By Karina Mazhukhina | Mar 17, 2016

For 40 years, the University of Washington's Manastash Ridge Observatory near Ellensburg has been home to countless research projects studying our vast universe. Now, it’s working on incorporating environmental sustainability into the mix.

"It’s time to make changes that reflect the use of the facility and our impact on natural resources, particularly our water and energy consumption," said Oliver Fraser, UW astronomy lecturer.

A team of researchers and students have been working to upgrade several aspects of the observatory to conserve energy and water (which has to be trucked to the site). To aid with the process, Fraser and his team received $59,599 from the Campus Sustainability Fund (CSF) to kick-start the project.

The project is broken down into three parts: high efficiency appliances, rainwater catchment, and solar power generation. So far, the first objective has been completed.

Last spring, Fraser and a group of students renovated the observatory’s kitchen and replaced its outdated fridge. They also substituted the existing toilet with a low flushing one – the most cost effective renovation of the entire project thus far. All lighting was replaced with LED bulbs, as well. Researcher Joseph Huehnerhoff blogged about some of the project progress, complete with photos.

“We realized that we were spending a lot of money on water and power,” said Fraser. “All the water that we were using at the observatory we had to truck. What we wanted to do was make it easier to use the water we were carrying. Now, we have a kitchen that pumps water into the sink from water jugs.”

Since the observatory is far too remote for city water service, Fraser and his team rely on expensive water deliveries. Almost all the water is entirely used for toilet flushing. This summer, Fraser and his team also plan on constructing a rainwater harvesting system to help reduce their need for trucked-in water. They will capture roof rainwater, funnel it into a water tank, and cut down or even eliminate the truckloads of water used for the toilet. Fraser hopes the rainwater system will be completed by this fall, at the latest.

"If we’re right about rainwater replacing all the truck shipments, we will save about $1,000 to $1,500 a year," said Fraser.

Fraser also thinks that Manastash Ridge might be the first solar-powered observatory in the world. When it comes to observatories, installing solar panels isn’t a usual feature - but Manastash Ridge is hoping to change that. Fraser is relying on Joe Huehnerhoff's expertise, one of the UW engineers who helps support the telescope, and six undergraduates to help design and construct solar panel mounts this summer. If everything goes as planned, the team could save $3,000 in energy costs each year, with the possibility that the solar panels could completely take the observatory off the grid.

Once every aspect of the project is completed, Fraser hopes to install computer monitors to display the observatory’s real-time energy information, including electrical and water costs compared to those of previous years.

"We want to let people know what’s going on," said Fraser. “We would love to stick one in the Astronomy Department and possibly the Engineering Department. Eventually, we might be able to have one in the HUB."

Photo by Marius Strom, used under a Creative Commons license