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Fifty Shades of Greywater

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I must confess—I am a waterholic. My idea of a good time is dragging the hose around, sluicing everything green. If I lived in town, I would be the crazy lady on the block hosing down the sidewalk every day in the summertime and the Kool-Aid mom with the kids running through the sprinklers in the front yard. I’m the one who goes to the big box nurseries and loudly complains about the plants dying out front. However, as we reside in the drought-prone state of California, we have become conditioned to save water, and I can’t help but lament the gallons upon gallons of greywater that could wisely be put to a second use.

In the past, my experience with greywater was not much more than dumping my dishwater on the roses like my grandmother did to control the aphids. And then came the new edicts from the governor of our golden state. Since I reside in a rural agricultural area of the Central Valley, I shouldn’t be feeling the pinch of fines and fees anytime soon, although I know it’s only a matter of time.

What Exactly Is Greywater?
Simply said, greywater can be defined as wash water from the kitchen, laundry, bathrooms, washrooms, sinks and showers. It is not to be confused with blackwater, which is the stuff from toilets and contains disease organisms that are harmful to plants, pets, people and anything else that would come in contact with what is, essentially, poop. The average person in the U.S. uses about 40 gallons of water a day for bathing, laundry and kitchen use. In the recent past, saving this greywater from an untimely demise was illegal, but with many states facing water shortages, policymakers are beginning to see the need and attitudes are changing. 

Back in the day when detergents and soaps contained phosphates and other environmentally unfriendly compounds, it was certainly understandable that we would want to be cautious about recycling our wash water. Even today, we must use discretion when recycling anything containing bleach, boron, sodium or other toxic chemicals lest we murder our poor unsuspecting plants through organic ignorance. But even still, greywater should be kept away from people and pets and certainly never sprayed into the air. Irrigation methods should be used that keep the greywater on the ground or even under the ground surface. When used for surface irrigation, it should soak in quickly and not be allowed to pool or pond. Your greywater can be used to irrigate most everything growing in your yard, but is not suitable for vegetation used as food in which the edible portion might come into contact with the greywater.

Choosing a Greywater System
Aside from dousing your roses with dishwater and catching your pre-shower-warm-up water in a bucket to water your plants, there are very simple, inexpensive and effective systems one can devise to give your used water a second life. One of the easiest and most popular is a direct system that routes greywater from your washing machine to mulch-filled basins around bushes and trees. These mulch basins allow the water to spread out around the roots of the plants, preventing runoff and mosquito camping grounds. With the tubing and basins in place, the washing machine’s internal pump will do most of the work. If greywater is not handled properly, it can turn as deadly as blackwater. It should never be allowed to sit for very long, as the bacteria it contains will use up the oxygen, rendering it rank and basically unviable. The sooner it gets into the soil, the sooner those microorganisms can go to work, biologically cleansing and making the water safe for plants and giving them a healthy dose of fertilizer. This method is ideal for the urban gardener, since the water most likely doesn’t have that far to go.

More serious systems include branched drains, which divert water from your showers and sinks to mulch basins, relying heavily on gravity for water distribution. If you’re willing to spend a little more money on a system that filters the greywater first, it can also be used in drip irrigation systems. These ready-made systems use filters to remove the solids, which would otherwise get stuck in the drip holes, and rely on pumps to send the water through the tubing. Other more involved systems for recycling greywater, such as for toilet flushing, can get pretty pricey and are best left to apartment buildings, housing developments and industrial complexes. The advice of the experts is to start small and remember that every little drop in the bucket counts.

If you’re thinking about tapping into this valuable second-hand resource, first check with your local ordinances to see what is legally acceptable and talk to people in your area. You might be surprised to find out what your neighbors are doing with their greywater. And of course, there are billions of sites online, including Pinterest, where one can find all sorts of DIY systems; you just need to research the one that’s right for you. For many homeowners, using a greywater system simply means peace of mind. One can keep prized plants alive in the hottest months or even in a drought without worrying about running out of water. As for me, I’m afraid it’s going to take a bit more than a 12-step greywater action plan to get me to loosen my iron grip on my hose, but at least I’ll feel better about reusing what water I can.

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