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After a long, soaking wet winter and several weeks of sunny, warm spring, for many the thought of conserving more water is probably the last thing on their minds. Where the author lives though, the now green hills will be brown in thirty days. My many rose bushes have already started demanding I open the spigot. If I had more to tend, thoughts about where I would be getting that supply would surely be in bud. Because Mother Nature (in drought prone California) was not stingy with the H20 this last cycle, here there is (now) no more talk of water rationing or exorbitantly high water rates this growing season. So should I trouble my mind with thoughts of availability, conservation and high water bills when all the reservoirs are full? This time around…(for PtP): no worries here.
Is everyone so fortunate? Me thinks probably not…for long. At the end of the seven year drought in California (1977), when one extra toilet flush could cost you fifty-bucks, we were seeing the birth and development of a new industry: Grey Water Contractors. With ingenious diversion valves under sinks (lav/kitchen/laundry/utility) and tub/showers, it was possible for a homeowner to choose whether to send the effluent down the sanitary drainage system or divert it to a custom designed system of holding tanks and pumps for dispersal to landscaping and in some cases selected toilets. Just about the time standards and practices and licensing were being developed, the drought ended and the fledging enterprise drowned with the return to profligate water use: 20 minute showers; hose-running car washing; and bigger to obscenely thirsty landscaping.
Recently a good friend asked PtP for some help. The long time bachelor caretaker of her childhood home had passed on. The home is surrounded on a large property by a highly developed landscaping plan, including many trees (both fruit and shade) flowering shrubs, and ornamental plantings. (The neighbors, on two sides, have three different gardeners working five days a week.) The new caretakers are a young couple (forest rangers with a 4 year old daughter) who wanted to develop a large kitchen garden. Not new to the area, they well knew its fickle meteorological history and they naturally were concerned about investing a great deal of time and sweat and dollars to create a labor-of-love that could perish due to future mandated water rationing.
The 1970’s drought was a time of learning: what plants and trees tolerate household detergents. Grey water is grey because of them. A large body of knowledge (easily Net accessed) exists for those who wish/need to know. The new caretakers had done their research and came to the conclusion that to meet their irrigation goal for the new kitchen garden and maintenance of existing landscaping, grey water was financially crucial to their plan. Their big question was: what fixtures in the house could/would provide the supply and at what plumber $$ costs.
If PtP was plumbing a new home, a sophisticated grey water plan would be much, much easier (and efficient) to create than to attempt it by retro-fit. There are many home owners who would dearly appreciate a grey water system but whose existing architectural features of their home present such engineering obstacles that it is financially not practical to create one. In the case of my friend she was fortunate on two fronts. The grade siting of the home in relation to the area for development was in her favor. She had altitude. Gravity would greatly aid in the cost of installation and operation. She couldn’t get away “Scott” free, but fate dealt her a hand with very little ante.
Her great fortune: a conveniently located and plentiful grey water source (automatic clothes washer) and a four year old child. (Yours truly and his wife Katherine raised four children. The washing machine was the empirically most crucial appliance in the home.) The washing machine in my friend’s home was located in the basement, on an exterior wall above the landscape to be served. The amount of grey water available from it (based on family laundry requirements) would allow the young couple to use Utility Supplied fresh water for kitchen garden plants demanding it, and maintain much of the existing ornamental landscaping with grey water. (The choice of detergents will govern what you may hydrate.)
Most modern washing machines are equipped with a pump producing about a 7 foot head. Because of the altitude available in my friend’s case a very crude solution would have been to bore a hole in the exterior wall just below the 7 foot mark, poke a pipe through and plug the discharge end of the washing machine drain hose into to the pipe. On the outside, from there, the grey water would be conveyed to desired locations (all down hill) by sections of DWV PVC or ABS pipe joined by ‘shove-on’ rubber couplings and press-fit fittings. During the growing season this would probably fly. Take the discharge hose outta the standpipe or utility sink, lift it up and plug into the gravity drain. Depending how large an area is being watered, it might be possible to leave this system in place for extended periods. But not during the rest of the year. Washing machines use a lot of water. When you are not using this water to grow things, you cannot continue to discharge it outside above ground.
For my friend and the young couple, PtP was able to use a small, submersible sump pump with basin (Photo 1) and so plumb it (Photo 2) that it sends grey water down the existing sanitary drain and vent system when desired or with turning two valves (Photo 3) sends the water out to the garden (Photo 4). A diffuser or ‘bubbler’ can be created by drilling holes in a section of plastic pipe with a removable end cap as in Photo 5.
(Yours truly installed the very same Zoeller pump/sump combo in a busy corporate home of other friends to serve their laundry when its drain line developed problems, under slab. A suitable existing sanitary drain ran in the ceiling of the laundry room. The new pump system operated perfectly for well over a decade before needing a pump replacement.)
There is one area where great diligence is required in order to enjoy a long run of trouble free automatic laundering involving a secondary pump like a submersible sump pump. Washing machines produce almost the equal fiber capture as an automatic dryers lint trap. What would happen if you never cleaned your dryer’s lint filter? It would result in an expensive, unplanned purchase of a new dryer. Lint is also a grave threat to pump impellers. If you fail to catch the lint exiting the washing machines discharge hose before introducing it to a pump system, you will suffer the same fate. “Lint socks” for attaching to laundry discharge hose are available at grocery and hardware stores. Use them. Religiously. If you do, you’ll have little pumping concerns pumping laundry grey water.
There are three important concerns I wish to mention before bringing this post to a close. They are:
An After Thought
The author mentioned above that toilets can be made to flush grey water. That’s probably outta the budget for most readers. However, even your present modern loo’s can offer a second service without using additional fresh water: hand washing. They have been around for decades: Photo 6 is one manufacturer’s vision of the residential toilet tank washing station. In a way, such aided by, your toilet is a grey water toilet. What rinses off your hands and becomes part of the next flush is grey water.
Like the ivory billed woodpecker, conceivably there could still be a Grey Water Contractor in your neck of the woods. If you are interested in having some dual purpose water capability for your home, you might start making inquiries.
Until Next Time,
Peter Hemp is a San Francisco East Bay residential plumber and plumbing author and former R & D steam vehicle plumber. His hobbies are ocean kayaking and touring the Left Coast by bicycle.