Ghana children

These Ghanaian children are benefitting from the new solar-powered water pump

Photo courtesy of: Russ College of Engineering and Technology

Ghana water running

Water from the new solar-powered pump

Photo courtesy of: Russ College of Engineering and Technology

Greg Kremer with village women

Engineering professor Greg Kremer poses with village women who prepared most of the meals for the workers

Photo courtesy of: Russ College of Engineering and Technology

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Engineering students design water pump in Ghana

Senior design project provides income to village

A community in the West African country of Ghana once again has access to its spring water – and income from selling the water to neighboring villages – thanks to a group of recent Ohio University mechanical engineering grads.

"It was field engineering at its best," said Nick Stormer, BSME '10, who served as team leader for Team Pump It Up, which designed a solar-powered water pumping system for the village of Maase-Offinso and installed it in July. "I don't think there could have been something more real-world or more difficult."

Stormer and four other June mechanical engineering graduates in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology – Adam Hensel, Brent Willey, Kegan Kavander and civil engineering grad Eric Gilliland – along with adviser Greg Kremer, associate professor of mechanical engineering, spent three weeks in Ghana installing the system they had designed as part of their senior design course.

Over the course of the 2009-2010 academic year, the students had designed a mounting structure for a 20-panel, 3.5-kilowatt array to power two pumps to transfer water at a rate of 10,000 gallons per day to nearby storage tanks.

But, as the team learned, things in developing countries happen very differently than here at home. They spent seven hours one day driving around a nearby city to find some bolts. The in-country dealer for the pump company never delivered on the second pump. 

There was an unexpected port clearing charge to get the solar panels into Ghana. The subcontractor they hired to drill a well arrived a week late. And then the well collapsed.

"We participated in the ritual sacrifice of a sheep to fix the well – and it worked," Stormer reported, noting that water started flowing about two hours later. "That would have to have been one of the most memorable things."

There were also cultural differences to overcome. Americans were accustomed to trying to minimize labor costs and use technology to make processes more efficient. In Africa, by contrast, labor costs are low and technology is hard to come by. But in the midst of eight- to 10-hour days, there was also some fun. The American engineers joined their Ghanaian hosts to crowd around a television for Ghana's final World Cup soccer game.

There was help from the local hosts, too. Kremer stayed in the home of the village chief. Village elders coordinated the necessary labor to dig the pipeline trench. But the one constant, it seemed, was change.

"Almost everything we did changed on the spot when we were there, from the pipe diameter to the structure to hold up the solar panels we redesigned while we were there," Stormer said.

In the end, the engineers completed a 10-panel, 1.75-kilowatt array that is now powering a pump to transfer water at a rate of more than 5,000 gallons per day.

"The highlight for me was definitely seeing water flowing from the end of the pipe a quarter mile away from where we installed our panels and just watching the entire system turned on,"

Stormer said. "It was a big relief. We got it to work a few hours before we left – honestly. But it worked!"

Designing to make a difference

Team Pump It Up was just one of many senior design teams operating under last year's theme, "Designing to Make a Difference." For all engineering majors, the senior design project is a quarter- to year-long capstone course in which teams of students work with real clients to design, test and build engineering solutions to real-life problems.

Other projects last year came from team Rocky Ball-Throa, which designed a basketball shooter for a disabled client who plays wheelchair basketball. Team Count on Me worked with a company
that employs people with physical and mental disabilities to create a "parts kitting" device that helps employees count nuts, bolts and washers before placing them in a bag.

"We look for projects that are truly what I call integrative learning experiences, where students have an opportunity to apply what they've learned about how to do engineering, but also in the context of how to be an engineer.

One of the aspects of how to be an engineer is the aspect of service to society," said Kremer, who also served as technical project lead on the project. "They see themselves in their roles as engineers, as solvers of important problems. It can really change the course of a student's whole career – whole life – if he or she really enters it."

Unlike most who complete senior design projects, Team Pump It Up had to raise funds for the project. The cost of the pumping system alone came to $18,500. Ohio University contributed $3,000, the Russ College contributed $2,000 and the Department of Mechanical Engineering added another $1,500. Team Pump It Up sent an appeal letter to alumni, who contributed about $3,000 to the project. Kremer covered the remaining expenses to allow the team to complete the project. Transportation, meals, lodging and logistics totaled about $19,500. To cover these costs, team members had to pitch in to pay their own way to Ghana.

"Remembrance in the long run will be bittersweet," said Stormer, citing the high costs and frustrations with the project. "It was a learning experience and in some ways not much fun while I was there, but at the end of the day, I brought water to a village in Ghana."

The Russ College has had a relationship with Maase-Offinso for more than five years. The village is the hometown of Nana Kwaku Owusu-Kwarteng, former assistant director of Ohio University's Institute for the African Child, who proposed a project there. Kremer visited in 2006 for a previous engineering project and since then, the water pump broke. The village had been without it for more than two years.

"We strengthened the relationship between the community (Maase-Offinso) and the University, and they now trust our ability to really do something to help them," Kremer said. "We're just thrilled there's clean water flowing through the village again."