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How to reuse your home's water

By, at times illegally, replumbing their bathrooms, kitchens and laundry rooms, “greywater guerrillas” worldwide are preventing millions of gallons of usable water from going down the drain.

Anywhere from 50 to 80% of our residential water- that which we send down our sink, bathtub, shower and laundry drains- could be used again. It’s called grey water, as opposed to the “black water” used to flush toilets, and many homeowners are beginning to re-use it to water their yards, do laundry and flush the toilet.

The Australian Labor Party has set a national target of recycling 30% of all greywater by 2015- offering up to $500 rebates for installing greywater systems– and already, for many Australian residents greywater is one of the only legal ways to water their gardens.

In the US, California became the first state to set up greywater guidelines in 1994 and more states continue to write legislation allowed for water reuse. In 2007, Montana Governor Schweitzer signed a law making greywater systems legal in the state. Schweitzer claims that water is becoming a big issue for his state: “we’re getting less snow, it’s melting sooner, we’re getting more fires that are destroying this filtration system, and the future doesn’t look bright unless we can arrest this climate change.”

Just $200 to start reusing your water

Professional greywater systems can be complex and costly like a $10,000 system that pumps water through a collection tank and a deep sand filtration bed. But according to Australian greywater expert Dr Wendy van Dok, most of us should only need to spend a few hundred dollars to replumb our homes.

“Most people don’t need a high tech, expensive, complicated grey water system. More often than not a simple diversion system – which can cost less than $200 – is all that’s needed.”

Greywater bootleggers

While governments are becoming more supportive of greywater recycling, in places like California it’s still not easy to replumb your home without complying with extensive regulations. When The New York Times talked to greywater advocates here in May of 2007, they found that “California’s plumbing code — which stipulates things like pipe sizes, burial depths and soil tests based on rules established for septic systems — is prohibitively complicated for private homeowners interested in recycling gray water, and that its requirements are prohibitively expensive.”

Even the founder of a greywater systems installing company- Steve Bilson of ReWater Systems- questions the practicality of complying with the law. “The code is so overbuilt that I’m beginning to think it’s better to just have everyone do it bootleg.”

There are plenty of greywater bootleggers in this state. Laura Allen of the advocacy group Greywater Guerrillas estimates that just in the San Francisco Bay Area there are probably about 2,000 greywater systems, most of which are unpermitted.

“There are good codes in other states like Arizona, codes that help people make safe, functional and cheap greywater systems. There are also prohibitive codes that don’t allow most people to legally install a greywater system due to cost and permitting process, as in California.”

Back in 1999, after Allen became aware of the impact of her city’s water use on a far off river ecosystem, she and her roommates installed their first bootleg greywater system. Once they had perfected their skills, they began to help others install their own, generally unpermitted, systems. Allen, along with a few fellow Greywater Guerrillas, have since written publications such as Guerrilla Greywater Girls Guide to Water and edited Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground.

faircompanies stopped in at Allen’s Oakland, California home where she showed us her replumbed home and flourishing greywater garden.

Allen: “We’re called the Greywater Guerrillas because in California, California has a very rigid, restrictive plumbing code and so for most people you can’t get a permit. And so we are, out of necessity, doing unpermitted systems. And we’re also working for policy change and trying to have the code changed so that it’s accessible to people. But right now to get a permitted system, you might not be able to, they could say no, depending on where you are, or it will cost a lot of money and it will take a lot of time. Water is a precious resource and we don’t need to spend thousands of dollars just to reuse our own water in our own homes.”

faircompanies: Do you think that this is becoming a bigger issue, you keep hearing about where is our water and are we drying up?

“Yeah,we have tons and tons of water, but the way we use water we waste it, pollute it, and squander it so we really need to rethink how we are using water.”

“Most people are taught, living in urban environments, we’re really detached and don’t understand the implications of this lifestyle and our detachedness from water affects rivers and people and cultures all over the world. So greywater is one step toward reconnecting to that and becoming responsible for how we live in this world. And it’s also really fun and exciting to replumb your house and use that water in your landscape.”

Laura takes us into her bathroom and shows us a very basic system for the sink (see the video we shot of her setup).

“We also have a low tech grey water system you can use anywhere; you just detach the drain of the sink and you can just have it like drop straight into a bucket or you can have some kind of tube and this goes into a collection container so you can remove this. It’s empty right now, but when this is half full you can take this and pour it into the bowl and that will flush the toilet so you’re flushing with water you’ve washed your hands in.”

faircompanies: What you’ve done here– is it totally legal, can anyone do this, or do you need a permit?

“Yes, it’s probably about 5 gallons a day. It’s probably the lowest use fixture, but there’s still no reason to dump it down the drain.”

“There are a couple of water saving techniques in the bathroom; the first is our toilet-we have a dual flush toilet and our water company gives a rebate for this so you can do half flush which is about .6 gallons and the full flush is 1.6 so it really cuts down on the amount of water that the toilet does use and you can’t reuse toilet water so it’s important to not use very much.”

“We also have a bucket in the shower and this is for catching water while it’s warming up. It takes about a half a bucket to heat up in this house and that is totally clean water we use to water house plants, or you could use it to flush the toilet or you could just take it outside to water with. This valve on the shower head turns off the shower and our water company gives these away for free or you can buy them in a hardware store. You get the temperature how you want it, get wet and push this little knob and it turns off the water. You can cut the water in half by shutting off the water while you’re soaping up or washing.”

(We have a video where Allen shows us water saving techniques).

faircompanies: How long do you think people should be using water for a shower?

“I think my showers are about 5 minutes, but half of the time the water is off. This shower is also on the grey water system so all the water that does go down goes outside to water the garden.”

faircompanies: What about flushing, it doesn’t seem that you flush every time?

“If it’s brown flush it down; if it’s yellow let it mellow. That saves a lot of water.”

faircompanies: So if you have guests over do you run in and flush?

“No, in my workplace I flush a lot more than I do in my home because some people don’t feel comfortable with it. I think the more education we can have about that the more acceptable it is. That definitely is something we need to talk about more.”

faircompanies: Because there’s nothing scary about pee?

“No, it’s typically sterile; it’s in the toilet bowl; it’s not going to hurt you. Sometimes after 4 or 5 times there is an odor so then it is time to flush- but definitely not every time.”

(Allen shows us her laundry room system for a video).

“Washing machines are usually the best place to start with greywater because they produce a lot of water and they also have an internal pump so they’re already pumping the water somewhere. So you can use that pump to have it put the greywater where you want it. Any other fixture you’re going to have to work with gravity or you’re going to have to have an extra pump which is not ideal.”

(Allen shows us her replumbed kitchen sink for a video).

“This is our kitchen sink; it also goes out to water the garden. We do have guests in our house and we want to make people aware that this is going outside so we use biodegradable soaps; we don’t use toxic cleaners. We use a soap called Oasis, it’s actually called biocompatible, and it breaks down into plant nutrients.”

“One thing about grey water is if it goes directly into a fresh water source it’s a source of pollution because it has nitrogen and phosphorous which are nutrients and so if there are nutrients in water it robs the water of oxygen and it’s really bad for aquatic organisms, but if you put nutrients on the ground it’s plant nutrients and they can actually grow better. A lot of people have this conception that greywater is a pollutant and it can be if you’re putting it into like a creek or a river, but if you’re putting it on the ground it can actually be really beneficial to your plants.”

“Greywater is a great time to re-think what you’re putting down the sink and to become more educated about what these things are and how they are affecting the environment.”

faircompanies: You mean your dishwashing soap?

“Dishwashing soap, beauty products, cleaning products- there are a lot of toxins in our world. For greywater the two things you want to avoid for your plants are boron and salt which are non-toxic, but plants don’t like them so oftentimes eco-cleaning products will contain salt and boron so that’s a new thing to think about; it may say non-toxic , but it may not be great for your plants. So with grey water you should start to get less impacting products.”

“A lot of places that have a greywater code, like where the state encourages greywater use, they don’t allow kitchen sinks because there’s more grease and food particles, more dark greywater. Also they found different kinds of bacteria will grow in the drain in the kitchen sink so kitchen sinks sometimes will not be allowed, but they are a good source of greywater.”

faircompanies: What does it cost to put in a greywater system?

“The washing system that I just showed you is about $200 and this kitchen sink system was about $150. I got a lot of the pipes salvaged-so just a few hundred dollars.”

faircompanies: But it’s your own labor?

“Yes, it’s my own labor.”

faircompanies: Do you think that we’re heading into a situation where everybody needs to do this?

“Yes, I don’t think there is any reason to be sending perfectly good irrigation water down the drain. And also there is no reason we should be putting toxins into our water that’s going out into the water bodies so if we educate ourselves and are using this in our own yard it will help on less water, less demand on sewer plants, and less toxins going into the environment. We can grow food and we become more connected to both our land as well as our water system.”

faircompanies: What’s the matter with using water and sending it somewhere to clean it up and get it back again? Why shouldn’t we use the sewerage system?

“So nature has its own way of cleaning water and there is a natural water cycle; we have broken that cycle, messed it up along the way.”

“Cultures that are sustainable with their water go to their water source; either springs, or rivers or creeks. They need to care for that water because that is what they are using so when you don’t need to worry about your water you can do all these cleaning things and it doesn’t affect you.”

“In Oakland our water comes from 90 miles away. There’s a giant damn that’s totally connected to our lives and most people aren’t aware of that. They have no way of knowing that them using this water is affecting this river almost a hundred miles away. We get the water; we waste it because we just turn on the tap and the water comes out, it’s cheap and there’s really no incentive not to waste the water. And then the water goes away. We affect that river upstream; we’re taking too much water so that ecosystem is being impacted by us and then when we send it out to the bay it’s a source of pollution. The treatment plant uses energy; it’s like a huge factory. There’s no need to do this.”

“If we put our grey water into the ground; the plants, the micro-organisms in the soil are cleaning it as well as using it for flowers, insects, birds. We have lots of fruit here so we’re recreating a healthy environment for ourselves.”

faircompanies: Do you think that looking ahead that California and a lot of regions will have to do this?

“We have choices like the path that we’ve been on that is very destructive and unsustainable and there’s a lot of pressure to continue on that path. And then we have this other path of rethinking how we’re living and becoming more connected –sustainable solutions.”

“We can look to Australia as an example. They have had drought for a long time and they’re very much the leaders in the English speaking world of greywater. There are many places that don’t allow outdoor irrigation unless it’s greywater so if you don’t use your greywater you can’t irrigate. That’s huge. They also are leaders in rain water catchment. They give people a few thousand dollars for residents to install rain catchment in an arid area because rain catchment reduces the amount of water needed.”

“Arizona is a leader in the United States. They have a very friendly greywater code: they encourage grey water, they give rebates for grey water and Tucson is talking about requiring it so we can look to leaders in more arid places.”

Tips for greywater use

No matter what kind of system you decide on, it’s important to follow these basic greywater guidelines.

  1. Don’t store greywater (more than 24 hours).
  2. Minimize contact with greywater.
  3. Infiltrate greywater into the ground, don’t allow it to pool up or run off (knowing the soil percolation rate of your soil and designing mulch basins will help with this).
  4. Keep your system as simple as possible, avoid pumps, avoid filters that need upkeep.
  5. Match your plants irrigation needs with the amount of greywater they’ll receive.

Soaps recommended by the Greywater Guerrilas:

Commercial greywater systems:

More greywater resources: