Water Whirled: Local teens ride stationary bike to power irrigation

story by Missy Steinberg

At the Teens 4 Good farm on Eighth and Poplar Streets, growing produce relies on a surprising technology: a stationary bike. The bike-powered watering system is a recent addition to the urban youth farm, which previously used a nearby fire hydrant for irrigation.

The new watering system uses a 500-gallon tank that collects runoff from the farm’s high tunnel and distributes it through two valves: one for drip irrigation and another for a hose. The hose is powered by a stationary bike that must be pedaled at a minimum of five miles per hour.

The idea was pitched last May by Tommy McCann, a landscape architecture masters student at Penn State, after helping the extension program install the Teens 4 Good high tunnel. “I thought, ‘There must be some way to attach gutters to [the high tunnel] and collect the water and use it for something,’” he says.

McCann presented the problem to Timothy Simpson, an engineering professor and director of the Penn State Learning Factory, which provides hands-on learning to engineering students. Simpson pitched the challenge as an initiative for the Learning Factory and in September, six undergraduate engineering students chose it for their semester-long project.

The students worked in collaboration with the teenage farmers and developed a system that addresses both the irrigation dilemma and the need to reduce stormwater overflows – a problem that plagues Philadelphia’s overburdened sewer system. Plus, the watering system has become a great education tool.

“They’ll be the first ones to show you how the bike works,” says Jamie McKnight, director at Teens 4 Good. “It’s totally an educational piece right now for our youth.” If the system proves efficient, McKnight hopes to install pumps in other Teens 4 Good farms throughout the city.