Reporter Francesca Segré's aunt, Amelia Terkel, tends her graywater system in Herzliya, Israel. (Francesca Segrè/KQED)
Reporter Francesca Segré’s aunt, Amelia Terkel, tends her graywater system in Herzliya, Israel. (Courtesy of Amir Terkel)

When my husband asked what I wanted for my birthday, I answered, “A graywater system.”

It was January. Gov. Jerry Brown had just declared a drought, and our family had just returned home to Silicon Valley from a trip to Israel. It was there, in a region defined by water scarcity, that I saw my first graywater system – and I wanted this solution to my drought-induced water guilt ASAP.

The humble graywater system I saw early one morning in my Aunt Amelia’s garden in Herzliya is what moved me to act. We had just eaten her home-grown Valencia oranges with breakfast, and the taste was still tangy and sweet on my tongue. We were admiring her small orchard when, tucked into a corner, I saw it. A drainage pipe from her shower came out of the house and emptied into a cream-colored plastic storage tank. A hose snaking out of the bottom of the reservoir dripped the shower water into the roots of the orange tree.

And that was it: graywater system complete.

“Water is like gold in a country with chronic drought,” Aunt Amelia said. “Why waste it?”

A simple proposition with a seemingly simple answer. How hard could it be? So I set out to buy or build a graywater system for our home. Here are some of the lessons learned to date:

1. Don’t call a plumber

Here in the Bay Area a few weeks ago, with no rain yet in the forecast, I started calling plumbers. We had planted some fruit trees and drought–tolerant shrubs in the yard before our trip. And, we had removed some but not all of the grass. My water guilt was rising each day without rain. I’m well aware that about half of California’s household water usage goes to watering lawns and gardens, but I didn’t want a yard of stone.

More information on graywater systems:

None of the plumbers I called had ever installed a graywater system. One was trained by Green Plumbers USA and rattled off a number of requirements necessary to make a graywater system code-compliant. Among them, pipes carrying graywater must be buried underground to keep people from contact with contaminants. This would mean digging up parts of the yard we had just put in. The clincher? A price estimate of $45,000! It was a deal breaker, and I sank into graywater despair.

2. Get creative with water conservation

Graywater system or not, I was intent on bringing our home’s water usage down by 20 percent to meet the governor’s conservation request. I was already taking showers under five minutes and had put a brick in the toilet tanks to lower their flow. I had aerators on my sink nozzles and used food coloring to check the toilets for leaks. I quietly lived by the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” toilet mantra.

Then I started with the bathtub bucket. You see, our house has an instant hot water heater, which is unfortunately far from the shower. It takes about a minute of running the water — or about a gallon and a half — before hot water comes out of the shower tap. I started collecting that water in a bucket.

My husband, aware that my birthday came and went without a new graywater system, dutifully joined me in slopping those buckets of pristine cold water from the bath, across the house, to the young trees outside.

The bucket tempered my water guilt, but my graywater pursuit did not rest.

Roy Nordblom of Greywater Action inspects bath plumbing to assess how it can be converted to a graywater system. (Francesca Segrè/KQED)
Greenbuilder Roy Nordblom inspects bath plumbing to assess how it can be converted to a greywater system.(Francesca Segrè/KQED)

Greenbuilder Roy Nordblom inspects bath plumbing to assess how it can be converted to a greywater system.

3. Contact Greywater Action

I met graywater evangelist Roy Nordblom through the Oakland-based group Greywater Action. Nordblom teaches free workshops for homeowners who want to install systems themselves, and he agreed to stop by my house. “With the drought, business is picking up,” he told me. “I hope it translates into people actually doing installs. ‘Cause that’s what we need, by golly!”

We stood before my laundry machine, the source of the simplest graywater system. The “laundry-to-landscape” system involves mounting a valve to the discharge hose of your washing machine and adding two ports. One port drains to the sewer, the other drains to the yard — turn the valve to decide which way to channel the graywater.

Nordblom told me a laundry-to-landscape system can cost as little as $100 for parts if you do it yourself, or $350-$750 if you get an expert to do it. What’s more, it doesn’t require a permit. But there’s a catch. You have to be able to reach that laundry valve and get the water out of the house easily. A washing machine next to an accessible exterior wall of the house is perfect. My washing machine is smack dab in the center of the house wedged into a closet. In other words, the worst location possible.

Next, we checked the bathroom. A graywater system draining shower water to the landscape was possible, but would require more money, time and a permit. My graywater dream was evaporating. I had set out to save water, not spend gobs of money.

Nordblom said that because water is so cheap (water in my city, Burlingame, costs about $7 per 1,000 gallons), it’s hard to make an economic argument for a home graywater system that costs more than a couple hundred bucks. “But if you really believe you’re saving the planet and also saving money, then the equation is better,” Nordblom said. Greywater Action reports hundreds of people in the Bay Area have systems in their homes. Nordblom saidpeople who have them “report they feel more connected with their land and they feel good about it.”

Before we left the bathroom, Nordblom cheered me up with a little conservation trick. He dumped the gallon and a half of water from the bathtub bucket into the toilet bowl. “Toilets have a natural gulp reflex that, when you give it a gallon and a half of water, it flushes itself,” Nordblom said. “You don’t have to use the lever!” This beats sloshing a gallon and a half of water through the house, but it’s still not exactly graywater nirvana.

We crawled under the house and confirmed the building’s structure was not going to make a graywater project simple. Nordblom assured me the dream was still possible and could be affordable, but he’d have to come back another time for a closer look.

I’m still holding out hope for a graywater system, but in the meantime I’m aiming to drop my home’s water consumption by 20 percent. And considering the recent rains, I’m now looking into a home cistern.

Note: Here is how to get free downloadable manual on how to DIY a graywater system from SF Graywater.

  • Steve Lehtonen

    Francesca, being a reporter, you know how important it is to include sources, and I am pleased that you provided your readers with the links to check with their local jurisdictions on rules regarding permits and codes. Greywater Action has done a good job of providing resource material for homeowners that wish to install simple greywater systems, however, in defense of plumbers (particularly Green Plumbers), they are obligated to bid and perform work according to the plumbing code. There are limits to simple greywater systems, including total allowable gallons per day. Great strides are being made with greywater systems, and someday (soon, I hope) homeowners such as yourself will have better and more affordable choices.

  • Rich Persoff

    A government that doesn’t make it easy to conserve grey water or otherwise to do what’s rational (e.g, makes sense ecologically and financially) doesn’t deserve the consent of the governed. Who benefits from these unnecessarily restrictive codes and regulations (of so many kinds!) which may have been necessary to protect the public in the bad old days, but which have in many cases outlived their usefulness and at the least should be changed, if not thrown out altogether!?

  • Roy Nordblom

    Francesca, the report is correct in saying that while parts alone can be as little as $100 and the simplest installations can cost as little as $350, these are the very low numbers. Greywater Action, the group that I am certified through, did a survey here in California where they interviewed twenty installers who had installed two hundred and fifty nine systems and they found that the average cost for a laundry-to-landscape system was $750. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. BUT. Just remember that it costs something like $15-20,000 to install solar photovoltaic for your home. Reducing your impact by reusing your greywater is a relatively inexpensive way to make a big dent in your planetary footprint. Especially in times of a drought.

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