Kettering students engineer self-sustaining, water-purifying hoophouse

FLINT, Michigan — The wind sweeps down Bennett Avenue on the city’s north central side, gently rippling the sides of the hoophouse tucked along an empty plot with bare fruit trees, a solar panel and cistern. Noah Lukins, a senior in mechanical engineering at Kettering University, walks along the side of the urban garden explaining the tech used to bringing purified water to the plants inside. “This is an exciting opportunity for myself and other students to give back to the community that we’re learning in and be apart of it, to get off campus, and out of the bubble of college life, and help with solutions to problems,” he says. This solution grows kale, mixed greens, lettuce, even strawberries and fruit trees in the spring and summer months.
Noah Lukins
A part of Kettering University’s Student Association for Global Engineering (SAGE), Lukins says he wanted to help create the sustainable hoophouse for the community and so the group partnered with The Asbury Community Center to produce restaurant-quality produce. “Ultimately I think we as engineers have been given tools and skill sets that are valuable, and wherever we’re working or living, we have a responsibility to apply those abilities ... and for me, right now, that's Flint,” he says. 

And, it’s easy to see this hoophouse is a high-tech venture. 

Kettering students built a water filtration system for the garden powered with solar panels and connected to gutters that collect rain water and drains into a 700 gallon cistern. The team is now working to install a pump that will move the water from the cistern to filtration stack and above ground storage tank — where gravity will draw the water out into the hoophouse.

The system is a pilot program showcasing how solar and filtration technology can work together and be scaled to serve communities like Flint, Lukins said. Collected rainwater is treated with mechanical and UV filtration before undergoing ozone treatment within the holding tank to purify the water. “This allows us to produce restaurant-quality produce. At the end of the day, we want the best crop, the best yield, and to do that, you need the best water possible.”

The tech to make the filtration system possible was provided in part by a Ford Motor Company development grant of $25,000 to scale up Asbury Methodist Church’s community gardening efforts.

They joined forces with Rev. Dr. Tommy McDoniel, Asbury’s pastor and a former computer engineer who sees urban gardens as a way to reduce crime, bring the community together, and feed people. 

McDoniel says he thinks God chose him for this particular assignment because of his background in business. “I understand sustainability. Somehow you’ve got to pay the bills,” he notes. The main challenge for hoophouses is paying irrigation costs — which were costing the hoophouse upwards of $1,000. With help from the Kettering students, the hoophouse could become completely self-sustainable and ensure water quality. 

Related story: See inside Pastor Tommy's vision for a better Flint

Olivia Bussone, a sophomore also in mechanical engineering, says the consideration for the system was its sustainability and ability to be maintained over time. “One of the things that had to be considered for the filtration was the size of the system. It had to be hung on a wooden backboard and there was a limited amount of space to work with so the system as a whole needed to be as lightweight and compact as possible,” says Bussone, vice president of SAGE. “We also wanted it to be as easy to maintain as possible so that it wouldn't become a burden to try to keep up and wouldn't require an expert to do so. Once we had the system, one of the challenges that we encountered was getting brackets and PVC pipe that fit the system correctly, but by making a few adjustments we were able to get it all to fit together.”

It’s a real world application of the skills engineers use on the job every day, but just as importantly it’s making a difference in people’s lives, Bussone says. 

“It does not take a huge organization to make a difference. Every act of volunteerism, no matter how seemingly small, has the potential to make a positive impact on the people around you,” she said. “Everything that you can do to help others is always valuable and always matters. It's easy to take for granted the different ways that we benefit from our community, but getting involved in organizations like SAGE is a great way to pay it forward.” 

Lukins says his experiences have also helped him be able to educate others about the work happening in Flint. “When I mention I go to school in Flint, there’s immediately a lot of perceptions that are assumed — but then I start sharing my experiences here, what I’ve seen and what's developing in the community. You can kind of see that paradigm of negative assumptions starting to shift,” he says. “Mostly it's about when you say ‘Flint’ and then start talking about a lot of things that are actually going on, on the ground here — like sustainable organic farming. We’re hoping is to use that to move those negative perceptions.”
The irrigation system being built by Kettering students also purifies the water so the hoophouse can grow restaurant-quality foods.

Read more articles by Jake Carah.