Clean hands for everyone
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Clean hands for everyone

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Niels Nielsen sat in his Corvallis driveway Friday morning, frantically trying to finish three makeshift contraptions that he believes can help halt the spread of the coronavirus around Benton County.

Nielsen, a former engineer who spent 28 years working for HP, has spent much of the past few weeks building portable hand-washing stations from upcycled materials. He says the cost of materials is less than $10, and each one takes about four hours to assemble using ordinary hand and power tools.

The idea is to put the stations in locations that are convenient for people who are homeless in order to prevent unsheltered populations from becoming transmission hubs for the virus.

“On a scale of one to 10, the significance of having a place to wash your hands is nine and a half,” said Aleita Hass-Holcombe, president of the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center, an organization that provides services for the homeless and low-income. “That is huge. What if you couldn’t wash your hands for 24 hours? As far as just feeling good about yourself — wow. It’s just important. It’s humane. It makes you feel like you’re not part of humanity when you have to live without being able to wash your hands.”

Nielsen’s inspiration for creating the stations came from the TV show “MacGyver” — a 1980s action-adventure series in which the title character uses makeshift materials to solve problems.

“In engineering circles, the polite way to say it is that I’m a MacGyver,” Nielsen said. “The not very polite, very accurate way to say it is that I’m a cheap bastard with a good imagination. One of the things that I’m good at is reusing raw materials that can get repurposed to satisfy the needs of the moment.”

The major materials that are needed to construct the stations include: A 5-gallon bucket with a handle, another 5-gallon bucket with the upper portion of the rim cut off and the handle removed, and fluid transfer pumps that Nielsen purchased at Harbor Freight.

Nielsen installed stations at two Corvallis locations on Thursday — one in Pioneer Park and another at the Orleans Natural Area across the Willamette River from downtown.

“When it became obvious to me that it was only a matter of time until Benton County got coronavirus cases, and when I had come to understand that social distancing and hand-washing were the two frontline strategies to stem the growth of the spread, then it became clear to me that I had in my own possession the things that I needed in order to put together a hand-washing station out of recycled and donated materials which we could then put out in the community,” he said.

The machines are still somewhat of a work in process, and Nielsen said he is revising the design of the stations as necessary. He is working to convert his minivan into a makeshift tanker truck that will allow him to drive from one station to another and refill them with water when needed.

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