hancock Place—New England’s tallest building, also known as “Hancock Tower”—to put the environmentally-friendly technology in place.
But Atlas eventually got its “green light” and in July 2007, construction began.
“I went through three or four different management changes of the building, and so what really got this going finally—I would say the breaking point—is that they wanted to get LEED-certified,” said Simon O’Leary, CEO of Atlas Watersystems, Inc., a provider of water filtration systems for high-purity and special applications, commercial drinking water, residential applications and food service.
But O’Leary did not care if that was the sole reason Hancock gave in. He wanted a chance to demonstrate the system’s benefits to the 1.7-million-sq-ft commercial building.
“It is a totally green system; there is zero wastewater with this RO system,” O’Leary said. “The building now can offer this service to any tenant who moves in. They say, ‘We have the building pre-plumbed for water purification; would you like to connect in?’
“Our whole concept is, we’re a utility holder in that building, basically. We sign a licensing agreement. They now have some control over the process where they can tell tenants, ‘No, you can’t let your coffee company come in here and hack up the plumbing. You can either, one, connect through this system through a vendor we’ve screened or, two, get your own vendor and follow the rules of the building.’”
Anatomy of an Innovation
Hancock’s central RO system can reach 4,000 gpd but O’Leary estimated it currently maxes out at 800 gpd.
“We have about 50% of the building online,” he said. “There are some vacancies and a few people we don’t have. We could have gone with a smaller RO but the larger one had a better recovery—sent less water to drain.”
The heart of the system is the centralized water purification plant, which feeds individual floors through a dedicated piping system. Borrowing from the same technologies that purify water for semiconductor and pharmaceutical companies, the equipment includes RO, variable speed pumps, ultraviolet sterilization, thermal-fusion piping and microfiltration. Reliability was also paramount, so the design includes dual alternating distribution pumps and an RO that was intentionally oversized, which reduces cycle duty and extends membrane life, O’Leary said.
“One criticism leveled against conventional RO systems is the amount of water sent to drain during operation,” O’Leary said. “However, the Hancock Tower drinking water system was designed to be water-efficient and actually sends the normally wasted water to be reused in the cooling towers. This green ‘mass-balance’ concept is typically used at large RO installations such as power plants and refineries, but works just as well at this innovative installation.”
The project cost a total of $175,000 and involved—in addition to designer and owner AtlasWatersystems, Inc.—contractor Jay Burke Electrical Kennedy Plumbing; project managers Michael McCready, Mike Nim and Kevin Unger; and equipment manufacturers Crane Environmental, Terracon, Flow Line, Grunfos, Global Water Item, Plastomatic, Atlantic Ultraviolet, Gould, First Smart Sensor Corp. and Vanguard.
Rise to the Challenge
Replacing existing RO drinking water systems previously installed feeding bottle-less water coolers, coffee makers and more with a central system feeding every floor was no small feat; but the need was indeed present on many levels—both figuratively and literally speaking.
“We had over 50 individual filtration systems in that building,” O’Leary said. “Some were RO; some were sediment carbon and, because we were limited with space, one of the biggest issues was that they had a lot of sediment in that water. We had to service them probably every two months in most cases. The other issue they looked at was, ‘Hey, you have all these RO systems, they’re sending a lot of water drain; what can we do?’”
Atlas determined it could take out all of those systems, install a central building system that would now be available for everybody and reuse the draining water for the cooling towers.
“In Boston the water is really pretty good,” said Norm Marowitz, president of Atlas Watersystems, Inc. “You don’t necessarily need RO because the drain water is pretty good and in [many] cases it’s better than what people are drinking in other cities. So we didn’t want to send that water to drain anymore.”
O’Leary and Marowitz reflected on some of the core challenges to expect on a job of this magnitude.
“We had two risers—one riser services the bottom half of the building; one riser services the top half,” O’Leary said. “But what that means is, on the top 30 floors we had to drill two holes: one for the low-rise and the other for the high-rise, and we did that because we wanted to keep the risers smaller.”
They kept the tubing smaller, which keeps a higher flow rate through the tubing and costs down.
“We had to drill about 90 holes through probably 6 in. of cement,” O’Leary said. “We had to do that at night, which was the biggest problem with it.”
Another crucial element was designing and building the system so the RO reject water would indeed feed into the building’s cooling tower.
“The building was set up, considering how big it is, pretty favorably for us because there were a few places we could bring water to,” O’Leary said.
The head unit sits on the sixty-second floor, and on the sixty-first floor is a cooling tower to dump into. Crews had to run a line down to the seventh floor to another location they could dump water.
“They had a pipe that went down to the seventh floor that dumped water that they could reuse from the cooling tower and their steam system, and they gave us access to that,” O’Leary said. “So we worked with their building engineer and their outsourced engineer to design how we were going to make that connection. And we had a few different issues with it—it was part of the process to take room temperature water and put it into something that converts water into steam and dumps it down there.”
Adding to their set of challenges, they had to keep in mind strict plumbing code, along with pressure reduction requirements dictating a series of pressure-reducing valves. Luckily, those aspects worked out.
“Plumbing code in Massachusetts is favorable if you use RO,” O’Leary said. “So the beauty of this system is we are required to use a PEX tubing as opposed to copper—you’re not allowed to use copper for RO drinking water. So the plumbing code said we had to use this distribution.”
The system reached completion in July 2008 and O’Leary and Marowitz said Hancock has been happy with it ever since—something especially significant, considering Atlas had to deal with initial opposition to the project.
“We’re offering tenants a good opportunity to get good drinking water,” O’Leary said.