High Tech DIY Sensors Could Help Keep Billions of Gallons of Raw Sewage Out of NYC Harbor

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

Every year, 27 billion gallons of raw sewage gets dumped into New York City's harbor. That's a lot of waste, even for a city the size of New York. And it's not supposed to happen. But whenever the city's sewer system is overloaded—thanks to heavy rainfall, flooding, or overuse—the Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) open up and spew out the excess waste.

Obviously, regularly dumping billions of gallons of untreated sewage into a body of water (even one as polluted as the NYC harbor) is a major environmental hazard. Enter Lief Percifield's 'Don't Flush Me' project. Percifield is a design student at Parsons, and after a project left him up close and personal with the horrendous water quality of the Gowanus Canal, he decided to dedicate his skills to developing a system that could help New Yorkers prevent the needless discharge.

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

I met Percifield last week on a tour of Brooklyn-based projects that have raised funds using ioby, a neighborhood crowd-funding and volunteering platform (they just went national, by the way, so check their database for projects in your backyard). He's got a working prototype in operation in the Gowanus Canal, and he explained how it works.

"I want to enable residents to understand when overflows happen and reduce their wastewater before and during overflow events," he said. "If we know when the sewers overflow, we can warn them."

To do this, he has installed remote sensors that monitor water levels at the CSOs, which transmit data via a cell phone. When the water level gets dangerously high, it sends an alert to anyone using the system, text messages to those subscribed, or tweets to followers of @dontflushme.

"The bigger picture is to get the information out there, raise red flags in social media," Percifield said.

Eventually, he imagines the signal activating a small ambient light device that you can plug into your bathroom, which would alert folks that it'd be best to hold off on flushing. He showed us a prototype for that light device:

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

He has other ideas that compliment his basic aim, too. One is what he calls the Flush Capacitor (nice, I know), that employs an LED light to monitor how many times you flush the toilet per day. It changes colors depending on your flush activity, and sends the signal to an online database:

Percifield has already put Don't Flush Me into action. In other words, it's up and running right now, sending out alerts whenever there's significant rainfall or CSO activity. If you're a New Yorker interested in keeping 27 billion gallons of raw sewage out of the harbor, follow @dontflushme to know when to lay off the lavatory.

Tags: Do It Yourself | New York City | Waste | Water Conservation