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Mulching toilet part of CVI's green building design

DAVIS, W.Va. -- Canaan Valley Institute's new building features state-of-the-art laboratory and conference space, colorful tile of recycled porcelain and glass in the entry way and scenic views from every employee's window.

But what they really hope visitors will do is use the bathroom.

Of all the high-tech opportunities the facility will offer staff members and visiting scientists, the "Living Machine" may be what construction manager Dan Wheeler is most proud of.

It's a "closed end" system, meaning the wastewater treatment system from toilet to cleansing and back doesn't use any water from the outside.

The 27,000-square-foot, $10 million facility also includes a self-contained "mulching toilet" that composts waste without any exterior impact.

"We want to show alternative ways of disposing of waste," Wheeler said during a recent tour.

After toilets are flushed, pipes bring the waste to the first of a series of tanks, a traditional septic tank. Solids fall to the bottom, and the fluid moves into a pair of "equalization tanks" that level out the water.

When the fluid reaches a certain level, pumps kick on and send the water through a "wetland bed" made up of plants and different types of gravel.

"The roots work on the gray water and take up a lot of nutrients," Wheeler said. "It makes the plants grow, but it also cleans the gray water."

From there the fluid goes to the first of three aeration tanks, which also have plants above them on racks, allowing the roots to dip into the water. The water circulates and the plants pull nutrients (waste) out.

Wheeler said the third of the three tanks 500-gallon will include some fish.

"More as a demonstration of the cleanliness of the water than anything," he said.

From there the water goes to a sand filter cell (with sand from the Ohio River on the bottom and gravel on the top) before it's checked for remaining solid particles and exposed to ultraviolet light. If it has too many particles, it goes through the filter a second time.

Once it gets the OK, the water is moved to a 750-gallon storage tank, which pumps it back to the commodes.

"The only thing we do is add water if we get evaporation," Wheeler said.

Regulators, many of whom saw the technology for the first time because no other building in the state has a Living Machine, did require a traditional septic tank and field as a "preventive measure," but Wheeler said it shouldn't ever be needed.

Sarah Deacon, CVI's research coordinator, said the system can be used to show visitors -- lay people or scientists -- the importance of wetlands. She referred to them as the "kidneys of the landscape," serving to mitigate flooding by slowing the flow of water like a sponge and filtering pollution in runoff by letting water sit while plant root systems act as natural purifiers.

Showcasing the system here is particularly important because of West Virginia's legacy of poor wastewater treatment, Deacon added. Business people, scientists, regulators and students all will be able to see the system in action after CVI officially moves in today and Friday.

Groups from a handful of local residents to major conferences of up to 150 people can take advantage of the facility, Wheeler said. The "Jewel" conference room can handle large groups or be broken into smaller sections of 50 people each. A computer lab has 39 seats for training, while a pair of laboratories offer space.

Lois Nelson, CVI's director of operations, said parts of the building were named after parts of the watershed, including the Clower Run boardroom, named in memory of the late Chris Clower, co-founder of the Canaan Valley Task Force. A tributary on the property was officially renamed Clower Run. The Blackwater River training lab will be similar to a well-stocked high school science lab, and the Cheat River research laboratory will be for advanced scientific work.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funded the construction, and some older equipment from a NOAA lab in Tennessee will be used in the labs.

"I'm really excited to have a lab," Deacon said, noting some classes and seminars currently have to be conducted in Morgantown or other locations. "Now it will be here."

Wheeler added that local restaurants will be asked to cater events at the facility, which includes a catering kitchen but no way to serve large numbers by itself.

CVI has applied for Gold level LEED certification, the second highest level of environmentally friendly construction, Wheeler said. Many of the materials were purchased locally, which is one factor in the application, and the building includes no PVC pipe. In addition, the building includes touches such as motion-sensitive fluorescent lights, radiant floor heat and rooftop greenery.

Deacon said planting sedum -- and eventually other plants -- on a section of the roof decreases runoff and slows the disbursement of rainwater. The practice, becoming more popular in larger United States cities, also helps lower heating and cooling costs by acting as insulation.

On the flip side, the construction of the roof can cost 30 percent more because it must be able to sustain the additional weight.

The building doesn't have air conditioning on the side where offices are located, but each workstation will have a window that opens.

"Even on the warmer days this summer it was comfortable," Wheeler said.

The facility includes some extra work spaces for visitors from federal agencies, corporations or colleges, Nelson said. CVI currently employs 34 people.

"We're really proud of what we've accomplished here in a short period of time," Wheeler said. "But I think the best is yet to come. The citizens of Tucker County will benefit, whether directly or indirectly, and certainly their children will benefit."

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