August 01, 2018

On August 12, Century College student Kent Rueckert will be traveling to China to participate in the China-US Young Makers Competition.

The competition called for individuals and teams to submit projects in areas of sustainable development. For his entry, Rueckert invented a solar-powered rain barrel called “Gutters to Gardens.”

The product works by collecting rain water from gutters, which is then distributed evenly over a garden through a series of tubes. What makes Rueckert’s invention unique is its remote capability. With a simple voice command to Amazon Alexa, the rain barrel can be activated to release water from almost anywhere.

“If I can get international coverage, and I have an internet connection on my phone, I can potentially water my garden from halfway across the world,” said Rueckert.

Rueckert’s project was one of only 10 grand-prize winners in the U.S. selected for the final competition, which will be held in Beijing. He will also be competing with 80 projects from Chinese finalists.

While this innovative idea came solely from Rueckert, he credits the Fab Lab for making it a reality. After taking a “How to Make Anything” workshop, Rueckert received Computer Aided Design software that allowed him to develop Gutters to Gardens. He was then able to use the Fab Lab’s laser cutter to manufacture the box that contains his device.

“I couldn’t have done it without the Fab Lab,” said Rueckert. “It gave me the perfect environment to create this project.”

How Gutters to Gardens Came to Be

The genesis of Gutters to Gardens began when Rueckert was reading a book called “Dirt Cheap Garden.” This is where Rueckert first learned about rain barrels.

According to the book, rain water is ideal for use in gardening, since city water is treated with chemicals such as chlorine that inhibit plant growth.

Once Rueckert created his first rain barrel, he was met with a problem that laid the foundation for his invention. Rueckert installed the rain barrel at his sister’s house in Little Canada. To release the water, Rueckert had to make a 12-mile trip every day from his home in Mahtomedi.

“That would mean I’d have to drive 24 miles round-trip just to turn a valve,” said Rueckert. “When you’re in a truck that doesn’t have air conditioning on a hot July day, you get sick of driving.”

While he was driving, the solution came to Rueckert. A discussion about the Internet of Things (IoT) industry on the radio inspired him to find a way to use computers to release the water from his home. Rueckert dove deep into Google, YouTube, and various resources to learn how to create a remote-controlled rain barrel.

A Passion for Gardening

From switching off lights with a phone to ordering food from a fridge, the Internet of Things has seemingly limitless capabilities. But when IoT first piqued Rueckert’s interest, there was no question that he’d apply the technology to agriculture.

“We’re living in a time where more people don’t garden than do. But it’s an age-old human practice to cultivate from the land,” said Rueckert. “I’m hoping that with a combination of technology and simplicity, more people will take the dive into gardening.”

Rueckert’s passion for gardening led him to volunteer at Giving Gardens, a non-profit organization based in White Bear Lake that provides gardens to participating homes. The produce is donated to local food shelves.

“You can go to the grocery store and buy a pepper for a dollar,” said Rueckert. “But there’s something special about growing your own food and sharing with others. That’s what I think is so beautiful about Giving Gardens.”

In the same spirit of giving, Rueckert wants everyone to enjoy his invention. Rueckert’s goal is to make the directions for building Gutters to Gardens simple enough that students from elementary school and high school can make their own remote-controlled rain barrels.

“I think a lot of people would be happier if they participated in gardening,” said Rueckert. “I want as many people to learn gardening as possible.”

Looking Ahead

Even though Rueckert has already created an award-winning invention, his work isn’t complete. The end goal for Rueckert is to make Gutters and Gardens fully automatic. This will provide an extra level of convenience, and hopefully, further encourage people to pick up gardening.

Rueckert envisions a network of devices that would factor in a number of variables, such as how much water is in the barrel, the weather forecast, when it last rained, and the level of moisture in the soil. All these aspects could help the computer automatically determine when the water should be released.

Though Rueckert already has created a working moisture sensor, he’s content with remote capability for now. Rueckert is more focused on the present, his upcoming trip to China, and graduating in December.

Plus, Rueckert has remained busy enjoying his time at Century College.

“The friends you make at Century College are genuine,” said Rueckert. “I also like the fact that there’s a ton of different realms you can get into, with welding, solar, manufacturing, horticulture, I.T., liberal arts – there’s just a lot. And I love the instructors.”