Nica III January 2020 Trip Blogs – La Prusia, Granada

From 2020/01/05 till 2020/01/11, 6 members of our team (consisting of 5 students and 1 engineer-in-charge) conducted an implementation trip to finish Phase I of our project in La Prusia, Granada. The purpose of the trip is to finish connecting the newly drilled 300-feet well to the community’s current water distribution system, enabling their access to a precious water source previously not available, as well as surveying and conducting testings to prepare the project for Phase II which involves streamlining the water distribution system. Our trip was successful in achieving all goals, and every trip members goes back to the States with not just stories to share but also renewed enthusiasm about the project which still requires a lot of efforts for the coming year.

January 2020 Rice Engineers Without Borders Nica III Trip – La Prusia, Nicaragua (Courtesy of Jeffrey Vanegas.)

Sunday 01/05

by Jeffrey Vanegas

We woke up to a chilly and cloudy Houston, TX, went through airport security, grabbed some snacks, and hopped on the plane to Managua, Nicaragua. Upon landing, we could immediatley feel the tropical warmth and humidity of Nicaragua. We were greeted by Francisco, a partner at the EWB office, and our driver Wendel. We split into two trucks and drove to a restaurant where we all drank powerful soda or some tropical fruit juice. Talking with Wendel, he told us about Volcano Masaya, his home, and his life in Nicaragua. We chatted for about an our as we drove to La Prusia. Our transition from city to community was immediate as the truck changed its path from smooth paved road to a lumpy red-dirt path. This path pointed uphill and was decorated with metal houses along its edges with an occasional fire outside the house. There were often people walking either up or down the path and always children playing somewhere. After our rugged drive up the path for 10 minutes, we made it to El Cafetín, an open space with wooden chairs and tables, two bright green parrots, and a woman always present who essentially became our “Abuela” for the week.

We were now at the heart of the community and could see approximately 40 community members sitting in plastic chairs around El Cafetín waiting for us. Rigoberto, the president of the cooperative of the community (the Co-op), Mario, our NGO partner from Alcance, and Lenin, our other translator, shook our hands and took us to a row of chairs facing the community. Rigoberto explained the community’s struggles with their water supply over the last thirty years, a timeline of many good and bad moments, and expressed excitement for our being there. Mario then explained the role of Alcance in helping EWB and the community. We introduced ourselves by name, course of study, and explained that the purpose of our trip was to essentially perform a diagnostic of the system: determine its flaws and gather information regarding the community and the piping system. I emphasized our excitement and gratitude for being with them, and they often smiled or nodded. Occasionally, a question would be asked, usually regarding our purpose in their community. This was when it became apparent that not everyone in the community understood our role in this project, and that there was a lack of communication between us and the community. This also became apparent when I reminded the community not to use their water in the afternoon the day of the pressure test and then they exclaimed with confusion as this was their first time hearing that request.

Nica III trip members with the Co-op (a community-based organization partnering with the project and Mario Calderon, representative from in-country NGO partner, Alcance.)

By the end of the meeting, it was dark outside, and we all walked to our homes for the week. We had a short team meeting as we coordinated our plan for the next day and went to sleep after a tiring day of travel and adjustments to our new environment for the week.

Monday 01/06

by Dora Huang

After getting a good night’s rest at our host families, we woke up bright and early to start our first day of work. We ate a quick breakfast in Granada and went to check out the well site for the first time. We observed the set-up of the well site, in which the well was situated towards the back area of the pump house, connected to the submerged 2,000 gallon tank. The pump house, which houses the booster pumps and additional maintenance tools, is then between the tank and the main road, where the pipelines to the community lie.

This is where we ran into our first problem. In a quick initial assessment, we realized that some of the information gathered from previous assessment trips was incorrect. For one, instead of two functional booster pumps in the pump house, there was only one. We then had to consider how to perform our pressure test, as the pressure gauge and water meter in the pump house were broken, and the pipelines surrounding the pump house had a 2-inch diameter instead of the 3-inch diameter. This prompted a quick call to the local EWB office to help us replace our purchased parts. We then created an initial design of our pressure testing set-up, in which the output from the booster pump would be connected to the input line from the well to the tank using PVC pipe, wrapping around the pump house.

Once we finished our initial assessment, Bomonsa had arrived for their scheduled visit. Technicians from Bomonsa and field engineers from the local EWB office came to finish the electrical system set-up within the pump house. After an hour of work, the technician completed the control box to have three switch settings (manual/off/automatic) and two indicators of functionality (good/error). Once the community begins using the well, the pump should be kept on the automatic setting, where it would output at a steady rate of 75 gpm. However, there was a small problem in which the voltage was imbalanced in the electrical system (~8% error), and our NGO partner Alcance visited the electrical company to solve this issue.

Initial assessments of small tank (2000 gallons) at the  lower end of the community.

Following the completion of the well pump system, Bomonsa performed a system test of the pump. They closed off the water entering from the ENACAL line, and turned the pump on to the automatic setting. Within the tank there are two float switches, in which the pump will turn on when the water level is low and the canister-weight begins to reach a vertical angle. The pump then turns off when the water level is high and the canister-weight flips over. We decided to test multiple heights of the float switch, and differences in distance between the weight and the canister. After trial and error, we decided that the pump should turn on when the water level is 82 cm from the top of the tank. It will then take 15 minutes for the water level to reach the off state, which is 50 cm from the top of the tank. Our ideal scenario was for there to be a higher water level and longer breaks between the on/off state of the pump. Once we completed our testing, well after lunch time, Alcance decided to purchase pizza for delivery and we had a pizza party with the community members.

After lunch, we decided to start on the water quality test on the well water. Using the Potakit Wagtech test kit provided to us from Alcance, we decided to perform several screenings for parameters such as free chlorine, total chlorine, ammonia, fluoride, nitrate, turbidity, pH, conductivity, nitrate, and microbiological waste. Due to the equipment requirements of the nitrate and microbiological test, we were not able to complete it on this day. However, for the remainder of the tests, we observed minimal presence of chlorine, ammonia, nitrate, turbidity, and conductivity. The fluoride level was slightly higher than the standard, but not by an extreme amount, and the pH was 7.47. We concluded that the water from the well was relatively free of contaminants.

Preparation of water quality tests for the newly drilled well.

Finally, the last task of the day was a community assessment. With members of the community, the Co-op, and Alcance, we visited the large 13,500 gallon tank at the top of the community and several other points of interest. Through this talk, we were able to gain new information about the layout of the pipeline system and confirm certain details from previous assessment trips. Once it hit 5:30pm, the sun had begun to set and we could no longer see anything properly, so we decided to call it for the day. We had dinner in Granada with Francisco and Elizabeth from the EWB office, and they also provided us with the new equipment we had asked for earlier in the day. This ends our first day of work within the community.

Large tank (13,500 gallons) assessments at the upper end of the community.

Tuesday 01/07

by David Karngba

EOS Representative

Today we woke up again at 7am, and went to breakfast in Granada. After breakfast, we returned to the well site to wait for the representative from EOS to tell us about the chlorinator. Once the EOS representative arrived, (after waking up at 5am and riding his motorcycle for 4 hours to come see us) he discussed how the chlorinator operated, the maintenance necessary to run it, and the overall cost of the equipment and installation. He also assessed that the tank at the well site required a more secure method of entry into the tank because the current method posed significant safety risks. Ultimately, he also stated that we would have to have an additional chlorinator at the top tank, since this tank would be directly feeding to the community. He wanted to see the top tank, so Dora and Jeffrey went to show him, while everyone else stayed at the wellsite. We decided to perform the nitrate test since we had the time, and those results were also positive, indicating safe nitrate levels in the water. Once the people from the top tank returned, we learned that the EOS representative also recommended feeding the top tank from above. Alcance arrived prior to the representative leaving, so he gave them an outline of everything, and then he went on his way.

Pressure Stress Prep

Once Alcance arrived, we realized we needed more materials than we had, so Jeffrey and Matan went to the store with Mario to go retrieve the supplies. Once they finally returned, we all had lunch with the community at El Cafetín, and began discussing the preparations for the pressure test that we would lay out after lunch. After returning to the well site, the community members came and helped us set up the recycle system A LOT. After laying all of the pipes, Pedro seemed to be uneasy about having the water off for so long, so the community members resolved to turn the water back on despite the cement attaching the system to the recycle stream not being set. Unfortunately, the junction ruptured, causing water to go everywhere. We reinstalled the cap onto the branch point, and also noticed a slight crack, but decided to ignore it. Feeling a little disheartened, we returned back to El Cafetín for the meeting with the Co-Op.

Initial set-up for testing the pressure of the system.

Co-Op Meeting

The primary objective for our meeting with the Co-Op was to update them on the progress we had made thus far, as well as address any concerns they might have had. We told them about our results from the water quality tests which were all good, and they asked about the quality of the well which we told them was also really good. The difficulties came when we were presented with a question of what would happen if the water reached the top tank during the pressure test. Although we had no expectations of the water getting that far, we honestly didn’t have a solution prepared if that were to occur. This ultimately led to a lot of confusion about the exact layout of the piping system around the tank that we decided to resolve the following morning. A team would be sent out to dig up a few locations along the pipeline in order to gain a better understanding of what was occurring underground. Additionally, we also decided to not go forward with the pressure test on Wednesday, since there were too many loose ends. We would also split the team in order to clean the tank just in case the water did reach, and brainstorm solutions to adding the recycle stream.

Unforeseen set-back caused a newly installed valve to burst.

Wednesday 01/08

by Matan Lieber-Kotz

We woke up with a mission: fix that darn pressure test pipe! When we tried to install the apparatus on Tuesday on the side of the pump house, we had quickly realized that we didn’t have enough time for the PVC cement to cure which ultimately led to the pipe blasting open when the water turned back on. After ruminating on some ideas over the night and a quick breakfast, we split up Wednesday morning with Jeffrey, Matan, and Dora once again hitting up our favorite spot: the hardware store. What were we looking for? An elusive metal threaded ball valve and some female-male adapters. Turns out, these parts are something of a rarity, but, after three or four different stores, we finally found one. A gate valve instead of a ball valve, but metal nonetheless, which would do just fine. After arriving back at the pump house with our new bounty, we enlisted the help of the community members to screw on the new valve and secure the pressure testing apparatus connected back to the tank. Pressure test pipe: fixed. Pressure test: scheduled for tomorrow afternoon.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey and Loren started the day with a fact-finding mission: what was going on with the big tank at the top of the hill? This tank, which we ultimately hope to use as the cornerstone of our gravity-fed distribution network, was a big question mark. We had been told many things: that it was full of leaks, that there was no reliable way for the water to enter, that it had never been filled with water, that it had been filled but not for many years, and more. They discovered why water had not arrived at the tank that morning: a surprise cut in the pipe nearly 50 ft below the tank, unbeknownst to us, had for years lowered the maximum height the water could travel upwards. After collecting precise information about this buried pipe treasure, they got down to the dirty work: cleaning the tank! The community members led the way and, efficient as can be, had the previously muddy tank flushed and shining within two hours!

After we met back up again for lunch at El Cafetin with the community members, we separated again with two more goals. David and Loren returned to the house and, using our trusty water testing kit, finally prepared the microbiological test which we had been trying to do since we arrived in La Prusia. Creatively using a pressure cooker generously provided by co-op member Patricia as an autoclave allowed us to properly grow bacteria on metal plates. While David and Loren prepared the samples for testing and set up the incubator, Jeffrey, Matan, Paul, and Dora headed out to survey the last part of the community which we hadn’t seen: the residents living off the most northern road at the top of Sector 3. We visited Mario and Jose Antonio, who lived in the two most upper houses which haven’t received water in years. We learned about how they survive daily-transporting as much water as they can by hand-and surveyed sites to put a new distribution tank in Sector 3. We hope that Jose Antonio, Mario, and their families will be able to benefit from our project as soon as possible.

Fired up from a successful day, we had a long meeting with the community to discuss our plans and then headed out to a late dinner in Granada. Soon after that, it was time for bed-tomorrow we had the pressure test and the survey scheduled!

Thursday 01/09

by Loren Goddard

Possible Top Tank Location and Butterfly Reserve

In the morning, the entire Rice team went up to the top of the community to survey a possible location for an additional tank. Upon arrival, we encountered the man who was in charge of maintaining the Butterfly Reserve that is located at the highest elevations. He was very hospitable and informed the team with some additional information about the community and his potential water needs. He has several tanks on his property, but does not receive any water from the system, since the entire community gets access to the water before it reaches the Reserve. He indicated that his main water needs are for the plants which support his butterfly populations. He explained that healthy and abundant plants are necessary to keep the Butterfly Reserve functioning. He then took the entire team on a tour of his property and showed us many exhibits of butterflies. He also informed us of how the workers at the Reserve care for the butterflies. After leaving the butterfly reserve we continued to survey the land and found several locations in which an additional tank can be placed, if we deem it necessary in the solution for the system.

Owner of the butterfly reserve showing the team around and explaining the work in maintaining the reserve.

Pressure Testing Section

While Loren and Jeffrey surveyed the community, the rest of the team worked on the pressure test. Prior to beginning the pressure test at 3pm, we had asked the community members in Sector 3 (connected to the new pipeline) to turn off their faucets in their homes. We also had water pump through the new pipeline from 1-3pm to shorten the length of the pressure test. Once the pressure test began, the pressure slowly rose from the resting 140 psi to the highest point of 148 psi. At this time, David (who was stationed at the output line as a lookout) noted that all the houses below the junction were receiving water, indicating that the water had reached its highest point on the pipeline. With input from our mentor, we decided to slowly lower the pressure by opening the discharge line at the pump house. This would allow us to see at which point the houses stop receiving water. As a result, the house closest to the junction point stopped receiving water at approximately 90 psi, providing insight on the functionality of the booster pump.


Microbiological Test

The microbiological test was administered over a time period of 18 hours. 2 samples of water from the well were placed on petri dishes and into an incubator for this time period. We also tested a sample of spring water from a store as our control. After the 18 hours in the incubator had finished, the following results were observed:

Microbial tests demonstrated the water is free of thermo-tolerant bacteria.

The test shows that there are several colonies of red bacteria (as seen by the red dots), which can be expected from groundwater. However, there were no yellow bacterial colonies observed, which indicates that there were no thermo-tolerant bacteria in the water, and therefore it was safe for consumption.


While the rest of the team was conducting the pressure test, Loren and Jeffrey met with many members of the community and conducted a survey. We passed out 2 surveys which asked questions regarding each family’s experience with their current water source, and 1 survey that questioned the family about any negative health effects they have experienced as a result of their water. After the majority of the community members who attended filled out the survey, Jeffrey led a discussion among the members about the work that our team had done in the community thus far and what we wanted to accomplish in our final days. The community members had a chance to speak up and ask any questions that they had regarding the project, and even inspired each other to inform those in the community who are not aware that changes are being made to improve their water source and quality. The survey results are currently being analyzed and will be taken into consideration greatly when our team discusses potential solutions to the system.

The team also gathered feedback from local resident to identify needs.

Overall, the trip was extremely successful in fulfilling goals set before the trip. Not only did the team reestablish a good relationship with the community, we also managed to assess the well and facilitate its connection to existing system, as well as conducted necessary testings that would facilitate the second phase of the project, which is to modify the current distribution system to ensure sufficient water availability to every member of the community.