Smart Greywater

It’s too ridiculous to think that California has gone this far in it’s history without enacting some of the most forward-thinking water conservation policies yet.  We’ve consistently set the bar for air quality standards and fuel efficiency in cars, (to give the most readily available examples.)  We take pride in the fact that as California goes, so goes the nation, especially when it comes to conservation.

However, the closest we’ve come is a road map that was in introduced back in 2008 as one of the last things Arnie did as gobernator.  Which delineates the steps the state can take “to achieve a 20 percent reduction in per capita water use statewide by 2020.”  It’s a good start, but no policy has come from it yet.  Incase anyone is keeping track, we’ve got less that six years to 2020.  I didn’t read all 76 pages of the plan but I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’re not nearly as far along as where we should be on paper.

Urban water use accounts for 10-15% of demand, and while it is not the biggest slice of the pie, it’s good to be as efficient as possible across the board.  Especially since 2013 saw California’s biggest population growth in nearly a decade, and 2014 feels like it’s continuing in the same vein.

Think about what we use the majority of our residential water for: bathing, cooking, cleaning and… watering your lawn.  Aside from your lawn or garden, used water gets sent to the sewer along with everything we flush down the toilet.  Which is a little extreme if you think about it, because the water you just took a shower in isn’t so dirty that you need to send it off to a plant to be treated with everything else, you just wouldn’t want to drink it.  But you could water your lawn or garden with it.  This is called a greywater system.

This idea is not new by any means.  Unfortunately the state has not encouraged residents to use greywater to conserve, and more often than not, local regulations around greywater are unclear, if not discouraging altogether.  Not to mention–contrary to what the media would have you believe–all Californians are not uber-liberal, tree-hugging hippies, and would not take or have the time, effort and resources to install their own system.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and I think it’s past time that California make it mandatory for all new houses built come equipped with a greywater system.  Every fixture should have an easy on/off switch that will direct water running down the drain to your greywater system or to the sewer.  That way if you need to clean your bathroom you can easily direct water to your sewer, and then turn it back to greywater again.

Now, lets pretend that California did push everyone to have a greywater system installed in their house.  Here we get to the real problem with widely implemented greywater.  How many of us know exactly when to turn it on and off?  Do you know what chemicals are in your body wash?  Or your laundry detergent?  Or your dish soap?  If you water your lawn and it dies the next day, you would probably be a little frustrated at your government for forcing you to install this system in your house.

This is where the “smart” part of “smart greywater” comes in.  If we want our plumbing to really reflect the type of technology we are capable of inventing–and are in fact inventing now–the smart system would be able to detect chemicals that are not okay to go into a grey water system and automatically switch off to run to the sewer!  How awesome would that be?  This will help folks who do not know or are unsure how to use greywater at first, to gradually work their way onto a new system.  They’ll be able to track when the greywater is turned on and know those products are okay, as to when it shuts off, which might be self explanatory if they’re using bleach to scrub off mildew.  Eventually, people we be educated on what they can and cannot use for maximum conservancy.  Not only will greywater give you a two-for-the-price-of-one water use deal, it has the added benefit of making people really think about the products they are using!

Of course “smart” greywater technology has not been invented yet so to speak, but that’s not to say it would be beyond creating.  Once invented, it would be easy enough to install on all new houses going forward.   Too bad plumbing isn’t sexy, so no one is interested in making their house more efficient.  (But my phone on the other hand can take my temperature, pulse, tell me how many calories I burned, and soon be able to tell if I’m pregnant or not…)

The downside to all of this is it would be a big deal to install on homes already created, requiring all sorts of new plumbing.  Which would make this idea one of the costliest, most time-consuming and frankly hardest over all to implement.  Which is a real shame, because I think it would be one measure people could take where they would see the biggest difference.

Another problem with this idea brought to light by the same aforementioned friend from my last post, who highlighted a project he worked on in the Pacific Northwest, where some areas have had trouble with clogging sewer systems when enough reusable water was diverted: there wasn’t enough liquid to keep the solids moving freely the way the system was designed.  Sooo… there’s that.  But then again the whole sewer system idea hasn’t really changed since it was invented over a hundred years ago.  It could probably do with a little revamping as well.

City-wide Rain Collection

Rain is all the news here in California lately, and with good reason.  This is the second drought I’ve lived through.  I was five when the 1987-1992 drought started.  I was at a very impressionable age, and yet still very oblivious.  I figured I had lucked out when I only had to take a bath every other day, when children living in the rest of the world were forced to bathe every night.  Unfortunately that habit has stuck with me… that and becoming very anxious whenever water is running needlessly.

It is very easy to get political about water here, what with idiots wanting to split the state into six separate states, big ag lobbying for public money to build a pipe that will only cater to their wasteful farming practices, and people already jumping to conclusions wondering why we haven’t built five desalination plants already.  But the biggest problem with all of these is just that: they’re huge, expensive solutions that will take years to build.  There are small measures we can take now that can make a big impact!

A friend of mine who also grew up in California posed an interesting question on Facebook the other day: “I wonder how much flow you could remove from stormwater system during the critical first 5 minutes of a major storm event if everyone in the neighborhood put all their pots pans, buckets, etc. outside.”  To which, someone else answered “ [There’s] 38 million Californians, if we all used a 5 gallon bucket, that’s about 190 million gallons.”

Which got me thinking.  That’s a lot of water.  A lot of water.  Wasted water that is washed off roofs, swept down into the street and out to god-knows-where, not be used in any fashion other than to back up storm drains and flood streets and even homes and business.  This is how we deal with California’s most precious resource?!

I thought about equating this scenario with a business–as all good entrepreneurial blogs would–but I’m not going to.  I think we’re all smart enough to see there’s a problem without having to first picture that it is money that we’re flushing down the pooper.

My friend then went on to point out that it is still against building code to put rain barrels on your downspouts in most California cities, and that gray water recovery is also a code violation.  Considering he’s mastering in land use and environmental studies at Cornell, I tend to take him at his word.  For the sake of this and the following two articles I’ve devoted to better water management, lets pretend that after two major droughts in my lifetime and three in my parent’s, the Golden state has taken some action toward water conservation and overturned this legislation.

Rainwater collection is a simple enough idea.  You put a bucket outside, it rains, you have (somewhat) usable water.  The more buckets you put out, the more you capture, right?  But what if you don’t have a yard?  What if you do have a yard and don’t wish to turn it into a mosquito nursery?  What if, instead, all of the water that runs off of your roof and down your gutters doesn’t go to a storm drain or the sewer, but is instead collected, processed and re-used?

If the idea of drinking roof water grosses you out, we can always use it for something else, like watering parks or fountains perhaps.  I should also point out the added benefit of keeping local rivers, lakes and other bodies of water clean!  If storm water is being reclaimed, treated and reused, that means it is not being directed toward the nearest stream–or in my case the San Francisco bay–where it is loosed upon the environment, carrying with it everything in it’s path; a thought that should make all locals shudder, and never want to eat anything that comes out of this bay.

The point is, you can build conservation into city infrastructure itself.  Maybe while Google is ripping up streets to install fiber, we can also divert the storm drains to local aquifers.  Two birds, one stone, thousands of gallons of conserved water!