Now easier, greywater makes a comeback

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The word “greywater” conjures up all sorts of crunchy motifs leftover from the 1970s — food co-ops, communes, and other means of sticking it to The Man. But don’t write off greywater as a remnant like the lava lamp — in 2013 it is one of the best ways to make your home environmentally sound, by slashing your water usage. And after some local water activists took their case to the city of Los Angeles last year, it’s now significantly easier and cheaper to install legal greywater systems. You can here about how the new rules came about below…

So what exactly does greywater entail and how easy is it to install your own system?

I went to the Urban Permaculture House to find out. It’s the first home in the city to get a greywater system under the new permitting rules. The house sits on several city lots in Venice that more than half a dozen eco-minded people call home. The front yard is an elaborate garden of cacti and succulents, while the backyard is comprised of fruit trees and a large organic garden. Watering all this would take hundreds of gallons of water per week. Instead, it’s fed by the sink and shower in one of the bathrooms.

I got a tour from Rebecca Batchelder an engineer for the environmental engineering firm called Geosyntech Consultants, which provided funding for the installation. Batchelder also happens to be a resident of the Urban Permaculture house and she said greywater is easier to live with than it might seem.

The Urban Permaculture House in western Los Angeles was the first to see a greywater system installed under the new rules. Photo from UP House. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“People love talking about grey water, it’s fascinating and it’s sort of a myth actually that it’s complicated,” she told me. When she’s at a party and it comes up, she said, people ask her “whether you have to do a bunch of treatment before I let [the water] out in the yard, or where do I go to get permitted, or do I need to get it permitted.”

Inside the plumbing works exactly the same. Added pipes ferry the water from the side of the house to the yard and deposits the water into mulch around 4 citrus trees. Basic systems (explained here) use gravity rather than pumps. You wouldn’t know the system’s there. Except for the small sign above the sink that says “Bath tub and sink drain to grey water irrigation system, please use natural organic and low salt products.”

Many people might find it strange that soapy water from a washing machine or shower is safe for plants. In fact, detergent and soap has phosphorous and nitrogen that plants love. It’s like liquid fertilizer. The only catch is that you can’t use any old soap product because some are too harsh on your garden, lean organic.

Don’t use bleach. (Most greywater systems have a valve where you can divert the water away from your garden in case you have to use bleach for certain loads.) Batchelder recommends products like Trader Joe’s handsoap and the perennial favorite Doctor Bronner’s.

Ooops, there’s another reminder of the 1970s.