Johnny Uelmen was one of the first applicants to the UW-Madison Green Fund, a program that supports student-initiated projects that reduce the environmental footprint and operating costs of on-campus facilities. Uelemen, a former graduate student at the UW, worked from an office in an older building on campus and noticed that the men’s bathroom on his floor appeared to be at least 60 years old. There were 4.5 Gallons Per Flush (GPF) toilets, no urinals, older lighting structures, leaky faucets, and paper towel dispensers instead of air driers. He was inspired to find a way to make a difference.
“The main force behind what I study is striving to make the environment and surrounding ecosystems healthier, and I always try to practice what I preach,” says Uelman. “I wanted to find my own way to make an impact, and with perfect timing and a little bit of luck, I found out the Green Fund was just opening.”
In Fall 2017, Uelmen received funding to install water-efficient toilets at another location: Tripp Hall. The Green Fund facilitated new partnerships with University Housing and Physical Plant, and Uelmen has spent dozens of hours immersed in research.
“I’m a very quantitative person. I like numbers, analytics, and calculations,” Uelman says. “Every calculation [in my proposal was] based off of research.”
Internet research helped Uelmen find Madison’s water codes, average costs per water usage, pumping rates, and delivery rates. But perhaps unsurprisingly, data on when people go to the bathroom and how frequently they use the bathroom was not widely available. He realized that his research required direct data collection to better understand all of the variables involved with the project.
So Uelmen did something a bit unusual: he visited the bathrooms on the main floors of Ogg, Chadbourne, and Phillips Residence Halls during different periods of the day for 15 minute intervals to determine an average usage count for each toilet.
“This is the embarrassing part—I had a data sheet where all I did was record how frequently people went in and out, and I even tried to listen for flushing,” says Uelmen.
But his hard work paid off. The full installation of new toilets is complete; Tripp Residence Hall is equipped with 41 higher efficiency toilets that use 1.6 GPF rather than the 3.5 GPF of the old units.
Uelmen’s calculations show that University Housing will save nearly $37,000 in operating costs, reduce their water usage by over 6 million gallons, and eliminate about 47,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Over the 20-year life of the new units, Housing will save about $740,000 in operating costs, 124,000,000 gallons of water— the equivalent of 188 Olympic-sized swimming pools!—and 946,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. All of these savings will be realized from a mere $6,007 investment.
“Often the less flashy projects have the greatest impact,” says Ian Aley, the Green Fund Program Manager. “We don’t always think about the energy and carbon impact of pumping and treating water. Johnny’s keen eye for research and passion for sustainability lead us to a hugely impactful project. His patience, persistence, and ability to work with both people and numbers turned his idea into a reality.”
Breana Nehls, the Sustainability Coordinator for University Housing, appreciates the hands-on research that made this Green Fund project happen. Nehls explained that projects like this not only help University Housing improve their sustainability goals, but they also highlight how student research can produce real-world impacts.
“It’s really great that students coming into the Tripp Hall in fall can live in an area where they know we’ve taken the steps to make the building as efficient as we can make it—the switch from the 3.5 GPF to 1.6 GFP is a lot of savings,” says Nehls. “We couldn’t have done this project without Johnny’s research and excitement moving the project forward.”
Uelemen hopes that by demonstrating the impressive impact of a toilet retrofit at one building, this project can inspire a campus-wide switch to more efficient toilets.
Aley added that the Green Fund would welcome proposals to replace older toilets in other buildings during the next round of awards this fall. Please check the Green Fund’s page or email Ian if you are interested in learning more about the Green Fund.
Though Uelmen received two master’s degrees from UW-Madison in Epidemiology and Entomology and served as a STEM mentor for undergraduates in the Posse Program, he recently transferred to University of Illinois to pursue a PhD in their Pathology program. When Uelman first arrived on the Illinois campus, he received the Student Sustainability Committee grant to sustainably update the bathrooms inside their main library on campus. It’s clear that Uelman, the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, will continue making sustainable strides toward a healthier planet.
By: Trina La Susa