How a Utility Converted a Fence Into a Teaching Tool

Fence-mounted Learning Centers on a newly upgraded pump station convey messages about water stewardship in Alexandria, Virginia.

How a Utility Converted a Fence Into a Teaching Tool

Civic groups helped design the project in the name of promoting stewardship.

Making a formerly invisible wastewater treatment operation highly visible is an unspoken theme of construction projects at Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew).     

Nearly four years ago, the utility buried its new Nitrogen Management Facility under a soccer field (Treatment Plant Operator, June 2016). Now, the field is heavily used and is managed by the Alexandria (Virginia) Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities Department.

In spring 2017, the organization installed 10 interactive Learning Center exhibits along a new architectural-style 8-foot-high fence around a pumping station that conveys wastewater to the 54 mgd treatment facility. “It’s all about being a good neighbor and telling people about what’s going on behind the fence,” says Lisa Van Riper, director, enterprise communications.     

Educational messages

Each Learning Center delivers a message about the pumping station and the process cycle, ranging from “How Water Gets Dirty” to “Resource Recovery.” Each is connected to the next by a graphic display on the fence of water flowing through pipes.

Creative panels fabricated from aluminum plate or acrylic phenolic resin are attached to the fence with continuous square channel standoffs and stainless steel bolts. Graphics and text are silk-screened. Elements of each exhibit are painted with Newport blue, AlexRenew’s official paint color, and then clear-coated.

Five of the Learning Centers are so hefty that they sit on concrete slabs bordered by a decorative brick miniplaza. The “How Water Gets Dirty” unit is a 6-foot-long, 24-inch-diameter simulated concrete pipe supported in a cradle with steel legs mounted to the slab. A 4-foot-long clear acrylic viewing port reveals a simulation of wastewater flowing through the pipe. Painted cast resin objects embedded in the flow present a realistic image.

Great graphics

A part of the Learning Center named “This Is a Pump Station” includes a 3-foot-long, 24-inch welded steel pipe mounted vertically on the concrete slab. An acrylic clear cover, mounted at a 30-degree bias on the pipe’s end, allows viewers to peer into the pipe. A welded 6-inch pipe assembly extends 2 feet from the side with a 90-degree elbow supporting an eccentric plug valve. A clear acrylic viewing port is bolted to the valve flange.   

“Resource Recovery” presents a realistic rain barrel with a brass drain-faucet emptying into a secured watering can. Steel pipe simulating a downspout is strapped to the fence and flows into the barrel. A solar-powered rain gauge is mounted nearby. Several graphic panels are strategically mounted and explain each exhibit. Other exhibits are entitled “Stormwater Management,” “Good Neighbors,” “Under the Scene” and “What You Can Do.”

“Mechanics of Pumping” has a 4-foot-high, 4-inch-diameter aluminum pipe that contains an aluminum plunger that can be moved with a handle. Viewing slots in the “pump” body allow visitors to observe the progress of a 2.5-inch acrylic blue ball as it is lifted by the plunger to a return tube.

Landscape enhancements

The interactive exhibits were part of a $7.4 million upgrade to the Four Mile Run pump station. New grinders and submersible pumps were installed, an electrical building was constructed, and an odor control system was added to the station, which is more than a century old.

Landscape enhancements provide the finishing touch to the fence and exhibits. Attractive grass has been planted as a border along a concrete sidewalk that parallels the fence. Eastern redbud trees are strategically placed near the Learning Centers.

During the project’s planning phase, AlexRenew solicited input from the public. Help and direction came from civic groups such as the Four Mile Run Restoration Task Force and the Arlandria Action Plan Advisory Group, which includes stakeholders from the neighborhood. Van Riper says, “The whole idea is to inspire water stewardship and provide education about clean water infrastructure in our city.”


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