The Smith family used to do all their laundry once a week, but not any more.
“Now I have to be strategic, so I do it once every other day,” said Marjeri Smith, turning on the washing machine and piling in towels.
The Smiths have started recycling their laundry water, using a graywater system to irrigate their San Marcos backyard.
They didn’t need a permit and it took a few hours to install. The system is so simple their 7-year-old son, Kingston, has it down.
“The laundry pushes water through the tube all the way to our backyard,” he said proudly. “And it goes in a little bucket, and then it goes in the plants.“
Kingston’s father, Herbie Smith, estimates it cost $250 to $300 to install the system with help from a company called H2OME.
It involved laying 1.5-inch PVC pipe from the laundry room through the garage and out to the garden. Marjeri Smith simply turns a lever above the washing machine if she wants to divert the water from the sewer into the yard. The family got help from H2OME, which brought a crew of people who wanted to learn how to install graywater systems.
“As long as you know how to glue PVC together, I think you have a great chance of getting it right,” Smith said.
The Smiths chose to use their graywater to grow fruit, so they invested another $300 in four new fruit trees and mulch. Much of the work involved digging big catchment basins around each sapling.
“For each basin we had to dig an area of about two feet by five feet, so about 10 square feet,” said Smith. “That was about six to eight inches deep, and it’s full with mulch.”
The mulch is a key element of the system—that’s one of the requirements to be able to install it without a permit—it has to empty into at least two inches of mulch or soil, and remain within your garden. You can’t use it to sprinkle your lawn, Smith said.
“You wouldn’t want to put it on the grass, because the grass just isn’t capable of breaking down those microorganisms, and it would be unsafe for the dogs and our family to play on,” Smith said.
The washing machine pump is strong enough to pump the water up hill, so the fruit trees are planted on a bank at the back of the house. The system is designed so the right amount of water reaches the trees without drowning them.
Herbie Smith estimates his family of four does about five loads of laundry a week, and their top loading washing machine uses about 40 gallons of water.
“So we’re using roughly 200 gallons each week, over the course of a year," he said. “It’s roughly 10,000 gallons of water that would otherwise just have been put into the sewer system, now it’s going into our landscaping to grow fruits. I think that’s empowering to think about that.”
Newer washing machines use less water, closer to 15 gallons per load, but Smith is happy with his machine and how the water is being recycled. It isn’t the only steps he’s taken to save water: he’s taken out the lawn in the front yard and installed drought-tolerant landscaping there with rain barrels to help keep them flourishing.
The Smiths have not taken out their sprinkler system because they decided to keep the backyard lawn. And if they are away from home, there is no laundry water to irrigate the trees.
More ambitious graywater recycling
Installing a graywater system, using the water from the laundry to water the yard, can be as simple as a do-it-yourself project. But if you want to recycle water from anywhere else in your home, it becomes more complicated.
“As soon as you need to cut into the sewer system you need a permit,” said Glen Adamek of EsGil, a company that checks building permits for cities, including Poway. Recycling water from the bathtubs, the shower, or sinks requires a permit and those costs vary, depending on where you live. Poway charges $220.
Rosalind Haselbeck with Building Green Futures is a landscape contractor who installs graywater systems, including systems that recycle water from the bath or shower. She advises clients to budget for at least $1,000 to get plans, permits, installation and inspection. Haselbeck said it's time cities around San Diego County adopt over-the-counter permits for graywater systems, to streamline the process.
"We're not going to be able to use tap water to water outdoors for much longer," she said.
Graywater systems installed in new homes
In Rancho Penasquitos, KB Homes is experimenting with new model homes that have comprehensive graywater systems already installed.
“We take residential water efficiency to a whole new level," said Heather McPherson of Nexus eWater, a company that has developed a nationally permitted water treatment system. "Two out of three gallons used in the home can get a new life by being recycled.”
“This is a 75-gallon collector that the graywater from your washing machines, bath tubs and sinks comes into,” McPherson said, standing over a tank sunk into the front yard of the model home. “That water is collected and sent to the Nex treater.“
The Nex treater is a unit on the side of the house that puts the water through five filter systems before sending it back to a drip system that irrigates drought tolerant landscaping.
McPherson said it would cost about $15,000 to retrofit an existing home. To build it into a new homes cost about $10,000, she said.
Steve Ruffner, president of KB Homes’ Southern California Region, said that’s worth it to customers who don’t want to risk losing their investment in landscaping during the drought.
“These customers, our pitch to them is, ‘you’ll never have to stress about that because you’re not using any potable water to water your landscaping - your landscaping is not going to die in a drought,’” Ruffner said.
This is the first development where every house comes standard with a graywater system, according to Ruffner.
“I think in the next 12 months we’re going to have this down,” he said. “So we can roll it out very similar to what we did with solar.“
Cost benefits of installing a graywater system
Complex graywater systems like this don’t pencil out economically the same way solar does, at least not yet.
Scott Rosecrans of San Diego County’s Land Use Department said the county gets plenty of calls from people enquiring about graywater permits, “until they find out what it costs.”
At the current price of water, if you save 500 gallons, it would only save a few cents on your water bill, Rosecrans said. So recouping the costs of installing a graywater system could take decades.
“It’s cheaper to install rainwater barrels, or take out the lawn,” he said.
But for people like the Smith family in San Marcos, who have already done that, installing a graywater system is a good move.
“For me, the graywater system wasn’t about saving money,“ said Herbie Smith. “It was about utilizing the water to the fullest extent possible and growing food in the process.“
“Now I don’t feel guilty doing laundry,” Marjeri Smith said. “I do it and I’m excited that it’s watering the trees that we will eventually have fruit."
That's an investment the Smiths believe will pay off for their family in the long term.