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23 March 2008

Wave of the Future: Go Grey to Go Green

"Why in the world are we throwing away drinking water, using it to flush toilets and putting it into landscape?" John Koeller, technical advisor for the California Urban Water Conservation Council, asked recently.

Those functions "don't require chlorinated, filtered drinking water. What's closer to us than gray water? You can reduce your water use and water bill."

According to Koeller, Australia and Germany more commonly use gray water systems.

So what exactly is gray water?

It's water that was once drinkable (potable or whitewater), but was used for washing dishes, clothes or even for bathing. It is NOT water you let go down the drain while waiting for the shower or bath water to heat up, which is still clean "whitewater" and could easily be used for anything.

Nor is it water from the toilet bowl. Toilet water is considered "blackwater," with biological contaminants such as human and animal feces and urine. It also isn't rainwater.

Water in a semi-arid climate like Pasadena should be considered a precious resource and recycling water isn't a new way of conservation. Rather, it is really an old idea with a few new high-tech possibilities.

New buildings going up at Caltech, one of Pasadena's largest water consumers, will have pipes laid especially for gray water usage, according to Jim Cowell, associate vice president of facilities and planning.

"Water conservation is just one part of a larger initiative at Caltech to become a more sustainable campus. ... In these new buildings we are building, we are providing gray water piping," Cowell said.

These would provide gray water to the urinals and toilets, but Caltech is waiting for Pasadena as a city to provide gray water.

"The city does not have a gray-water supply, so we're ready if the city comes down with a gray-water main. We'll be ready to hook up our new buildings," Cowell said. "There would also be an opportunity to hook up our landscaping."

By waiting for the city, which has no immediate plans in the works, Caltech is avoiding what Koeller has called "a patchwork system of health codes" governing the usage of gray water, which boils down to "battling health codes."

The plumbing is not the biggest issue. Systems can be "approved in one jurisdiction and denied in other jurisdictions," or different inspectors might have "different interpretations of the same codes," and this is "a serious problem in this area" as opposed to Colorado and New Mexico, Koeller said.

Laura Allen, one of the members of the Greywater Guerrillas (www.greywaterguerrillas.com), a collaborative group of educators, designers, builders and artists encouraging the building of a sustainable water culture and infrastructure, agreed with Koeller.

"California needs to change the code and model the new code after Arizona's gray water code," Allen wrote in an email. "In Arizona, people are given basic health and safety guidelines, and if they follow them they fall under a general permit and don't need to do anything else to be ‘legal.' California needs a code like this, and to provide education and possibly incentives for homeowners to install gray-water systems."

Robert Mechielsen, founder of Studio RMA, which is designing the Pasadena EcoHouse, the first structural concrete-insulated panel LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum home in the US, said the idea of using gray water is very valuable, especially in California, "yet there is a problem about run-over water. Who decides if that run-over water can be discharged in the street or the sewer? Rainwater and gray water can be discharged in the sewer so an engineered system would need a separate tank for your rain water which can be technically discharged into the street," and this multiple tank system would drive up the cost of the reclaimed water.

For the Pasadena EcoHouse, Mechielsen decided solar power would be a better use of money.

According to Allen, "Overall the vast majority of gray water systems are unpermitted because of the illogical gray water code California currently has. It's interesting to note that during drought times, the government had ignored its own code and told people to use their gray water!"

From a legal standpoint, Koeller explained there are currently two types of gray-water systems: engineered systems - bigger systems built to order and specially permitted - and packaged systems. The packaged systems are affordable for the average homeowner and rental property owner.

According to Mark G. Sanders, chairman of WaterSaver Technologies (www.watersavertech.com), a Kentucky-based company, for about $295 and the cost of a 90-minute installation by a licensed plumber, you can have an AQUS gray-water system installed.

The AQUS system is one of two packaged gray-water systems that has been chosen by the Metropolitan Water District as part of its Innovation Conservation Program. The system cleans up the gray water you used in your bathroom sink - taking out the large particulates with a coarse screen and killing the bacteria to make it "Fido-friendly" in case your dog uses the toilet bowl for a drink.

According to Sanders, WaterSaver Technologies will install AQUS in 17 buildings (single-family homes, apartments, hotels and maybe an office or two) and for three months the water and energy consumption will be monitored.

In a recent phone interview, Sanders estimated that the AQUS system uses about 50 cents worth of energy per year, but the study will give Californians an accurate picture of the total cost.

Sanders will be speaking at the upcoming Plumbing Manufacturer's Institute spring meeting on "Emerging Technologies in Indoor Greywater Reuse," which is a part of the Greywater and Rainwater Reuse Session on April 2 in Newport Beach.

Allen, co-author of the "Guerrilla Greywater Girls Guide to Water," said that "besides saving water and money, gray water systems also require people to look critically at what they're putting down the drain. It's a great time to rid the house of toxic cleaners, chemicals, etc. Biodegradable products are best. Also check to see they're low/free of sodium and boron, which can harm your plants. Oasis products are made especially for gray water. [Laundry detergent and all-purpose cleaner] For body products there is a great Web site [www.cosmeticdatabase.com] where you can enter your products and see how toxic (or not) the ingredients are."

Individuals who are passionate about water now currently practice gray-water usage, and yet it needs to go further than that. "The real question is: How far in a society are we?" Mechielsen asked. To have gray-water systems in place and for water conservation to work, we can't rely on just those people "who are very eco-conscious."

After all, the installation of engineered or packaged systems in one home "doesn't necessarily mean the next person who wants to buy this house isn't going to wash his paints in the sink," he said.

The bottom line, says Mechielsen, is you "really have to look at a group of people or a city or a green movement that have to come to a consensus: How as a group of people are we dealing with water that could be recycled in a safe, environmental and sane manner?"

Originally published in the Pasadena Weekly

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