Clean Water to Go
The expertise of a Penn College plastics graduate is facilitating access to clean water in rural India for women who no longer have to carry pots of water on their heads.
by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor
The WaterWheel 2.5, pushed by the woman on the right, moves the burden of fetching fresh water from women’s heads to a rolling water tank. Photo courtesy of Wello..
The young woman walks briskly.
Bright traditional garb protects all but her face and forearms from the unforgiving sun. Her right hand gently stabilizes the metal pot resting on her head.
Nonchalantly, her hand returns to her side as she maintains an impressive pace. The pot balances atop her head despite just a thin pair of sandals separating her from the uneven, brown terrain. She still has a few miles to navigate before returning home.
Her burden is daily, as is the need. The heavy pot is filled with a couple gallons of life-sustaining water for the woman and her family.
That scene is repeated countless times every day throughout rural India and the developing world. Scarcity forces women to make multiple trips by foot to safe sources of water. The time-consuming obligation shrinks their opportunities for educational and work pursuits, and its arduous nature results in a variety of physical ailments. Women spend approximately a third of their day with weight equivalent to a stuffed airline carry-on bag atop their head.
Thanks in part to a Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate, that harsh reality is changing. Water collection remains “women’s work” in that part of the world, but weight has been lifted off their shoulders, literally.
“To be part of something that truly can change the world was something that excited and intrigued me from the day I heard about it.”
Rather than adjust a pot on their head, they grasp a thin steel bar at their waist. The bar extends to an axle supporting a plastic drum, containing nearly a dozen gallons of fresh water. The drum doubles as a wheel that they can comfortably push or pull. Known as the WaterWheel, the innovation is helping to quench the thirst of a nation.
Jason C. Gross smiles at that thought. The skills and expertise he developed at Penn College as a plastics and polymer engineering technology student are enhancing lives 7,000 miles from his Williston, Vermont, home. His handiwork is facilitating access to clean water, reducing water-collection time and improving the health of women, who no longer have to rely on head loading as the sole means to transport water.
“As soon as I heard about the concept, it was one of those things where I said, ‘Wow. I can’t believe nobody has done that.’ To be part of something that truly can change the world was something that excited and intrigued me from the day I heard about it,” said Gross, 32.
The 2005 graduate heard about the WaterWheel initiative from his younger brother and fellow Penn College alumnus, Matthew L. Gross. Owner of a technical consulting firm, 144 Innovations in Boulder, Colorado, Matthew serves as the chief materials and processing engineer adviser for Jibu, an organization dedicated to combatting the water crisis in East Africa. His work for Jibu led to an inquiry from Wello, a nonprofit focused on improving access to safe water throughout India. Wello sought Matthew’s input to upgrade the initial version of its WaterWheel, released in 2013.
Overloaded with other projects and commitments, the 2006 Penn College graduate engineered a simple solution. “It just dawned on me that this would be a great project to get Jason involved in if I could,” said Matthew, 29. “I never doubted once that it wasn’t going to be successful. I knew Jason wouldn’t run into anything that he wouldn’t be able to fix or solve.”
The decision to subcontract the project to his brother was an easy one. Technical savvy and problem solving are in the Grosses’ genes. Their mother is an engineer, and their father is an electrician. Aunts, uncles and cousins engage in a variety of engineering disciplines.
Jason, in particular, has been a proficient “tinkerer” since childhood. He considered mechanical and electrical engineering as possible careers, but decided those fields were too broad for his taste. Constantly breaking the plastic binding on his snowboard pointed Jason in a different direction.
“I thought there had to be a better way to make the binding, and about the same time, I came across the option for a plastics degree,” he said. “I looked at programs around the country.”
He chose Penn College, home to one of just five plastics programs accredited by the Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission of ABET. A Dean’s List student, Jason earned a bachelor’s degree in plastics and polymer engineering technology and also engaged in research and development for the college’s renowned Plastics Manufacturing Center, now known as the Plastics Innovation & Resource Center.
“What I did for the WaterWheel probably touched on 80 percent of my education,” Jason said. “It involved plastics processing, mold design, material selection testing, and engineering economics. It was similar to a capstone project in how you had to put everything all together.”
There were many “pieces” to put together for WaterWheel 2.5. Wello wanted to shift from a rotational-molded product to a blow-molded design in order to increase production output and reduce costs.
Both intrigued by the plastics employed in their outdoor activities, Matthew Gross, right, followed brother and best friend Jason by studying plastics at Penn College. Recently, Matthew employed his brother’s plastics expertise as subcontractor for the WaterWheel. Photo courtesy of Jason Gross.
“Rotational molding is a very time-consuming process,” explained Kirk M. Cantor, professor of plastics and polymer technology. “Powdered plastic is tumbled in a heated, hollow mold and eventually coats the inside surface of the mold. Building up the wall thickness of the product and cooling it down to remove it from the mold can take up to an hour in some cases.
“In blow molding, a hollow mold closes around a tube of molten plastic, and compressed air inflates the tube within the mold to acquire the designed shape and cool the product. The process can take just a matter of seconds.”
Jason led the successful conversion to a blow-molded WaterWheel in less than a year, despite working full time as a packaging equipment engineer for Keurig Green Mountain Inc., famous for its personal beverage system.
“I worked on it on a weekly basis. I didn’t keep track of the hours,” he laughs.
“I just made the time to be able to support the project.”
Since India is 9 1/2 hours ahead of Vermont, Jason devoted many predawn hours to communicating with the Indian blow-molding manufacturer for the new version of the WaterWheel. “Between language barriers, communication gaps, understanding their process ability, it took some time to come to an understanding,” he said.
“He not only had to deal with the challenges associated with the communication barrier but also the technological barrier of a Second- or Third-World company manufacturing it,” Matthew said. “They might not have the tools we are used to, the computer programs that typically make something very easy to do. That can make a small task much more complicated.”
By employing Skype, videoconferencing, and PowerPoints with lots of pictures and arrows to aid understanding, Jason succeeded.
“Jason advised Wello through every step of the design-to-manufacture process, liaising with our manufacturer and mold maker to troubleshoot problems,” said Cynthia Koenig, founder and CEO of Wello. “He educated the Wello team about manufacturing best practices and container manufacturing, material choices and quality control. We couldn’t have done this without him!”
WaterWheel 2.5 features several improvements. A small, flat opening on the drum has been replaced with a larger, angled one to facilitate pouring and cleaning. Sturdier, ergonomic handles make it easier to grasp the drum, which is made of food-grade, human-safe, high-density polyethylene. The new WaterWheel is more durable, yet half the weight of the initial version.
“The Wello team spent countless hours in the field with the first WaterWheel to hear it from the end user, the people who are going to need it every day, to make sure it’s actually something we want to do,” Jason said. “These were well-vetted changes. Cynthia and the Wello team did a good job challenging us to make sure we could get a sustainable and functional product.”
Wello ordered 1,000 WaterWheel 2.5s for release in January. The organization teams with other nonprofits and charity groups to sell the device for $20 to villagers in Rajasthan, which is the largest state by area in India.
25 gallons per load for newer washers
Shower (10 minutes)
20 gallons per load
1.2-1.6 gallons per flush for newer toilets
– U.S. Geological Survey
The majority of India’s 1.2 billion people live in rural areas. While the country contains more than 17 percent of the world’s population, it only has 4 percent of Earth’s fresh water supply. According to the World Health Organization, 97 million Indians (equivalent to two-and-a-half times the population of California) lack access to safe water. The WHO estimates that less than a quarter of Indian households have a piped-water connection.
“I told Jason in the beginning that I always think I learn more from working on these projects than what I am able to give,” Matthew said. “You realize you’re not Superman with a cape coming in to solve a simple problem. It’s an extremely complex problem.”
Matthew offering Jason the opportunity to address that problem through plastics technology brought the Gross brothers full circle. More than a decade ago, it was Jason who opened Matthew’s eyes to the possibility of a plastics career.
“He is pretty much the reason I ended up at Penn College for plastics,” said Matthew, who graduated from high school without firm plans. “I went to Penn State York for a semester to play soccer. During that semester, I excelled at math, science and chemistry and saw my brother getting great internships and job offers at Penn College. I realized what he had going on there was a really good thing, and I followed in his footsteps.”
Timothy E. Weston, who developed the Penn College plastics program and serves as an associate professor and department head, is glad he did.
“Jason and Matt both came to Penn College with a strong work ethic and a desire to be successful,” Weston said. “We simply provided the opportunity and means to achieve their life goals. If you have the desire to succeed and the work ethic to make it happen, Penn College provides the opportunities for success.”
After Penn College, the brothers and “best friends” went their separate ways. Jason worked as a project development engineer at Graham Packaging for a decade before joining Keurig Green Mountain three years ago. Matthew earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in materials science and engineering at Penn State. He served as a materials and process engineer for Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. prior to forming his consulting firm two years ago. Matthew received Penn College’s Alumni Achievement Award in 2012.
“The WaterWheel was a great project that got us in contact more often and allowed us to work technically together, which was really fun,” Matthew said.
More importantly, the collaboration has resulted in a sanitary, convenient means for the women of rural India to access wells, hand pumps, water tanker trucks and other sources of safe water. The 11.8-gallon capacity of WaterWheel 2.5 (approximately three times the amount of water in a typical head-loading pot) and ease of use cuts water collection time in half, which increases time for family, employment and education.
WaterWheel 2.5 is enriching lives by reducing a heavy burden, one family at a time.
That reality encourages Jason to do more. He’s starting his own consulting business to support growth in developing nations where great ideas may exist but technical know-how is lacking.
“You grow personally and at the end of the day maybe create something no one thought was possible,” he said.
Like a wheel transporting clean water. ■
Did you know?
Waterborne illnesses are a leading cause of death for children under the age of 5, killing 1,000 every day.
While water covers approximately 70 percent of Earth, less than 3 percent is fresh water, and only about 1 percent of the world’s fresh water is accessible for direct human use.
– U.S. Geological Survey
One in nine people lack access to safe water. That’s 750 million people worldwide (more than twice the population of the United States).
– World Health Organization