Teamwork and technical prowess: UT Austin sets the standard for water conservation in the heart of Texas

November 1, 2023

Building the new Moody Center, a multi-purpose arena at The University of Texas at Austin, was a hugely impressive undertaking: a 15,000-seat facility, close to 530,000 square feet in area, which occupies roughly seven acres of land. Completed in April 2022, Moody Center now hosts more than 150 nights a year of entertainment events, including world-class music performers and the home games of The University of Texas Women’s and Men’s basketball.

It’s a major venue. A new Austin landmark.

And in the heart of hot, dry Texas, what’s equally impressive is the way the building and its surroundings are irrigated: using 100% reclaimed water. This is recycled, treated wastewater, and its use significantly eases the burden on the supply of municipal potable water required from the City of Austin.

Reclaimed water also has a hidden benefit, believes Tim Kihnel, Irrigation and Water Conservation Coordinator, for UT Austin.

“Reclaimed water already has nutrients and fertilizers in it,” he says. “So by irrigating with reclaimed water, in my opinion, it will reduce the need to put down granulated fertilizer, as well as helping to protect the water aquifer. I feel that it’s actually a little better for the grass.”

This kind of holistic, out-of-the-box thinking characterizes the UT Austin approach to water management. It’s a University that has been fully committed to sustainability for more than two decades, and its behind-the-scenes teams pride themselves on their environmental stewardship ethic.

It’s an approach based on teamwork and collaboration, and one that looks to innovate and make efficiencies whenever and wherever the opportunities present themselves. It’s not about showboating or marketing; it’s practical, technical and effective. And nowhere is that more evident than in the work done by Kihnel and his Landscape Irrigation team.

Kihnel is responsible for the irrigation of around 440 acres of University landscape. This is divided up into more than 1,700 irrigation zones, which in turn are watered using 138 smart irrigation controllers from leading manufacturer Calsense.

That smart irrigation system plays an important role in a landscape as large and varied as that of UT Austin. It not only adjusts watering schedules based on weather data and the needs of the plants being watered, it also constantly updates Kihnel on the full system’s operational status.

“My priority is maintaining the system, ensuring it’s operating properly,” he says. That means he receives automated system status email alerts early each morning.

“Those alerts can mean I’ll be checking for mainline breaks, for example, or investigating the cause of an unusually high flow,” Kihnel says. A high flow can mean a leak, and without these notifications that could go unnoticed for days or even weeks.

The Calsense system saves Kihnel and his team time and labor in highlighting these issues and ensuring they can allocate the necessary resources efficiently. At the same time, of course, they’re saving water that would otherwise have been wasted, soaking into the soil rather than directed to where it’s most needed.

Kihnel’s team of four licensed  irrigator technicians and one licensed irrigator crew leader is responsible for the entire campus, each assigned to a specific area. Kihnel also uses the Calsense system to help him generate work orders for his team each day, and they make repairs as required.

As well as this scheduled maintenance, they could receive alerts from their call center, where they might be notified of an accidental mainline puncture, for instance. That’s obviously a priority and will stop any day-to-day work to be dealt with immediately.

At the same time, Kihnel needs to review the irrigation plans for any construction work on campus, providing his feedback to the Technical Review Team. There can be two or three projects ongoing at any time.

“If there’s something that doesn’t look right, I’ll let them know,” he says. “I’ll provide advice on products, and once the project starts, I’ll periodically do open trench inspections. My goal there is to ensure the integrity of the pipe, check that all the glue joints are correct, make sure that the right gauge of wire has been used, etc.”

And it’s here you get an idea of Kihnel’s passion for the technical side of his job.

“If it’s a conventionally wired system, and you have 40 stations on an irrigation controller, you’ll have 40 station wires and one common wire. If it’s a two-wire irrigation system, you can run 99 stations on one single wire. On a two-wire system, not only does that wire send power to all the station valves, it also provides data communication, where it sends and receives data from the controller to the station valves. So it is very, very important, especially on two-wire systems, that the integrity of the wire is intact, and that the system is properly grounded every 400 feet – plus one ground rod at the end of the two-wire path and one ground rod at the controller.”

That attention to detail typifies Kihnel’s dedication to water management at UT Austin.

“I started here in 2020,” he says. “One of the things we’ve changed since then is the type of flow meters we use. Flow meters are a strong, helpful tool – they show if the master valves on our system aren’t closing all the way, which creates unwanted flow in the system. We’re trying to save every drop of that water that we can on campus. Most of the flow meters we were using before were the old paddle wheel-type. With those, water has to move at a certain pace, around three gallons a minute, to move the wheel.

“We’re in the process of upgrading all of our flow meters to the new ultrasonic-type flow meter by Flomec from Calsense, because they are more sensitive and can read as little as two gallons a minute.”

Sprinkler heads are another area where Kihnel is making innovative efficiencies in water conservation.

“We now use pressure-regulated sprinkler heads with check valves,” he explains. “They do two things. In different parts of the campus, the water pressure can be higher or lower. Excessive pressure coming through a sprinkler head, say anything above 60 pounds, can distort the water pattern of a nozzle. Instead of looking like a conventional sprinkler spraying the grass, it looks like you’re at a concert and there’s dry ice standing in for smoke on the stage. That’s a ton of wasted water.

“By putting pressure-regulated heads at 40psi, it locks the output pressure and ensures even distribution of all the sprinkler heads, allowing us to get maximum coverage on flowerbeds, on turf, on whatever we’re watering.”

For someone so passionate about water conservation and management, it’s perhaps surprising to discover that Kihnel’s background is in the newspaper industry.

“I worked as a press operator on a newspaper printing press in New Orleans for 14 years,” he says. “I was very mechanically inclined. The paper was written every night by 10:30, and we had to rig up the press. I worked with 60 people every night: four crews of 15. That’s a lot of personalities, to say the least. I really enjoyed that; the teamwork.”

In 1999, Kihnel decided the time was right for a change. He made the move west to Texas.

“I joined Environmental Survey Consulting, Austin, Tx,, which specialized in native landscape restoration – high-end custom rock work, riparian areas and ranch restoration,” he says. “I started there as an irrigation helper: basically putting pipe in the ground, running wires and everything on the low end. And it turned out I had a knack for it.

“It was because I enjoy math. I enjoy hydraulics, and irrigation has a lot do with hydraulics: pressures and flows. How much water pressure you have to start with and how far can you run pipe and maintain that pressure, that sort of thing.

“The company owner suggested I get my irrigator’s license. I took the class, passed the exam, and from there I started designing their projects: civic, government, commercial, residential, etc. I did that for eight years before I moved to this job. Now I’m a client, effectively taking those restoration principles and trying to take everything here to the next level.”

The combination of teamwork and technical skill connects the disparate strands of Kihnel’s career.

“Everybody on a team has strengths and weaknesses, and nobody is going to accomplish anything by themselves,” Kihnel says. “You have to work together. You have to find a common goal. I carried that with me from day one.

“I’ve tried to show my team that I have here everything that I’ve learned in the field coming up, to help them improve their skillset. And I couldn’t be happier with them. The days can be pretty stressful at times, but they have great attitudes. The support staff, management, Lisa Lennon, the landscape architect; we all work closely together. And it’s a really good fit for everybody.”

Teamwork and technical skill are also apt descriptors for the sustainability ethos across UT Austin.

Jim Walker is Director of Sustainability for the University.

“The University decided to become self-reliant for energy production 90 years ago,” Walker says. “That led to a chain of events and investments in staff and infrastructure and a culture of energy reliability and resource reliability. That’s ingrained into the culture now.

“Water is incredibly important to us, of course, in Texas. Our approach to water efficiency is programmatic: we constantly chase innovation and efficiency system by system and building by building, wherever the opportunities present themselves.

“Efficiency gains in power plant operations and chilling stations leads to water savings.”

Each building has different water requirements, he says, both indoor and outdoor; a laboratory is different than a classroom, which in turn has different needs compared to a residence hall.

And while UT Austin does engage in campaigns to encourage behavior change around water use, Walker says the most effective drivers for water efficiency are “behind the curtain”: mechanical, technical, and system driven. This means campus-wide interdepartmental collaboration.

Technical staff associate Patrick Mazur works within a UT Austin division called Energy Management and Strategic Programs.

“One of our current projects is developing a water management plan to guide our efforts to tap new water sources and create a best in class water system that aligns with the University’s mission,” he says. “This plan is going to be a roadmap and call to action that guides our efforts to use every water source available to us to support water related education, research and public service efforts; and to support campus resiliency and environmental stewardship.

“I’m working to further assess our campus-wide fin water recovery system. Recovered water is the least expensive water source that we have, and it displaces our use of City of Austin domestic water.

“Fin water is simply moisture that’s been condensed on a cooling coil. It drips into a pan, and it’s put into a pipe, and that goes to our chilling stations and plant, and it’s used for make-up for the cooling towers.”

That recovered water also includes groundwater underneath buildings, which in total amounts to around 42 million gallons a year. “The campus uses several hundred million gallons of water a year, but this definitely smooths the impact of our water usage,” Mazur says.

Leonard Friesenhahn, Associate Director for Mechanical Distribution in Energy Management at the University, outlines some of the initiatives that are helping to create efficiencies in water use at the University.

“We currently have two cooling towers that are using municipal reclaimed water for cooling tower makeup, and some test beds for irrigation using reclaimed water,” Friesenhahn says. “Last year, we used over 130 million gallons of municipal reclaimed water for that purpose, which is offsetting a lot of potable use. Reclaimed water is also used for irrigation wherever possible.

“We’ve also reduced the use of decorative fountains on campus: one of them here we calculated uses a million gallons of water a month or more, when it runs, so that’s a significant saving.

“Metering is big for us. 99.9 percent of our buildings have meters to monitor our energy and water usage. We set thresholds for the water meters and if water consumption exceeds that threshold, we get an alert back so that we can investigate them. The City of Austin’s now doing that for all of their customers too, for city water consumption, so we’re very aligned on that.”

Mazur says these kinds of alerts can prove extremely useful.

“It’s exciting when you do find the cause of what’s happening,” he says. “It could be something as simple as a pressure relief valve on a system and it’s failed and just blowing water out of it. It’s not a huge amount, necessarily, but two or three gallons a minute 24/7 adds up real fast. These sorts of issues are usually kind of hidden.”

The data from those energy and water meters is collected and reported on the University’s new publicly accessible Energy Hub website.

Mazur says that replacing four liquid ring (water) type vacuum pump systems with a dry type, resulted in a per system range of annual water savings from 260,000 to 1.5 million gallons, for a total of 2,686,240 gallons.

And in future, Friesenhahn says, there are plans for a water hub to be built on campus, which will produce reclaimed water for the University’s use.

“That will provide resiliency for our plant operations, with a high quality of reclaimed water. It’s likely that 250 million gallons a year of that water will be used in our plant operations, for our cooling towers and even in our boiler systems. Some of that water will be used for irrigation as well.”

Walker says that all of these initiatives are evidence of the culture of stewardship at UT Austin.

“All the technology in the world is great,” he says, “but if you don’t have a culture of wanting to actually find the stuff that’s causing problems and preventing efficiency, well… that technology is not going to do you much good.”

Intelligent water management is now as much part of UT Austin’s development plans as air conditioning has been for decades. Any new construction projects built at UT Austin require them to be ready to use reclaimed water for irrigation when that becomes available, Tim Kihnel says.

“We’re hoping to migrate more buildings to reclaimed water over time, including the LBJ Library, which is a huge facility. The City of Austin has roughly 50 miles of reclaimed water pipes under its streets, which can be utilized for irrigation; and we work closely with them,” he says.

In years to come, Kihnel would love to see buildings with rooftop gardens on campus at UT Austin. He’s also excited about the potential of “living walls” for a city like Austin.

“They’re basically a plant bed that’s stood up,” he says. “They’re created with metal tracks and trays of plants with drip irrigation. They provide splashes of color to different parts of a building. It’s a great solution when you’ve got limited space, and they require very little water to develop and grow these plants.”

You wouldn’t be at all surprised if both of these eventualities come to pass. Kihnel and all of those responsible for water management at UT Austin have shown that their pragmatic and effective approach yields real results.

From multiple buildings being irrigated using reclaimed water, including the new Moody Center, to the widespread use of Calsense smart irrigation controllers to ensure plants and lawns get exactly the water they need – neither too little nor too much – and the intelligent deployment of more efficient flow meters and pressure regulated sprinkler heads, the landscape at UT Austin is benefitting from the University’s culture of stewardship.

Those benefits are echoed throughout the University’s buildings and facilities, as water is managed through the creation of operational efficiencies on an opportunity by opportunity basis, saving tens of millions of gallons through the fin water recovery system and hundreds of millions through the use of reclaimed water. With the widespread use of metering, the establishment of the Energy Hub website to promote accountability, and the development of a strategic water management plan, it seems safe to say that UT Austin’s water use future is in very good hands.

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