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California Mega Drought: Brief Blip or Decade-Long Diaster?

For the last six months hundreds of rural Californians have lived with dry taps, inflatable toilets, and not a drop of hot water. They eat fast food instead of cooking, because washing vegetables and boiling water for rice or beans requires too much water. They eat off of paper plates rather than use bottled water to wash up, and spend hundreds of dollars at distant laundromats. Occasionally they keep their kids home from school because they haven’t been able to bathe. In places like Tulare County, dozens of wells run dry each day, leaving more families with no water. One local characterized it as “a slow-moving disaster that nobody knows how to handle.” San Diego is currently suffering the worst drought that region has seen in 1,200 years, and now pipes in 90 percent of their drinking water. Geological records indicate that over the past millennium, 10 and 20 year droughts have not been uncommon in California. The longest known California drought lasted 240 years. Early this year Scott Stine (a California State University professor specializing in paleoclimatology, biogeography, and water resources) told the San Jose Mercury News: “We continue to run California as if the longest drought we are ever going to encounter is about seven years. We’re living in a dream world.” And that dream world isn’t just about how we irrigate crops or who relies on well water.

Consider the most common lab appliance: The autoclave.

Most research labs – even in California – are using medical-grade steam autoclaves. These are optimized for 24/7 hospital use, and rely on water-intensive mechanisms like Venturi-ejectors and constant cold-water bleed cooling. These features may be vital to high-throughput hospital operation, but they are mind-bogglingly wasteful. For example, constant cold-water bleeds – which rapidly cool condensing steam and wastewater, so that the medical-grade sterilizer can be run non-stop around the clock – dump 1,440 gallons of water down the drain each day, even if no cycles are being run.

In a hospital setting this extremely high rate of water consumption is the accepted cost of assuring safety, but in a research lab – where autoclaves are usually run less than five times per day, and rarely on weekends or holidays – the waste is enormous. A normal research lab with a single medical-grade sterilizer can expect to waste nearly a half-million gallons of water annually.

For example, in 2008 Stanford University did an audit of their Santa Clara, California campus and discovered that their research labs were using dozens of medical-grade autoclaves, all outfitted with constant cold-water bleed cooling systems. All together, these medical-grade autoclaves were wasting almost 100,000 gallons of water daily, accounting for 3 percent of the university’s daily water ration. Ultimately, it cost the university thousands of collars per unit – for a total of around $113,000 – to retrofit these 60 medical-grade autoclaves. Even then, they were only minimizing the waste, not eliminating it, because of the inherently high-consumption character of medical-autoclave design. It’s not unusual for a medical-grade sterilizer to consumer 150 gallons of water per cycle (in addition to the one-gallon-per-minute cold water bleed mentioned above). A comparable research-grade autoclave can perform the same sterilization cycle in the same time using less than a quart of water, and with no cold-water bleed or other extraneous water use.

Professor Stine is right: We’re living in a dream world of cheap, plentiful water. Concerned about water use in your lab? Need to make the business case for high-efficiency research autoclaves? Learn more on our blog or download our free white papers on autoclave water consumption and energy efficiency.