Conservation and Sustainability at Manastash Ridge Observatory: Planning For the Next Forty Years

Executive Summary:

Forty years after its dedication, it's time to make changes at the University’s Manastash Ridge Observatory (MRO) that reflect the realities of how we use the facility and respect our impact on natural resources, particularly our water and energy consumption. We propose to upgrade our bathrooms, kitchen, and lighting to conserve water and energy, and to build a rainwater catchment system and a solar energy system to reduce our reliance on outside water and power. The budget for this proposal is approximately $60,000, of which $49,000 is for the solar energy system.


MRO is a small observatory owned by the UW Astronomy department. Starting with the snow melt in the spring, and continuing until through mid-October, our undergraduate majors spend days learning how to use the thirty inch telescope and conducting independent research. Each summer about twenty students use the observatory and two classes of astro 101 students from Everett Community College enjoy an overnight field trip. Year round the Electrical Engineering Department’s Radar Remote Sensing Lab uses the facility remotely.


Built in 1972 on a ridge outside of Ellensburg, Washington, electrical and telephone utilities could be brought in, but it was far too remote for city water service. The standard bathroom and kitchen fixtures make us reliant on expensive water deliveries (~$800 each time). In addition each team brings up drinking water in jugs, so the delivered water is used almost entirely for flushing. We think it’s time to rebuild the observatories energy and water systems since the last forty years have seen the maturation of low-energy lighting and low-consumption water fixtures, as well the development of an industry focused on household solar power generation.


Our plan for conservation is to construct a kitchen that is not plumbed to running water, to replace the kitchen’s energy inefficient fridge and range as well as our original “maximum flush” toilets, and to install LED lighting for our working and living areas. In order to reduce the observatories overall environmental impact, and to demonstrate the possibilities for sustainable construction, we propose the construction of a rainwater catchment system and solar grid-tie system with battery reserve. The latter option could potentially make us the first observatory capable of solar-powered astronomical observations.


We project energy savings of $3000 per year, and during our busy summer season we project that the solar array could take the observatory entirely off the grid. The surplus energy we generate (approximately $200 worth) is sold back to the grid, savings we can return to the CSF. Updating our bathrooms and kitchen could completely replace the need for water deliveries, which would save $2400 per year and reduce CO2 emissions due to observatory operations by one ton annually.


Included in the budget are computer monitors to display and create awareness on campus of the sustainable energy equipment at MRO. Of course we will also compare ongoing electrical and water costs with previous years to quantify the system’s effectiveness.


Student Involvement:

The UW’s astronomy club, the League of Astronomers, has contributed their expertise to this proposal as representatives of the people who spend their nights working there each summer. These students, many of whom spend over a week’s worth of time at MRO each summer, know the needs and patterns of observing at MRO better than anyone else.


In addition, many projects at MRO are already carried out by volunteer work parties drawn from our awesome undergraduate majors. The observatory would not be the vibrant and special place it is today without the energy and ideas of the undergraduates who stay there each summer. We couldn’t propose and implement this project without their support.


The majority of the physical work involved in this project will be completed by undergraduate students, either during visits to MRO during the summer quarter for course work, or during independently arranged trips focusing solely on the sustainability project. In addition to the volunteer positions that will be made available to our students, we will pay for one of  undergraduate students to act as a liaison. This position will coordinate the student volunteers, oversee tradespeople, and work with UW faculty and staff. The student liaison will have complete knowledge of the project and gain valuable experience both in team management and hands-on technical work.


Students will also be involved in choosing components for the project. This will provide valuable experience in choosing the best components to suit a project’s needs. Our experienced faculty and staff will also be teaching the students how to implement a robust industrial system instead of a prototype experiment.


A large part of what makes MRO so special is its role in providing hands-on observing experience, as well as troubleshooting and related technical work that is necessary in any complex facility. This project will give our undergraduates a myriad of opportunities to work directly on the infrastructure of the observatory and gain a better understanding of observatory operations, as well as sustainable technology.


MRO is an observatory specifically for and maintained by undergraduates, so apart from supervision from faculty and staff and some work that must be done by professionals, the entire sustainability project will be conducted by undergraduate students. The timely and safe completion of the project is up to them, as is monitoring the reduction in consumption achieved by the work, and regular maintenance over the coming years. This represents a wonderful opportunity for astronomy students to contribute directly to their learning environment and invest themselves in a unique resource that enriches their education and will continue to provide for many generations of students to come.


Education & Outreach:

Our outreach plan is threefold and focuses on those using the observatory, the observatory as a destination site for UW sustainability, and increasing awareness of sustainable technology and construction among the UW community.


For those that use MRO, observing here has always meant taking care of the facility and its land. We will build upon the expectation of care for the observatory, and make daily measurements and logging a part of our procedures. Awareness of consumption is often used to promote conservation (like cars that display their instantaneous mpg, or buildings that display their energy use), and MRO users will post daily reports noting water tank levels and the status of the solar system. We anticipate that bringing light to each group’s water and power consumption will lead to some good natured competition to conserve. Additionally, while some systems in this proposal are highly visible (solar arrays), others will be unfamiliar (the foot pump kitchen sink, which comes from marine systems), but each will create a facility that incorporates our commitment to conservation and sustainability.


These systems, especially the solar arrays, will make MRO a leading demonstration site in sustainable practices. An observatory that operates off the grid is interesting and unique, not just in our community, but nationally. We already operate the observatory in partnership with the Electrical Engineering Department, and we intend to offer field trips to energy systems oriented students in that department, as well as invite them to participate in optimizing the system.


Our outreach plans for the wider UW community are to display energy generation data from the solar array to campus locations. We will feed the data from the solar array and water sensors to an on-campus server, which will create a constantly updated page displaying the energy and water usage at the observatory. We will display this on monitors housed with cooperating entities on campus using a system already developed by the Physics and Astronomy Computing Services group. This system is small and efficient, but robust, and can be used to simultaneously display other media of interest to the hosting department. We would install displays in the Physics-Astronomy Auditorium building, we’ve asked to display in Electrical Engineering, and we would also ask if the CSF has an preferred display booth.

Environmental Impact:
  • Energy Use
  • Water
Project Longevity:

All systems will be designed with as much robustness against failure as possible, and much of the long term maintenance can be mitigated through this design. But as we all know, there will be some maintenance. MRO already has the management, staff, and student support to maintain the proposed systems. The costs associated with the continued operation of these sustainability improvements are recouped from lower energy and water bills. The list of maintenance on the system includes: cleaning the solar panels to produce optimum throughput, replacing rainwater filters, and verifying transfer pump operation. All of these tasks are appropriate for our undergraduate users. Long term maintenance tasks include: replacement of batteries (every 5 years), replacement of rain water transfer pump (every 3-5 years), solar panel replacement (every 20 years).

Environmental Problem:

Our goal is to lessen the environmental impact of MRO by conserving water and energy, and as a byproduct, reduce diesel emissions created from the water delivery truck. The last forty years have seen the maturation of low-energy lighting and low-consumption water fixtures, as well the development of an industry focused on household solar power generation, so the time is right to update the facility.


We plan to reduce water use by replacing the toilets with low-flow models and building a kitchen that operates independently of the plumbing system. We estimate that the replacement of the current 3.5 gallon per flush toilets with new 1.3 gallon per flush toilets will cut the water consumption by 62%. Fewer water deliveries mean fewer diesel emissions from the water truck we hire to bring river water up to our remote observatory.


Rebuilding the kitchen to operate independently of the plumbing will institutionalize our current practise of only using water brought up from campus for washing and cooking. Currently we keep water jugs on the kitchen counter for this purpose, but along with replacing the old appliances (for energy efficient models) we will disconnect the non-potable water supply, and mount the water jug under the sink with a foot-pump to dispense it. This will make the use of clean water easy and ensure non-potable water cannot be used in the kitchen (and is conserved for toilets).


In addition, a rainwater catchment system will provide the majority of the water necessary for the toilets, eliminating water truck deliveries. We expect to utilize the rain and snowfall in the winter and spring months to fill our 10,000 gallon water tank so we can start the summer observing season with a full tank. There is very little rainfall in the summer, but with water conserving features we predict that we will eliminate our dependence on water deliveries.


We plan to mitigate energy use by updating to modern light bulbs and appliances. The use of LED bulbs, which are much more efficient than our current incandescent lighting, will also reduce heat in the living spaces of the observatory during the Central Washington summer when the observatory is open. Updated appliances, such as a modern refrigerator and induction burners, will reduce the energy consumption from the living quarters.


The solar system is designed to be sufficient to effectively take the observatory off the grid during our summer observing season. During the winter season there is less solar energy available, but greater demand to keep the dorm and water tank areas from freezing. We will mitigate this by connecting additional solar panels during the winter season, in order to increase energy generation during these short, often cloudy, days.


Explain how the impacts will be measured:

The impacts and overall results of our efforts to conserve energy will be measured instantaneously and with each electricity billing cycle, while water use must be evaluated on an annual basis. The most immediate and apparent measure of MRO’s environmental impact will be a reduction in deliveries of water. Water deliveries are both costly and produce heavy carbon emissions. Through rainwater harvesting MRO is expected to collect around 10,000 gallons of water per year, which equates to four tanker deliveries. The elimination of these water deliveries will reduce emissions by one ton of CO2 annually (using EPA estimate of 22.2 pounds of CO2 emissions per gallon of diesel fuel, and approximating fuel usage at 20 gallons per delivery). Optimally it will be possible to eliminate the need for water deliveries entirely by completely replenishing the water reserves by the start of the observing season and maintaining the water supply through conservation efforts.


Full metrology will be integrated into both new and existing components.  Monitoring the depths of both tanks will allow us to gauge system efficiency and confirm net collection. The overall impact will be measured on the reliance of trucking in water.  All metrology will be available via the web interface and will show the instantaneous efficiencies of the system as well as the overall performance.


The impact of the solar array will also be calculated annually. Power usage and generation will be monitored instantaneously both on site and remotely to promote conservation.  The planned additions to the power system will make it possible to monitor the observatory’s power status via the internet, enabling any interested person with an internet connection to continually monitor and measure the benefits of the modifications.


In addition to simple static solar options, we are also exploring dynamic solar options that would provide greater performance in the winter months when useful daytime hours are at a premium. MRO currently uses around 20,000 kWh per year, but during the summer we will generate a surplus of approximately 2,200 kWh per year. The solar energy system will lead to a direct emission reduction of a minimum of 15 tons of CO2 per year using EPA estimates, and an indirect reduction of an additional 1.6 metric tons by putting excess power back into the local power grid.


The reduction of annual water and electricity usage will reduce the observatory’s CO2 emissions by a total of approximately 18 tons, based on EPA estimates. This is the equivalent to the annual emissions from two average households when calculated across all forms of energy consumption. In terms of electricity, this is equivalent to removing three households from the power grid.

Total amount requested from the CSF: $59,559
This funding request is a: Grant
If this is a loan, what is the estimated payback period?:


ItemCost per ItemQuantityTotal Cost
foot pump1351135
kitchen cabinets1943582
plumbing parts (piping, dispenser)1501150
plumbing labor1204480
induction burner1502300
large toaster oven2501250
low flow toilets1602320
led lighting fixtures306180
soft-white, dimmable, led bulbs1012120
theatrical paint for tinting bulbs red10
red led strips for control room30260
desk lamps for control room20480
dimmer bulbs for desk lamps10440
dimmer switches138104
Charge Controller124911249
Dual Function Inverter599515995
Load Center109011090
Solar Panels481029620
Raw Power Disconnects2652530
Power Control and Monitor4241424
Battery Wiring1040400
Solar Panel Mounting180008000
Control Panel Mounting110001000
Battery Mounting110001000
Rental Equipment110001000
truck and trailer rental3002600
project management liason/FTE month24002.56000
energy usage monitors1503450
Cistern (2000 gal)110001000
water tank metrology equipment (depth gauges or pressure sensors)110001000
gutter hangers1.38120165.6
10ft gutter section1020200
drop outlet1010100
end cap6.251593.75
cistern pad5001500
project management liason/FTE month24000.51200
truck rental per day2004800

Non-CSF Sources:

itemcost per hourhourstotal costtype
MRO Support Staff151604400from MRO budget
design & project management601609600donated time
undergraduate labor156409600donated time
Project Completion Total: $63,959


TaskTimeframeEstimated Completion Date
Interior work on water and energy conservation featuresfrom opening till end of spring quarterJune 19, 2015
Exterior earth moving: solar footings & water tank foundationfrom opening till end of spring quarterJune 19, 2015
Build/install solar arrays & systemssummer through mid fallOct 15, 2015
Build rainwater catchment systemsummer through mid fallOct 15, 2015
Implement monitoring system software/displaysmid fall through winter.Jan 1, 2016