Eliminating the Graywater Yuk Factor as an Environmental Strategy

Advanced Stormwater Strategies

“For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.” wrote Sandra Postel in Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity, 2003.  In the United States, clean drinking water has become a human right. Most people never spend one minute wondering where their water came from or if its presence in a faucet means nature has been changed. They don’t think about the fact the aquifer became a little drier or a stream has less water.

Only 3 percent of all the Earth’s water is fresh. Almost 69 percent is trapped in glaciers and 30 percent is groundwater or trapped as soil moisture. Less than 1 percent of global fresh water is accessible for use by humans, and it is tapped from rivers, natural reservoirs, lakes, and shallow underground sources. These sources are renewed by rain and snow. Unfortunately, rain and snow is getting to be a hot commodity as drought puts a stranglehold of the availability of fresh water. In fact, almost half the country is experiencing drought conditions, putting excessive pressure on aquifers.

Asking the Right Questions

In the double-edge sword of fresh water scarcity, two questions must be asked at the same time. First, why do we use fresh water on landscapes, in HVAC systems, to flush toilets, and to produce manufactured goods? Second, why do we let millions of gallons of water from washing machines, tubs, showers, sinks, and production lines disappear into sewer systems and septic tanks?

Good questions, don’t you think? When water gets short, does it make any sense to let any reusable water simply go down the drain? The Bertschi School in Seattle had a better idea. Potable water flows to classroom sinks and drains into a grey water tank installed in below-sink cabinets. Every 24 hours, gray water is pumped to the school’s EcoHouse (“Living Building”) green wall. The plants use the water, evapotranspiration occurs, and a ventilation system pushes water moisture to the outside. Any unused green wall water is recycled right back onto the wall. This system even promotes using less water in the sinks because the green wall only needs a certain amount of water each day.

Water recycling and gray water are truly concepts that are just beginning to come front and center out of necessity. Water is getting scarce, but unless something drastic changes in the climate or people cut their water consumption in half, the problem will get much worse as time goes on. The U.S. has been slow to adopt gray water systems and only a handful of states allow gray water use. However, we suspect that it is because water has always been plentiful and the thought of reusing water has a bit of a “yuk factor” in it for Americans used to unlimited water supplies. They have a fear that the water exposes people to contaminants, though there are no cases in which the millions of gray water systems already in place have made anyone sick.

Plants Don’t Care!

“Yuk” may not be a scientific term, but it is certainly descriptive. As droughts worsen, the population grows, and aquifer levels get lower, the U.S. is simply going to have to get over the unreasonable fear of reusing certain types of water. Honestly, plants do not care if the water was previously used to wash hands. The car and driveway don’t care if they are washed with gray water. Compost piles and household gardens don’t care either. Disinfected gray water is perfect for toilet flushing, especially considering that flushing toilets is the greatest water user. There are also commercial applications in which gray water is used for irrigation, toilet flushing, and to run cooling systems.

LEED water savings strategies rely on three principles: reduce, recycle, and reuse. In an age of increasing water scarcity and rising utility bills, Green Building Research Institute decided to present a course starting October 22, 2014 called Advanced Stormwater Strategies: Flattening the Learning Curve. The presentation will look into the various legal issues regarding stormwater management and what may be mandatory in the future. This course will also touch on the advanced stormwater management strategies like environmental site design, raintwater harvesting, and treatment trains. Simply stated: Every drop of water is too precious to waste to let the ‘yuk factor’ get in the way.

What do you think about gray water systems? Do you see them as a critical water-saving strategy for the future?

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  • Sandy Wiggins  October 15, 2014 at 8:08 am

    Greywater recycling and rainwater harvesting are both critically important strategies for dealing with looming fresh water shortage crisis. In the 2012 Global Risk Assessment report released by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Swiss Reinsurance and the Wharton Center for Risk Management, Water Supply Crisis ranked highest in both likelihood and impact of all societal risks over the next ten years. Potable water supply is already a chronic problem in many localities throughout the U.S.

    The relationship of sustainable water technologies to this mounting problem is much the same as renewable energy technologies are to climate change. They are critical components to a systemic solution, and they work best when distributed rather than centralized. Unfortunately, the regulatory environment is currently the biggest challenge to implementation of these systems.

    On virtually all of the projects I’m involved with we are expending enormous effort to garner approval for these systems (not always successfully) from local, state or federal agencies. I see the single biggest impediment being the failure by EPA to establish a separate classification and regulatory protocol for water harvested and utilized on site. This will change, though, as more projects in more jurisdictions push on this issue. So please push away!

  • Heidrun Hoppe  October 15, 2014 at 8:31 am

    I think it is critical, especially for arid locations – talking about what we are doing to nature by pouring water down the drain is important.
    I agree that the yuk factor is a problem, so why does everyone keep calling it gray water? PR is everything! Gray water sounds dirty and used and probably disease-ridden…

    A better name should sound fresh but not drinkable, maybe with some indication of the good it is doing – “extra water” or “green water” (most people know what “green” means by now) or “bonus water” — I’m sure someone can think of a good and catchy, short name. I will continue to think.

  • Ankitech Polyweave  July 9, 2018 at 4:45 am

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