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Rohnert Park teen comes up with novel way to store water

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Some students just want their science fair projects to earn a little extra credit. Steven McDowell wants his “water fence” to change the way people irrigate their yards.

“I wanted to solve the drought,” said McDowell, a 15-year-old sophomore at Rohnert Park’s Technology High School.

McDowell’s model of a fence that stores rainwater won him the top awards for his category last March at Sonoma County and Bay Area science fairs. That motivated him to form a company with his parents, pitch his idea to investors and make plans to take a section of his soon-to-be manufactured fence next month to a green construction show month in New Orleans.

His parents, Ken and Karen McDowell, speak proudly of their son’s accomplishments. But they also note some of the surreal aspects of having a teenager attract such attention from investors.

“I’ve had millionaires call up and say they’d like to speak to my son,” Ken McDowell said.

All this interest came about because Steven, a low-key youth who plays trumpet and raises rabbits and chinchillas, wondered how the average homeowner could store a significant amount of rainwater.

For his science fair project, he checked local hardware stores to see what already was available for water storage. Rain barrels don’t hold enough fluid, he said, and above-ground tanks take up too much space. A typical 10,000-gallon tank has a 12-foot diameter and stands at least 13 feet tall.

As Steven pondered the problem, he came up with his big idea: What if a fence, a common feature of California homes, could be made to hold rainwater? He made some calculations and determined that if he replaced the fence around his Rohnert Park home with a structure a foot wide and 6 feet tall, he could hold in it about 13,000 gallons of water.

Satisfied that such storage could make a significant difference, he set about to build a model of a residential property. It features a two-story house with gutters to catch and funnel “rain” — poured from a water jug — into a clear plastic fence. The model even has trees and corn stalks and tiny silver valves made for fish tanks that can be turned on to allow the collected water to “irrigate” the backyard.

Greg Weaver, a science teacher at Technology High, recalled Steven had stated beforehand that he would pursue a water conservation project for his science fair project.

“But then when he actually brought in his completed display model, I was completely blown away,” Weaver said. His reaction: “Bang my forehead, this is brilliant.”

The idea won first place at the school science fair, the county science fair and the Bay Area science fair. At the regional event, Steven also was awarded an American Meteorological Society certificate of outstanding achievement and a Stockholm Junior Water Prize, a regional award from a Swedish-based water institute.

Based on the feedback from educators and others who saw it, Steven and his family patented the invention and formed a company, Water Fence.

Next, Steven gained a mentor and adviser in Rajan Kasetty, a consultant with the federally funded TriTech Small Business Development Center in Southern California.

Kasetty originally met Steven when he helped the teen prepare to take the stage last May as one of a handful of inventors selected to make a 90-second pitch to investors at the center’s “Funding the Big Idea” conference in Riverside. Steven, his parents said, was the only presenter too young to vote or legally drink beer.

“Fresh eyes” are what Kasetty thinks allowed Steven to see a storage solution overlooked by water experts.

“People who are already in the game are colored by what has come before,” Kasetty said. To the experts, he said, storage means a tank, “and it has to be huge.”

Local conservation and building officials said they would need more details about the Water Fence before knowing how it could be used here. But after several droughts, government funds are available to encourage the installation of eligible rainwater storage systems.

For example, the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program provides loans not only for solar power and double-pane windows but also for rainwater cisterns. Homeowners pay back the loan as part of their regular property tax bills.

The Water Fence probably would qualify for the county program, if the system came with an adequate warranty and was installed by a participating contractor, said program manager Jane Elias.

In addition, Santa Rosa provides a one-time rebate of 25 cents a gallon for newly installed rainwater storage systems. The maximum amount is based on the month of peak consumption, so a homeowner that used 8,000 gallons in one month could receive up to $2,000.

Jennifer Burke, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of water and engineering resources, said the Water Fence likely would qualify for the city rebate if it could pass inspection and if it received all required permits for its installation.

Marilyn Ponton, interim development services director for Rohnert Park, said she would need more information knowing exactly what permits might be needed for a homebuilder or a property owner to install a Water Fence there. But she was pleased to hear of Steven’s invention and said, “The city would welcome the opportunity to consider it.”

Steven and his parents said engineers designed the fence system for strength and safety. It includes vertical steel posts and cross bars for seismic reinforcement.

The product initially is offered with two facades resembling stone walls.

The Water Fence website estimates that a home with 2,000 square feet of roof could collect about 1,200 gallons of water for every inch of rain. In areas of high fire danger, the Water Fence could be equipped with a pump to spray water back onto the home’s roof.

The company already has attracted investors, who the family says have received a 10 percent stake in the enterprise. The infusion of funds has paid for the making of the fence mold and the imminent manufacturing in Madera of the first tank section.

Ken McDowell, the company president, said the cost of the Water Fence has yet to be finalized but should roughly equal the combined cost of a redwood fence and a water tank. Online retailers market a 10,000-gallon tank for about $6,000.

The family plans to unveil the Water Fence at the Green Build Expo starting Oct. 22 in New Orleans, and to take it in January to Las Vegas to the National Association of Home Builders International Builders’ Show.

Karen McDowell expressed pride in what Steven already has accomplished. “He really worked hard on this,” she said.

Her son said he looks forward to visiting the first new home subdivision that installs his invention. He wants, he said, “to walk down the street before they start selling homes and say, ‘That’s my fence right there.’ ”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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