Are “Shade Balls” Shady?

As many of you might have read from a popular BuzzFeed article, Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, has recently signed off on the release of 96 million “shade balls” into the Los Angeles Reservoir.

These shade balls are small, four inch black plastic balls made of black polyethylene, and costs 36 cents each according to Time Magazine. Initially, some researchers were confident that the shade balls could effectively save up to 300 million gallons of water every year, an especially prevalent feat against California’s drought.  According to NPR, 300 million gallons of water is a supply great enough to provide at least three weeks worth of drinking water for Los Angeles residents. In theory, these shade balls reduce the amount of water evaporated by dramatically reducing the surface area of the reservoir they cover.

Volunteers releasing shade balls into the Los Angeles Reservoir.

Volunteers releasing shade balls into the Los Angeles Reservoir. Photo taken from this site.

Unfortunately, new research is emerging describing the potential negative implications of the shade balls. One article from Tech Times written by Jill Arce, slams the shade balls, declaring flaws in the design and introduces a possible alternative motive for the Mayor to use this method.

Research the Mayor chose to cite from The Daily News claims that because the balls will completely cover the water- the average temperature of the water should drop due to less sunlight exposure. Water that is a cooler temperature will create an environment that is not as hospitable for algae and further bacterial growth.  However, Experts do not agree. According to The Grist, the shade balls actually increase the surface area for bacterial growth because the surface and sides of the balls will increase the area  bacteria and algae have to spawn and develop. Also, the black color of the balls will actually heat up the water, leading to an increased evaporation rate.  It is predicted that LA’s reservoir can expect skyrocketing microorganism growth.

It has recently been brought to the  LAWPD News Room‘s attention that EPA regulations state that large open reservoirs of water need to be covered to protect the water from chemical contamination.  City officials were slotted to purchase an actual shade to cover the reservoir, but the shade balls were much less expensive- raising eyebrows within the scientific community, seeing that the research behind the balls shows more negatives then positives for water quality and conservation. Some reports, such as this one from The Grist, suggest that the Councilmen only launched the shade balls in an attempt to save money while meeting the EPA’s standards- not because the balls are truly effective. While a shade would have been much more expensive, it would not have nearly as much controversy surrounding its effectiveness at water conservation and prevention of contamination.

When I first stumbled upon this article from BuzzFeed, I thought the shade balls were an incredibly unique and effective solution for keeping the drought in California at bay. However, now that I have given myself the opportunity to look into this report further, I am starting to realize that these shade balls are actually really shady.

mad shade.

mad shade from here.

This blog post ties into the main themes of SCI 200- when it comes to science, you need to be skeptical! I was so willing to buy into the idea of shade balls just because a funky BuzzFeed article made them sound cool and creative.  After reading multiple arguments for and against the shade balls, I have ultimately come to the conclusion that I do not believe the shade balls are useful, and that they were only adopted by the LA government in an attempt to save money. When it comes to science, it is important to look at both sides of the coin, and form your own opinion. Are these shade balls actually extraordinary, or are they just a cheaper alternative to a real solution? Please let me know what you think of these shade balls in the comments!

-Dana Pirrotta



4 thoughts on “Are “Shade Balls” Shady?

  1. Matthew Porr

    Before reading this post I have never heard of a Shade Ball. As I started reading, I found these balls to be pretty incredible for being so simply they are being used to save water and money! Ideally these balls seem to be perfect but when scientists took a closer look it seems to be that they are actually doing the opposite of their intended purpose. I still think that these balls are a great idea but the definitely need more development. Had a couple experiments been done on the color of the balls and their ability to protect against chemical contamination then I feel as if these balls would have been very effective. Maybe had the balls been white they would have been better at reflecting the sun light, therefore avoiding evaporation. The requirement for covering of water reserves may have led to the quick decision of using the Shade Balls before they were perfected.

    1. Dana Corinne Pirrotta Post author

      I had never heard of the Shade Balls until recently either! They definitely looked really cool and unique, and I was shocked when I found out that they really weren’t that helpful at all. I was actually planning on just writing about how cool the shade balls were, and only when I started doing research for this blog did I realize that they had a lot of faults. I agree with your idea that white shade balls would possibly have been more effective in the aspect of water conservation. The color white attracts a lot less heat and reasonably that would mean less evaporation from the reservoirs. The EPA requirement probably put a lot of pressure on the councilmen to make an inexpensive decision fast. Maybe in the future the shade balls will be perfected or another creative method will be used that is a lot more effective!

      – Dana

  2. Jeremy Perdomo

    Hmmmmm. I want to start off this comment with a question because the shade balls are a little ambiguous to me. How does a small ball reduce the surface area and thus lower the evaporation rates of water? Maybe that would be something interesting to do more research on, because the science behind it is probably fascinating, yet very confusing. Trust me, I would know because it feels like it could be solved through physics, and physics was a very difficult topic to learn (at least for me it was!) in high school.

    Now, in your article you claim that researches were not fond of the balls because of multiple reasons, the primary one being that the designs were flawed. In what way were the models flawed? And did the researches come up with their own designs being that they so easily critiqued somebody else’s work? In addition, after doing research on my own using the article link below, I found that the United States Environmental Protection Agency actually required that reservoirs be covered. Shade balls definitely seemed like a great, if not perfect, solution.

    Here is that link:

    Lastly, I could not agree more with your statement at the end of your blog that science is a field that must always be questioned and skeptical towards; if it was not for these very motives, science would not really exist! How would someone be able to perform an experiment, for example, using the scientific steps we learned in class like creating a hypothesis and taking observations if not for the ability to ponder the validity of something?

    1. Dana Corinne Pirrotta Post author

      Hey Jeremy,
      Thank you so much for your comment. After reading your questions and tips on what to include, I have made a brief edit to my post. Constructive criticism is always welcome! I enjoyed the link you included about the Shade balls, and am happy we can both agree we should always be skeptical when it comes to science. Especially BuzzFeed science! Here’s a cool video that includes the “unboxing” of some Shade balls and some clips of them rolling into the reservoirs. I am definitely curious to see if Shade balls will be used in the future.

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