Trailblazing solar aquatic system at The Trails at Windermere Lake housing development

A development in Windermere is treating wastewater like nature intended with its own innovative solar aquatic facility.

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Jeb Ferster owns The Trails at Windermere Lake and manages its solar aquatic facility. Here he is grooming the tanks by thinning out plants to make room for smaller ones.

Jeb Ferster owns The Trails at Windermere Lake and manages its solar aquatic facility. Here he is grooming the tanks by thinning out plants to make room for smaller ones. — Photo courtesy Jeb Ferster

When Jeb Ferster, owner of The Trails at Windermere Lake housing development, first heard of solar aquatics back in 2006 he was immediately intrigued. He originally saw a system that was featured on the BBC. The owner of the solar aquatics shown on the program had a system set up outside his kitchen window. Ferster started to consider what it would mean to build something similar in one of his own projects.

“(A solar aquatic facility is) basically using what we have naturally in the environment between lake systems and river systems and all the estuaries that naturally clean the water from one source to the next,” said Ferster. “I was fascinated by this from the get go. I'm a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) professional, so I like to get into all the geeky stuff. Seeing this blew my mind.”

The right place

Fast forward to years later. Ferster has started on The Trails at Windermere Lake. The stunning new homes—see photos of the development in the website’s gallery—are built with a focus on community and respect for the natural environment all around.

Each home backs into a wooded trail network and a pond serves residents with swimming in the summer and hockey in the winter. Each build also meets BC Energy Step Code 4, which means they are meeting a level of energy efficiency that is above standard.

Close-up of plants inside greenhouse on winter day.

The solar aquatic facility at The Trails at Windermere works hard throughout the year within its greenhouse. — Photo courtesy Jeb Ferster

As a builder and developer, Ferster is committed to creating efficient green homes that will be both comfortable and inviting to the residents who end up in the places he creates. So, when the regional district decided not to bring water and sewer into Windermere he was faced with a dilemma. The standard process would be to treat the development’s effluent chemically, but Ferster felt he needed to find an alternative.

At the time he had a partner who was connected with someone who had built a solar aquatic facility in Christina Lake. They went down to take a tour of the system.

“In the long run (treating chemically) is probably more expensive,” he said. “It’s more harmful for the environment, and when you're sending your water right back into the groundwater system it's not ideal. So we treat ours to class A standards and then return it back into nature as close to drinking water as possible.”

In order to install a system for treating effluent, such as the one at The Trails at Windermere Lake, the plans have to be approved by an engineer. Also, the clean water that is being discharged must be tested every month to ensure that the water is free from any pathogens.

The nuts and bolts of a solar aquatic system

A solar aquatic system treats greywater and sewage using the principles of wetlands and other water systems—emulating what the earth does naturally. The effluent flows through tanks over several stages where any contaminants are cleaned out.

“We rely on microbes and plant life,” said Ferster. “They're in big open vats like you see in a winery, really, except for water. We have hyacinths, water lettuce, various underwater seaweeds and stuff, and then snails and microbials. Basically the rooting plants will take the solids out before sending it through the filtration system and then the final system is a UV system that purifies the water.”

The entire process takes about three days. Any solids are stored in tanks, which will be pumped as needed—exactly like a septic system. The clean water is discharged into a rapid infiltration basin, which is essentially ten feet of gravel. The clean water from the system shoots into the basin and then sifts through the gravel before returning to nature—chemical-free, completely clean, and ready to interact with the environment again.

The greenhouse that holds the solar aquatic facility is also functional and grows food. The wastewater or solids never come in contact with the food plants. The clean water can be used, however.

Solar aquatic facility showing plants in large vats in greenhouse.

The solar aquatic facility is a more natural and environmentally-friendly way of dealing with waste at The Trails at Windermere Lake development. — Photo courtesy Jeb Ferster

Forward thinking at The Trails

Despite the simple effectiveness of a solar aquatic system, they are not very common. Ferster is aware of only two in the Kootenays—his and the one in Christina Lake. He believes there are less than a handful in all of the province.

One concern that often comes up is the potential for smell. It can be a problem if an aerator quits, but for the most part it isn’t an issue. At The Trails, they make sure to maintain the system to a high standard. Residents are asked not to dispose of obvious items such as paint and baby wipes through their water system. However, most detergents or common products are fine to use.

At the end of the day, Ferster is incredibly pleased with the outcome of his solar aquatic facility. It’s been a steep learning curve for him, but a lot of fun as well.

There is one thing he’s decided on: next time he takes on a new project, he’ll use his newfound skills. Perhaps someone else could be inspired by this innovative solution to a common hurdle. With a little luck, the Kootenays might see more solar aquatic facilities in the future.

Kristen Mitchell

Kristen studied at College of the Rockies in Cranbrook and has worked in a variety of industries, from agriculture to construction, retail to restaurants. She now brings her understanding of the area to Kootenay Business magazine. View all of Kristen Mitchell’s articles

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