This year more than ever, we are reminded to wash our hands to stay healthy and prevent the spread of germs and diseases. While it may seem like an easy task for many of us, imagine if you didn’t have running water. This is the struggle many people in the Navajo Nation are facing, causing a rise in COVID-19 cases throughout their reservation.

The Navajo Nation is a Native American indigenous tribe occupying portions of northeast Arizona, southeast Utah and northwest New Mexico. Like many others across the globe, the Navajo Nation is hit especially hard during the pandemic due to a lack of resources. More than 30% of homes on the reservation do not have running water, leading to more than 13,000 residents falling ill due to the spread of COVID as of November 2020. The need for clean running water to maintain personal hygiene has never been more important for the people of the Navajo Nation.

That’s where MSOE comes in. Teams from the International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Foundation (IWSH) and DigDeep worked together to design prototype freestanding handwashing stations for the Navajo Nation. MSOE students are working to further develop the design of the prototype stations to make them more efficient. Katie Ashley and Sarah Ceurvorst, architectural engineering students, are heading the redesign of the handwashing stations under the leadership of Doug Nelson, associate professor in the Civil and Architectural Engineering and Construction Management Department.

“Because of their lack of plumbing infrastructure, the Navajo Nation has one of the highest rates of COVID cases,” said Ashley. “One way to combat this is handwashing. These handwashing stations will hopefully help the Navajo people have an immediate source of sanitation and hygiene to decrease the number of cases.”

The freestanding handwashing units hold a 200-gallon tank of water which will serve a six-person household for one month. Ashley and Ceurvorst are each working on improving elements of the handwashing station.

“I tackled the problem of making the unit lighter so it’s easier to transport,” explained Ceurvorst.

“Specifically, I’m working on keeping the water in the tank above freezing temperatures using off-grid methods only,” said Ashley.   

To achieve this, the group is testing two different handwashing stations. The first runs on a PV cell solar panel and the second runs on a 120V plugin. Both heat the water and power recirculating pumps to keep the water moving to prevent it from freezing.

The prototype handwashing stations are currently located outside of MSOE’s Campus Center near the Market Street entrance. Students, faculty and staff are welcomed to test out the handwashing stations and provide feedback through a QR code survey so Ashley and Ceurvorst can continue to make design tweaks.

“If the handwashing stations can survive Wisconsin winters without the water freezing, then they can survive in the Navajo Nation,” said Ashley.

Both Ashley and Ceurvorst were drawn into the project to be able to help a community in need.

“I wanted to get involved because there was an immediate need for these handwashing stations,” said Ashley.

“I feel extremely lucky to be working on this project because it reaches far beyond you and I. Water is crucial to human life and the fact that so many people on the reservation don’t have access to running water is hard to comprehend. It just makes me want to work harder,” said Ceurvorst.

Once Ashley and Ceurvorst are completed with the design, they will hand it over to Dr. Leah Newman’s industrial engineering students who will design an instruction manual and determine the compatibility for the handwashing stations. The stations will be ready for deployment to the Navajo Nation summer 2021.