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Most commercial buildings keep their maintenance systems behind the scenes. The Port of Portland’s headquarters here in Oregon, however, will display its wastewater treatment and water-reuse system in its lobby. The move will show its concern about an omnipresent, but still precious resource. Water may cover 70% of the planet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t–or shouldn’t–be reused.

“The Port of Portland is committed to incorporating sustainable practices in all of our operations,” says Stan Watters, director of development services and information technology at the Port. “We believe that creating a sustainable, environmentally progressive building at the front door of our region helps communicate greater Portland’s green thinking ethic and is simply the right thing to do.”

With many areas in the United States suffering through droughts, more commercial real estate developers and even entire municipalities are looking at treating and recycling gray water–from sinks and chillers–and black water–from sewage–so it can be used again.

“That’s what’s happening around the country, particularly in areas with a water shortage,” says William Kirksey, a senior vice president of Worrell Water Technologies, Charlottesville, VA–the maker of the Living Machine treatment system to be used at the Port of Portland building. “The need to reuse water is just imperative.”

Used water has been recycled in commercial buildings from early in the decade–555 Cit Center in Oakland, which opened in 2002, uses recycled water for flushing toilets. But current technology is allowing commercial real estate buildings around the country to reuse grey and black water–if the interest and funding are there.

With its history of drought, the West Coast has been particularly active in pursuing wastewater treatment, says Jerry Stonebridge, head of Freeland, WA-based Stonebridge Construction and the most recent past president of the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Assoc.

“The Pacific Northwest–Washington and Oregon–and California probably are leading the nation in reuse,” Stonebridge says. “The Southwest will be one of the leaders.”

But interest is increasing around the country as the goal of recycling has changed. The Solaire office building in New York City uses recycled wastewater for its cooling tower, low-flow toilets and for irrigating landscaping, reducing potable water demand by 50% overall, says the National Resources Defense Council.

Interest has increased as droughts have affected different states, and LEED standards reward water recycling. In addition, technology has diversified: Originally, the goal of many systems was to bring the reused water back to potable levels. That has shifted to a more practical aim.

“We’re looking at cleaning it for the use,” with recycled water to be used for irrigation, for example, allowed to have certain suspended solids that would not be permitted in drinking water, Stonebridge says.

The Living Machine system produces quality recycled water out of both gray and black water, Worrell says. The Port of Portland installation will occupy 700 square feet with lush vegetation in packed gravel concealing the holding tanks that are treating the building’s wastewater. The system will treat up to 5,000 gallons of wastewater a day, bringing it to a level suitable for toilet flushing or washing streets.

“The quality of the water is really good, as close to drinking water as any other process,” though regulations do not allow it to be described as potable, Kirksey says.

Scandinavian systems can go even further, separating black water elements at their source so each can be treated individually and sent to their best use, Stonebridge reports. Japan also is a leader in wastewater recycling. “A lot of that is taking place in developing countries, which are leap-frogging ahead of us in some respects,” Stonebridge says.

The Port of Portland building will save 80% of its water costs as a result of the installation. Other buildings with smaller parking areas can cut their costs in half, Stonebridge says. But it’s important to consider a wastewater recycling system early in the design process, and is easiest and most cost effective in new construction. Retrofitting a major system is difficult, given the need to install underground storage tanks, Stonebridge warns. “In some areas where you have a failing system, this is an excellent retrofit,” Kirksey says.

The Port of Portland’s building is set for a 2010 completion. More buildings likely will follow, if developers can get the funding to build anything at all. Economic stimulus funds could be used for such systems, but thus far energy conservation has been of more interest, Stonebridge says, that could change as municipalities pass laws requiring recycling.

“If you make the regulations, the entrepreneurs will come,” Stonebridge says. “But you have to have regulations to make things happen.”

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