At IBS: Teen’s Innovative Drought Solution

Filed in Design, IBS by on January 27, 2015 1 Comment

Steven McDowell stands next to a prototype of his invention for storing rainwater.

Steven McDowell showed off one of the more interesting new green products this year at the NAHB International Builders’ Show: a wall designed to collect and store rainwater to be used for residential irrigation or even protection from wildfires.

Not too shabby considering that last year this time, the wall was a high school science fair project. Steven’s project. The inventor behind the WaterFence is a sophomore in high school.

His teacher had told him that a good project would be one that solves a problem. Steven lives in Northern California, which is in the midst of a drought of historical proportions.

Steven thought for a while about ways to collect more rainwater.  He could create a bigger rain barrel, but installing such a bulky contraption in a typical suburban yard would be “a complete waste of space,” he said.

Then he thought about taking advantage of a fixture of most California back yards: a wall. “It was just one of those things that pops into your head,” Steven said.

What if the wall was hollow, and could collect the rainwater that runs down the spout from the roof?  He did some calculations: An inch of rainfall on a 2,000-square-foot roof produces 12,000 gallons. That’s a lot of water. Steven went to work, producing a model of his hollow fence and the piping to collect the rain from the roof.

The home owner could marry the system to sprinklers to irrigate the lawn, or even install a pump so the water could return to a roof sprinkler system that would activate in case of wildfires, protecting the home from damage.

His project won the high school science fair. Then it won the Sonoma County Science Fair. Then it won the San Francisco Bay Area Science Fair and a host of local and international engineering awards. “Then I decided to skip doing science fairs and start looking into [producing] the product,” Steven said.

With the strong support and assistance of his parents, Steven’s WaterFence has a website and a host of promotional materials, including a video of how it works. The company has produced a prototype: a 7-by-6-foot section of HDPE molded plastic with a choice of facing: simulated stone or redwood were two that were demonstrated at IBS. Each section costs $700.

The WaterFence booth attracted a good amount of interest at IBS, and production will begin in earnest in the next couple weeks.

Meanwhile, Steven is at work on his next project. This time, it’s something in the biomedical field, he said. And after that? “I could be an engineer, or an entrepreneur. It could go either way,” he said. “Of course, if you are an engineer, you can be an entrepreneur, too.”


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  1. Jon Cadieux says:

    What a great idea, it’s great to see young people innovating and leading change. Great job Steven!

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