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Greywater systems

10 September 2018
Sutton

Greywater systems

Record-breaking temperatures and extremely low rainfalls across Western Canada, in recent summers, have caused chaos for everyone from homeowners who rely on well water to farmers and fishers and firefighters. In the summer of 2018, forest fires in B.C. alone cost taxpayers more than $350 million in suppression efforts plus a staggering loss of timber and wildlife habitat.

Municipalities have had to raise water prices and implement watering restrictions as lake levels and water tables fall. Some are also discussing standards and incentives for ‘greywater’ systems, which reuse water from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines.

Greywater systems have existed in the U.S. for decades and more than 20 states have regulations that allow greywater use and provide guidelines for plumbers/installers. Canada has been slower to adopt these new strategies mainly due to concerns about careless homeowners who may send their greywater into public waterways. When done properly, homeowners can reuse their household water, save money and enjoy a few other unexpected benefits.

It is relatively simple to divert water from sinks, tubs, showers and laundry to the surrounding landscape. Low-tech valves, hoses and occasionally, pumps, are all that is required. With the help of a skilled plumber/installer and by using specific cleaning products, greywater can safely irrigate fruit trees, edible plants (when water is applied to the root area) and lawns.

Isn’t greywater dirty? After all, it contains trace amounts of dirt, food, hair, skin cells and cleaning products. Studies have found that in fact, plants love greywater. It is beneficial for plants when it is filtered through mulch and soil and delivered by drip line to the roots, rather than being sprayed directly on the leaves.

It is important to use biodegradable cleansers low in phosphorus, boron, sodium, and chlorine because these will damage plants. The Greywater Action website (greywateraction.org) provides more information regarding suitable products and specific brands.

Other important factors when setting up a greywater system:

  • Avoid using kitchen sink water, since it contains too much food particulate and grease.
  • Avoid using dishwasher water, because in addition to food and grease, most dishwasher cleansers are too high in salt. Over time, as salt builds up in the soil, it can damage plants.
  • Never reuse water that has been used to wash soiled cloth diapers.
  • Use the services of an experienced plumber or installer, who will ensure that the system avoids contamination by blackwater, which contains fecal matter destined for a sewage system or septic tank.
  • Don’t store greywater for future use; allow it to flow immediately onto lawns, shrubbery, etc. The same nutrients in greywater that feed plants can also feed bacteria, if the water sits stagnant for days or weeks.

The best greywater system is one that operates with very little effort. Experts recommend using gravity to move greywater outdoors rather than installing expensive pumps that will require maintenance. That said, greywater systems often take advantage washer machine pumps. As the clothes washer spins out excess water, the internal pump pushes it down the water line and out to the landscaping.

Also avoid using expensive filters that require regular cleaning. Instead, soil and mulch are natural filters.

Use medium gauge (diameter) drip lines to deliver water to mulch and/or soil around plants. It can take some trial and error to determine how much water each plant receives from a new system and to make adjustments. If too much water is reaching a given area, it can create a pool that may begin to smell unpleasant and provide a breeding spot for mosquitoes. Typically, the lines are installed and left exposed for a few weeks to make it easier to assess and adjust. After that, the drip lines can be hidden under a thin layer of soil.

Experts also recommend installing a 3-way valve for easy switching between the greywater system and the sewer/septic lines. This is a good option when homeowners need to use a chlorine cleanser for example. Tradespeople and educators provide photos and diagrams of 3-way valves and more at greywateraction.org.

A well-planned greywater system can save money on utility bills and reduce expensive service calls to empty a septic tank. As homeowners discover, plants flourish with greywater and the underground drip lines eliminate the need for time-consuming, manual watering. Helping the planet has its perks!

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