This is the first installment of the “CSSC Alumni: Where Are They Now?” blog series! Each month, we’ll feature a different CSSC alum to hear about their experiences and advice for current students. This month, we are excited to present Brian Croshal, who you may know as the aquaponics guru from the convergence, the guy with the solar trailer, or a member of the Tree Amigos band.
Interview by Meredith Jacobson, CSSC Online Content Manager
M: So Brian, when did you graduate and what did you study in school?
B: I graduated in 2012 from Cal Poly SLO. I studied mechanical engineering with a concentration in HVAC. HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning, mainly looking at those systems inside buildings to pump water, ventilate, and control temperature.
M: What sustainability projects were you involved in, and how were you involved in CSSC when you were at Cal Poly?
B: At Cal Poly, I was a member of the Renewable Energy Club, and ended up going to Empower Poly Coalition (EPC) meetings. EPC is Cal Poly’s CSSC chapter. They’d send one member from all the different green clubs, which was a treat because that one member was usually an outstanding member from each group. We’d try to plan things and share resources of the clubs, and CSSC convergences were part of that.
M: What did you work on with the Renewable Energy Club?
B: We were promoting renewable energy in all forms. We’d do it by getting out and talking to people, and we’d lure them with our solar cooker. Patrick Bernard, another club member, built a solar sandwich board for club announcements that would charge during the day and light up at night. We also had a solar generator on a trailer that I would tow around with my truck. The spring that I graduated, we had a solar jam at the arboretum for the big hoorah. There were 60 people there, two Porta-Pottys, three solar-powered bands playing, the sun was setting, the batteries kept working. It was quite the shake down…promotion of all things awesome.
M: How many CSSC convergences have you been to?
B: Santa Barbara will be my 7th! I always have to write them down on my drive down to the next one.
M: What keeps you coming back to convergences?
B: Besides the social aspect of hanging out with people that I only know from convergences, there are always relatively renowned speakers who are aware of what they’re talking about. It’s also cool to see what schools are doing in terms of systems and policies they’re pushing on campus. It’s cool to stay aware. I also think going to convergences is a volunteer thing for me…. I know enough about it, so I just walk around the crowd and make sure young people know what’s going on. The goal is make sure people know how cool of a thing this is.
M: I remember you at my first convergence at UC Davis. You were very friendly and I really appreciated your enthusiasm! So what are you up to now?
B: I graduated with mechanical engineering, and I’m still doing it. I got a job within HVAC pretty easily getting out of college. Then after a year and some I decided I wanted to shift gears, because I had gotten into aquaponics. So I started doing plumbing in buildings, which is moving freshwater and waste around buildings – potable uses, rather than heating and cooling. I figured this was a way I could professionally develop in a direction that would let me eventually take over the world with aquaponics in one form or another. So that’s what I’m doing now… plumbing engineering in commercial buildings. I work for Integral Group; it’s a pretty well known Canadian company with a main office in Oakland, and we’re doing some cool buildings – like the SF Exploratorium. For that project, we came in as engineering consultants to help design some efficiency systems. The Exploratorium collects rainwater and flushes toilets with it, so that’s pretty cool. We look at grey water and black water… especially with the drought, it’s all the rage now, figuring out how we can plan for the future. We’re balancing the cost of water with the cost of collecting reclaimed water, and reusing to displace potable uses. That’s a big push now within design systems.
M: For the people who have not taken your aquaponics workshop at a convergence, could you explain what aquaponics is in a nutshell?
B: I’ll start with hydroponics; people are usually more familiar with that. With hydroponics you’re growing plants outside of the soil, so instead of the soil you have some other porous substrate like rocks or gravel to support the plants. Then you have water flowing through the rocks, with nutrients added to the water. With aquaponics, the source of those nutrients is a fish tank, where you’re housing and feeding fish, and the waste of those fish is powering the cycle. Their waste turns into plant food, which turns into our food!
M: Do you think it’s something anyone could figure out with enough time or resources, to do aquaponics in their own home? What does it take to be an aquaponics master?
It’s a hobby – a technical hobby. To be less than technically stoked, it can be overwhelming. If you take it one piece at a time, it’s like legos. But you have to be in to legos to devote yourself to building the millennium falcon. So for the fish, you have to be aware of the different parts of the system and you can’t just focus on one. It’s a complex clock to get tickin. But otherwise, there are all sorts of scales of it, so anyone who’s stoked enough about it, dedicated to building and maintaining it, can pull it off.
M: Good to know! So how do you think CSSC has helped you get on the path you’re on today?
B: For me, CSSC has been about the convergences; otherwise I haven’t really been too much a part of things. So when I look back, a lot of things happened at convergences… they are opportunities for me to learn about all themes – energy, the environment, water. I learned things there that I directly bring into my job now, and also used them to get the job. Certain kinds of companies are more into developing better systems that cut down waste, like LEED certified buildings. So to design that kind of a building takes a broader view of the different elements that come into it. I think from going to convergences and workshops, I have a better understanding of what a building means for different people. It helps me keep my designs more well-rounded.
M: That’s great that you’ve been able to incorporate all that. I’ve heard that you have some connection to LEED certification….
B: I recently became a LEED-accredited professional. It means I had to show a basic understanding of the credits and the ways that they’re achieved in the design of a building. LEED certification is becoming more and more common, because it’s more commonplace to demand higher performance standards.
M: Do you have any advice for current CSSC students pursuing sustainability in their lives?
B: Try to really decide on what you want to be doing, and then just do that. They call it the law of attraction. I think about aquaponics and how it got me into plumbing, coupled with California’s recent tendency toward water efficiency, and I feel like it’s all beautiful poetry that I’ve slowly worked into in my life. So the advice would be to aware of how you feel, what you want to do, and then make small deliberate steps to get to that. That’s pretty textbook advice though.
M: It’s very sound advice that people often forget when they try to do a lot of things at once. I’m glad to hear that you’re making it work. One last question: if you could be a vegetable, what would you be? Your spirit vegetable, per se.
B: Oh golly! I think broccoli. Cause it’s pretty dense, they say it’s really good for you, cleans your colon out, and an often overlooked fact: if you peel the stalk, you can eat that like a carrot. Then you just have a peeled stalk left: that’s the soul of the broccoli right there.
M: Awesome. Thank you so much, Brian!
If you’d like to contact Brian and ask him any questions, email him at bcroshal [at] gmail [dot] com