An Airport Squeezes Water out of Air

Airports use hundreds of millions of gallons of water, but drought has inspired one in California find a new way to cut consumption.
(Photo: Dünzl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Jul 10, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

Forget almonds for a moment, and consider another big water hog—airports.

In drought-stricken California, Los Angeles International Airport, for instance, uses more than half a billion gallons of water a year. San Francisco International sucks down 384 million gallons.

San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, the state’s third-largest airport, uses 77 million gallons and has come up with an innovative way to cut consumption: It is collecting drops of water that drip from air conditioners for reuse.

“Not only are we getting water from air, as it were, but we also reuse it over and over again,” said Brendan Reed, San Diego International Airport’s environmental sustainability manager.

A simple measure, perhaps, but one that’s expected to save the airport 57,000 gallons of drinking water in 2015.

When a jetliner pulls up to a gate, it can conserve fuel by tapping the air conditioners installed under Jetway bridges to cool the plane.

The air conditioners drip condensate that forms puddles on the tarmac, where it can damage the concrete and pose a safety hazard. Airport staff came up with the idea of collecting the condensate in bins for reuse.

Terminal 1 at Lindbergh Field has eight gates with passenger ramps. Hoses route the water to eight collection drums. The custodial department uses the water to clean sidewalks and airport vehicles.

“It’s a deceptively simple system that our staff came up with, since the drought is on everyone’s mind,” Reed said.

So, Why Should You Care? As California enters its fourth year of drought, the state’s rivers and reservoirs are running dry, and groundwater reserves are rapidly being depleted. Large urban facilities such as airports consume huge amounts of potable water, but if they can recycle used water, more drinking water is available for people.

The airport started collecting the water last fall and is waiting on tests to find out if it can be used to irrigate the landscaping, which consumes 17 percent of all the facility’s water.

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Lindbergh Field officials have begun looking at other ways to conserve water, including a water treatment system that would reduce water use by about 5 million gallons.

The airport is also exploring the possibility of harvesting rainwater.

“We get about 100 million gallons of rainwater a year, spread over the airport’s 660 acres, that falls into our storm drain, so there’s potential to tap that rainwater,” Reed said.