Of all the monthly bills you pay, your water bill is probably one of the smallest. But that doesn't mean water is cheap. We dam rivers, create huge pipelines, build treatment plants -- all to deliver water clean enough to drink. And then we flush it down the toilet. Or water our lawns with it, even though most homes produce enough greywater -- that's what it's called after you use to bathe or wash your clothes -- to cover all your landscaping needs. And to get that water from your shower to your yard doesn't require a complicated plumbing system. Many people install it themselves. But that doesn't always go over well with the local plumbing inspector.
Jimmy Lizama is a bike messenger in Los Angeles. He lives his wife, Josie, and their 2-year-old son in a place called the Eco-Village. It's a building with 40 apartments, whose residents share a mission to reduce their environmental impact.
One day Lizama had an epiphany. He was working on an apartment "doing some really heavy duty work and I was getting filthy."
That day, the water was shut off for maintenance work, so Jimmy had thought ahead and filled up a five-gallon bucket. "So I go to take a shower with my five gallons of water and I used two gallons to become very, very clean," Lizama said.
A typical shower uses anywhere from two-and-a-half to five gallons of water per minute.
"That's a ton of water that can be used to do a lot more than just take shower," Lizama said.
He did a little research and decided to install a system to take the water from his shower to a banana plant in the garden outside his apartment. He chose the banana plant for a reason. Both his father and his grandfather worked on banana plantations in Honduras. Once the system was installed, Lizama explained, "any day I took a shower or did anything where water was taken out of this unit, it was going directly to grow my plants. To grow food, so yeah, it was great."
But then the city plumbing inspector discovered that one of the parts Jimmy used wasn't up to code, so he had to disconnect his system.
California allows residents to install a greywater system without a permit, but only in single-family houses. And since Lizama lives in an apartment, he had to get an exemption. So he went to Osama Yousan, head of the green building division at the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. Yousan was familiar with the Eco-Village so he granted the exemption.
"You know greywater has been in the city for a long time," Yousan said. "I remember in the '80s, when I first started, there was a pilot program to do greywater, but then it went away."
But when a drought hit southern California in early 2000, it prompted a shift in thinking at the state level.
Yousan said, "The drought that we had, the shortage of water made people come back and say we should have greywater as a means of savings, and that's when the state started looking seriously at it."
Now, there are two types of systems you can install without a permit. One is called a branch drain system, like Lizama's. It takes water from your shower drain. The other is called a laundry-to-landscape. It sends water from your washing machine to your yard. There are restrictions to keep greywater from coming in contact with people and pets.
Wade Graham is a landscape designer in Los Angeles. He recently had a greywater system in his own home by Enviromeasures--a local company that works with homeowners to install gray water systems. Graham explained the restrictions. "You have to use it within 24 hours, you can't store it on site, and when you put it in the landscape it can't be in the air."
In other words, no tanks or barrels and no sprinklers. The water is dispersed directly through mulch or pebbles. These simple systems won't work on a typical grass lawn. To use greywater on those, you'd have to install a more complicated system. But Wade Graham's yard is not typical. "I have a weakness for aloe, so I've go about 50 species of aloe."
Graham's house sits on a hill and his front yard is so steep, you have to zig-zag up a walkway to get to his front door. The path is lined with citrus trees, bay laurel hedges and California meadow sedge, a grass that responds well to sub-surface irrigation.
Graham walked me to a narrow hallway at the back of the house with a washer and dryer, to show me how the system works. He lifts the lid of his washing machine. "Just so happened to need to do a load," he said as he pulled a jug of laundry detergent down from a shelf.
Greywater is perfectly safe for landscaping and gardening as long as you use plant-based soaps and detergents. "This is coconut oil based and it turns out to be much nicer in your skin and everything," says Graham.
The water from this load of laundry will travel through pipes and make its way here to the front yard. Once the laundry got going we walked to the front of the house, where Graham lifted a ceramic tile from his yard. We stood above a small hole in the ground and wait with anticipation. Minutes later there was a gurgling sound and water started pouring out of a small tube. Steam rose from the hole in the ground, where the soapy water percolated into mulch.
Graham said that he will never have to use a hose to water his plants again.
He said it's insanity that this isn't required for all buildings. "I mean, we bring water from hundreds and hundreds of miles away, we kill a lot of fish to do it. Spend a lot of money treating it and then we wash our clothes and dishes with it and then we have to spend a lot more money treating it again."
Because water is relatively cheap, installing a system doesn't mean you will save a ton of money on your water bill.
Payback period for greywater irrigation systems under different water rates
Green highlight indicates a payback period of 10 years or less (Credit: Greywater Action)
According to a recent study by Greywater Action, it would take a family of four anywhere from four to 14 years to cover the cost of installing a system. And that's if you do it yourself. If you pay a contractor it could take more than 40 years depending on water rates.
One contractor told me that the only people who hire him to install greywater systems are people who have an innate dislike of waste.