Shades of Grey(water): Recycle Your Water to Combat Drought -- Here's How!

If you live in a drought-stricken state (the hardest hit has been California, but Nevada and Oregon are feeling pretty dry these days, too), you've probably seen your water bills skyrocketing in response to the shortage. Here's a water-saving strategy that you probably haven't thought of: Take a shower. Brush your teeth. Do some laundry. It's called greywater recycling. And it works.

What's greywater, anyway?

"Greywater" refers to gently used household wastewater -- like the runoff from doing laundry, washing dishes, or brushing your teeth. (Toilet wastewater is referred to as "blackwater" for fairly obvious and unpleasant reasons.)

In a greywater system, that used water gets routed through a second set of pipes to feed your outdoor plants. And since the biggest household use of water is for irrigation, this can have a substantial impact on your expenses. Bonus: It helps the environment, too!

How much you'll spend, how much you'll save

A study commissioned by the city of Santa Rosa, CA, reported that a "laundry-to-landscape" greywater system would save 15 gallons of water per person, per day. Recycling greywater from bathroom sinks and showers saves an additional 25 gallons of water per person; some systems can save 50,000 gallons a year. It'll also save about $400 a year on water bills, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

"It takes about 50 gallons of water for me to water my fruit trees," says Leigh Jerrard, owner of Greywater Corps, a company that specializes in the technology. "If I give my son a bath, 50 gallons of water go down the drain."

DIY types who know their way around the plumbing aisles of Lowe's can get a greywater system up and running for a few hundred dollars over the course of a weekend thanks to this free guidebook created by the city of San Francisco. Sure, for the nonhandy, it's best to consult with a professional first. Jerrard can install a simple one in a day for about $2,000.

A low-tech gravity flow system -- so named because it uses gravity instead of a pump to let the water flow downward -- that includes bathtubs, showers, and bathroom sinks will cost about $4,000. (When we spoke to Jerrard, he was installing one in Ed "eco-friendly" Begley Jr.'s house.) Wanna really go nuts? A top-of-the-line system that directs water from multiple showers, sinks, and bathtubs to multiple irrigation zones, with a self-cleaning filter, will set you back about $20,000.

Go easy on the soaps -- and yourself

Jerrard suggests that newbies start with the laundry-to-landscape system. (For health reasons, greywater shouldn't be used on vegetable gardens or grass.) Because the water comes directly out of the washing machine, no plumbing lines have to be cut; therefore, in many states including California, no permit is required.

But be mindful of what's in your greywater. Trees and soil can handle most natural soap products just fine, but cleaning products that are laden with salt, phosphates, and other chemicals can be problematic. The Ecology Center in Berkeley, CA, keeps an ongoing list of what products should and shouldn't be used by greywater recycling households.

"Generally, I would argue that if you don't want it to touch your soil, then you probably don't want it to touch your skin," says Jerrard.

Greywater can be in a gray zone, legally

But if you live in Vermont and want to do more for the environment, tough luck. Greywater systems are legal in only 19 states, including most of the West (and all the West Coast states), Texas, and much of the Southeast.

On top of that, every state has its own byzantine greywater codes, and individual municipalities may have their own restrictions.

For residents of California, Greywater Action is the best way to find DIY workshops or a certified expert to install your system. It also helps break down the legal particulars. California, for example, does not allow kitchen sinks, toilets, or dishwashers to be hooked into greywater systems.

Arizona and California's Silicon Valley both offer rebates for those who install them, but Arizona requires a permit and adherence to 13 best management practices, including no human contact with the water, no runoff onto a neighbor's property, and clearly labeled pipes.

The city of San Francisco published a free guidebook on how to install a greywater system, and it offers a $225 rebate toward the cost of the permit (which varies, depending on what you're installing and how much work needs to be done).

With all the permits and paperwork involved, it's worth asking: Is it worth it? For those who have gone ahead and installed a system, the answer is a resounding yes. And the benefits of greywater recycling go beyond lowering your water bills and helping to combat the current historic drought.

"It gives you more awareness of how you're using water, gives you more control of your water, and it makes things more visible," said Mark Vallianatos, who had Jerrard install a greywater recycling system in his Los Angeles home two years ago. "That's interesting and satisfying."

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