U.S. Water News Online
TALLAHASSEE, Florida -- In a country like the United
States, one of the human body's most urgent needs is taken for
granted. It comes easily out of our faucets, and gallon jugs of it
cost less than a dollar.
Until something like a hurricane makes clean drinking water hard
But the Southeast's climate provides something besides hurricanes
in summer. Humidity.
As emergency officials ponder how to better help their residents
after disasters, some companies are pushing machines that pull the
humidity from the air and turn it into drinking water. A few are also
touting the machines as a potential solution to the clean water
shortages that plague the Third World, pushing aside concerns that
the machines are inefficient and require fuel that also might be
The biggest machines can make 5,000 liters (1,323 gallons) of
water a day, enough to provide about a gallon to 1,250 people. Small
units cost several hundred dollars, while the biggest, most elaborate
cost half a million.
"Tap water systems get knocked out, bottled water often disappears
even before the storm shows up ... so this becomes a way to get
drinking water that you can count on no matter what," said Jonathan
Wright, president of Ogden, Utah-based AquaMagic, one of the
companies selling the machines.
The company recently towed a portable unit around the Southeast,
visiting fire departments, rescue workers and city officials, trying
to drum up interest.
AquaMagic's unit is too small to provide water for a whole city,
but could at least provide water for rescue and cleanup workers so
they wouldn't have to cart in truckloads of water, Wright said.
One potential buyer is David Roberts, who as fire chief in Biloxi,
Mississippi, oversaw crews working in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina, which leveled much of his city.
"You don't realize how bad you need water until you don't have
it," Roberts said. "In August, the humidity's 95 percent and its 95
degrees, you can drink a quart of water and it goes right out of you
in about 30 minutes."
He called the AquaMagic machine "a great piece of equipment. The
water tasted good, too."
Most of the companies making the machines aren't focused on the
Some, including one based in Miami Beach and another in Hollywood,
Florida, are selling machines where clean drinking water is always
hard to find -- villages in the developing world.
"Right now at any given time, there's about 1.2 billion people
that are drinking contaminated water," said Ron Colletta, vice
president of sales for the Island Sky Corp. in Hollywood.
Scientists who study water shortages say that while the technology
works simply and could be part of the solution, there are cheaper and
easier ways to provide large-scale water purification if cleanliness
is the issue.
The simplest is boiling it to remove microbes, or treating it with
chemicals like chlorine, said Dr. Mark Sobsey, a professor of
environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North
Carolina School of Public Health's Drinking Water Research Center.
But boiling has a problem in some poor areas.
"You've got to have fuel and to be able to pay for it," Sobsey
But the biggest obstacle to the machines' wider use is making them
cost effective to fuel. Most are powered by diesel fuel. Some run on
solar energy, but the panels require a costly initial investment.
Michael Zwebner, the president of Miami Beach-based Air Water
Corp., admits the power question is a big problem, but he says the
machines can be useful where there isn't enough water to begin with
&emdash; or where people can't afford to pump it from the ground and
"In many parts of Africa, there is no water," Zwebner said.
Until recently, there's been little interest in the technology
because water is generally easy to get from streams or water wells
and, even in poor countries, it's cheap.
"It's been really only in the last 10 years that water scarcity
has been appearing in a lot of places, mainly due to the growth of
the human population ... and pollution," explained Roland Wahlgren, a
physical geographer who studies water supply and is working to
develop air-to-water systems with a Canadian company called Wataire
Industries. "Groundwater and surface water supplies have decreased in
Aquamagic's envisioned niche notwithstanding, the systems still
aren't generally economically feasible on a large scale in developed
countries with plentiful clean water like the United States.
And emergency managers ask -- if you're going to truck diesel fuel
into a storm-hit area to run the machines, why not just truck in
The answer, AquaMagic's Wright says, is that for one gallon of
diesel, you can make 10 gallons (38 liters) of water. So one small
truck of fuel would provide the amount of water you'd need 10 trucks
to bring in.
Air Water's machine was used after the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the
military in India has recently signed on to send it into the field
"In some countries in Africa they actually see this machine as an
act of God," Zwebner said.
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