Greywater

1 Comment

This past November (2013), Watershed Management Group's Green Living Co-op installed a "Laundry to Landscape" system at my house.

The Green Living Co-op runs on a barn raising principle - basically you earn "hours" by participating in other members' projects.  After you've earned a set amount of hours, you qualify to host a workshop at your house.  A co-op project manager works with you to design the system and oversees the project work.  They also provide educational information along the way.

The end result is that the homeowner gets a well-designed project installed with free labor and the participants get hands-on practice building out these projects.  Having an experienced designer lead you through the steps to build out one of these projects really builds confidence that you can do this!

Here's a short video showing the progression through pre-planning, the day of the installation, and the subsequent test run of my new "Laundry to Landscape" system.  I love it!

Benefits of reusing greywater

Here’s how this project fits into the overall plan for my front yard, which faces west, here in Phoenix, Arizona:

  • It provides water for tree canopy coverage on this western exposure – the hottest side of my house.
  • It provides water for vines growing up a trellis in front of my patio and my big, west-facing windows.  These vines will act as solar baffles for the low western setting sun that sneaks in under the tree canopy in the evening and which currently heats up the mass of my brick house and transfers that heat inside.  When you’re dealing with 100 days of 100° + temps (30 of those days between 110° - 120°), the very last thing you want is the setting sun taking one final opportunity to add more heat to your living space!
  • With only 7.5” of annual rainfall in Phoenix, we need to use water wisely.  Reusing greywater is a great way to grow desert-adapted trees, shrubs, vines and more – essentially slowing down and capturing more “energy” from this element instead of letting it flow into the municipal sewer system.  These native and xeric plants function to attract native pollinators, cover the ground to hold moisture, provide shade, provide food and act as a living air conditioner making the whole property cooler and more pleasant to be in.  It is regularly 10-20° F cooler on my property when compared with properties that have predominantly grass or rock landscaping.
  • The reclaimed water and the woody mulch in the infiltration basins, help build more fertile, biologically-active soils that will, over time, alter the texture of our highly compacted clay soil, allowing an ever greater range of plants to fill in various niches.
  • There is also a very important community aspect to this project.  Because I live in the urban core of the largest dryland city in the USA (and the 6th largest metro area overall), showcasing working projects that are viewable to passersby is a big goal of mine.  People like to see how something works – what it looks like, feels like.  A well maintained project with an informational sign or two, an invitation to tour the site and maybe a related “Introduction to Permaculture” class, will greatly increase the acceptance and implementation of similar projects throughout the neighborhood and beyond.

So basically, we desert dwellers need to get over the prevailing “squick factor” Western culture tends to have around greywater and embrace this valuable resource as one of the major forces in re-greening our deserts.

Share on Google+Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Climbing nasturtiums are overtaking the eastern wall of the propagation area.  Although the leaves and flowers are edible (and delicious), I don’t eat from these particular plants because they are watered with greywater from the outdoor shower.
Climbing nasturtiums are overtaking the eastern wall of the propagation area. Although the leaves and flowers are edible (and delicious), I don’t eat from these particular plants because they are watered with greywater from the outdoor shower.

Have you ever noticed how the low angle of the rising and setting sun can really heat up your house?  Living in the Sonoran desert, it’s hard to avoid noticing when your house starts to heat up before 8 am!

However, trying to block that sun can be tricky due to the angle.  While trees provide shade overhead, that low sun is going to slip right under them.  It’s the same with porches on the east and west side of the house - the sun will sneak under those porches early in the morning and in the evening.

So what can you do?

In my case, my solution was to design a multi-purpose shade house that runs across the back of the house.  It contains my plant propagation area, outdoor shower and the hen yard with two built-in compost piles.  The idea was that the structure itself, along with some trellised grape vines (deciduous in winter), would help keep the sun from hitting the east side of my house in the morning, preventing that early morning heat gain that’s so undesirable in the summer months.

Before:  This picture of the eastern façade of my house was taken at 7:41 am on September 26, 2006.  The high was 102° that day.
Before: This picture of the eastern façade of my house was taken at 7:41 am on September 26, 2006. The high was 102° that day.

I tried to address as many permaculture principles as possible in creating this project.  The following principles really stand out:

  1. Observe and Interact – I observed that the low rising sun was prematurely heating up the mass of my house early in the day and transferring that heat inside.  In the hot desert summer, this was costing me money on extra electrical usage.
  2. Catch and Store Energy – In the summer, I want to deflect the sun’s energy away from the house (to save on the amount of electricity I use cooling my house).  In the winter, I want to capture that sun for passive solar gain.  Deciduous vines are perfect for this.
  3. Obtain a yield – Eggs, grapes and compost are all generated in various parts of the shade house.  Plus I save money on electricity and water because the shower greywater waters my grapes.
  4. Integrate Rather Than Segregate (also known as “Stacking functions”) – This design is a fairly decent application of “stacking functions” whereby each individual element in the system supports several functions and each function is supported by several elements.  While the ultimate goal of the project was to passively shade the eastern façade of my house and save money on electricity, the shade house in its entirety does more than that.  The combination of the structure and plantings does shade this façade in summer and still lets light through in the winter.  The plantings are watered by the outdoor shower.  The floors of both the henyard and propagation area are infiltration basins that collect rainwater runoff from the roof and compost woody mulch in place.  The two compost bins in the henyard receive kitchen and yard waste and are turned by the hens.  That compost is used in a potting soil mix for the plants grown out in the propagation area and also as top dressing for the vegetable beds.
After:  The eastern façade of my house after the shade house is fully constructed.  You can see a lot of the back wall of my house is blocked by the physical structure.  As the grape vines grow, I’ll get even more vertical shade in the summer, but I’ll get passive solar gain in the winter when the vines are dormant.
After: The eastern façade of my house after the shade house is fully constructed. You can see a lot of the back wall of my house is blocked by the physical structure. As the grape vines grow, I’ll get even more vertical shade in the summer, but I’ll get passive solar gain in the winter when the vines are dormant.
The beginning of the shade house.  You can see my exterior blinds covering my windows in the background.  It’s amazing how much sun and heat exterior blinds can block.
The beginning of the shade house. You can see my exterior blinds covering my windows in the background. It’s amazing how much sun and heat exterior blinds can block.
My dad, a civil engineer, built the shade house, but it was up to my mother and me to do the endless painting.  So much painting…
My dad, a civil engineer, built the shade house, but it was up to my mother and me to do the endless painting. So much painting…
The hen yard with built-in compost bins.  The hens perch over the bins at night and drop “nutrients” into the compost while they sleep.
The hen yard with built-in compost bins. The hens perch over the bins at night and drop “nutrients” into the compost while they sleep.
Hens processing green waste into eggs!  Note the deep litter on the floor of the henyard.  This serves as a rainwater infiltration basin for any rainwater that runs off the back part of the roof.  You can also see into the side of the propagation area in the back.
Hens processing green waste into eggs! Note the deep litter on the floor of the henyard. This serves as a rainwater infiltration basin for any rainwater that runs off the back part of the roof. You can also see into the side of the propagation area in the back.
Four young ladies huddled in the same nest box.
Four young ladies huddled in the same nest box.
The corridor between the back of the house and the shade house.  The metal gates can be locked and I can open my back windows to let airflow through while still maintaining safety without ugly security bars.
The corridor between the back of the house and the shade house. The metal gates can be locked and I can open my back windows to let airflow through while still maintaining safety without ugly security bars.
Winter crops being grown out in preparation for planting season.
Winter crops being grown out in preparation for planting season.

 

Share on Google+Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone

6 Comments

For folks who are not project-oriented, you might be wondering what steps led up to the building of the outdoor shower.  How’d I go from, “hey – an outdoor shower would be nifty” to “whoa – I have a great looking outdoor shower in my backyard”?

May 2013:  My outdoor shower at my property, Dolce Verde.
May 2013: My outdoor shower at my property, Dolce Verde.

 

You’ve seen the beginning of the outdoor shower/shade house project.  Now let’s take a look both backwards and forwards in time to find out how it came into being.

My original final design project of my property submitted for my first Permaculture Design Certificate back in 2007.  My instructor was Don Titmus of Four Directions Permaculture.  This is the overlay of shade structure that I envisioned covering much of my roof.  The final shade house was much more modest in scope.
My original final design project of my property submitted for my first Permaculture Design Certificate back in 2007. My instructor was Don Titmus of Four Directions Permaculture. This is the overlay of shade structure that I envisioned covering much of my roof. The final shade house was much more modest in scope.

 

 

In the beginning, there were thoughts of greywater, a shade house and chickens designed by a brand new Permaculture Design student; her certificate newly minted.

 

 

 

 

What was a dream in December of 2007 quickly became a reality when I had the opportunity to host Brad Lancaster, water harvesting guru, at my home in May of 2008 to do a workshop on installing an outdoor shower for the Valley Permaculture Alliance.  I came to be chosen for this project because I had done a lot of volunteer work for the VPA, building out their social media site and getting over 100 classes up and running.

Brad took a look at my original plan and helped me refine it, giving me more insight into what the greywater budget would be for my shower and what types of plants I might consider growing with the water.  The final plan included a shower with three drains, each feeding an infiltration pit.  Two pits held grapevines and the third originally held an artichoke.  Later it became self-evident that the artichoke basin was getting more water and could support a Chinese elm tree that will ultimately shade the shower, henyard and raised patio area, providing relief during our long, hot summers.

August 2008:  The shower is functional but the infiltration pit is not planted yet.
August 2008: The shower is functional but the infiltration pit is not planted yet.

Once the plan was revised to everyone’s satisfaction, we invited participants to the actual build out.  About 25-30 people showed up that day to help out and I think it was an eye-opening experience for all of us to see the possibilities of using greywater in our arid landscapes – I know it was for me.  Brad also talked about the importance of using the right soap for greywater landscape use and I took his advice and use Oasis Dishwashing soap for hands and body and Aubrey Organics brand shampoos for hair.

 

November 2008:  The infiltration pit is planted with a couple of artichokes and the henyard and compost bins are complete.
November 2008: The infiltration pit is planted with a couple of artichokes and the henyard and compost bins are complete.

It’s interesting to note that several of the participants in that class were so inspired that they went on to work with water harvesting in some way – either by selling materials, as designers, or in the case of Ryan Wood, by becoming the Program Coordinator for the Phoenix branch of Watershed Management Group; a very effective non-profit dedicated to water harvesting in drylands.  Watershed Management Group has taken the concept of the barn raising model to design and build water harvesting projects to a whole new level with their Green Living Co-op program.  This program allows you to earn hours towards hosting a water harvesting installation at your house by working to help others with their projects.

If you live in Phoenix or Tucson, I highly recommend signing up for this free program and attending local workshops – the education you receive by actually participating in the build is amazing.

May 2008:  The basic work of installing the infiltration pits and the mockup of the shower platform with drains was accomplished during the workshop.  All this is now hidden by plants and the shade house structure.
May 2008: The basic work of installing the infiltration pits and the mockup of the shower platform with drains was accomplished during the workshop. All this is now hidden by plants and the shade house structure.

 

May 2008:  The basic work of installing the infiltration pits and the mockup of the shower platform with drains was accomplished during the workshop.  All this is now hidden by plants and the shade house structure.
May 2008: The basic work of installing the infiltration pits and the mockup of the shower platform with drains was accomplished during the workshop. All this is now hidden by plants and the shade house structure.

 

June 2012: Thompson grapes growing over the top of my shower.  You can see bunches hanging down against the wire.  They also grow across the top of the shower and hang down into the shower proper.  I can eat grapes while I get clean!  Interestingly, that particular grape has no direct water to it – it survives by sharing the water vented to the Chinese elm.
June 2012: Thompson grapes growing over the top of my shower. You can see bunches hanging down against the wire. They also grow across the top of the shower and hang down into the shower proper. I can eat grapes while I get clean! Interestingly, that particular grape has no direct water to it – it survives by sharing the water vented to the Chinese elm.

So you can see, plans change over time.  My more extensive shade structure was limited to just the shade house on the back (east-facing) side of the house.  Monitoring the greywater flow to the various infiltration basins indicated that I could swap out a lower water use, seasonal shrub (artichoke) for a large shade tree that will save me some money on my air conditioning bills.  It’s a learning process and there are always little tweaks to the system that will let you obtain a greater yield.

Share on Google+Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Living in a dryland, one of my goals is to capture and reuse as much of my “greywater” as I can, here on my property, "Dolce Verde" in the middle of Phoenix's downtown Historic District.

Permaculture handydude, Chip S., takes the inaugural shower after hooking up the hot and cold water.
Permaculture handydude, Chip S., takes the inaugural shower after hooking up the hot and cold water.

What is greywater?

Greywater is water that has already been used for one purpose but is clean enough to be directed into the landscape.  Sources of greywater in your home include:

  • Bathroom sinks
  • Showers/tubs
  • Washing machine
A jandy valve that allows you to switch kitchen sink water from landscape to sewer and back again.  Very convenient!
A jandy valve that allows you to switch kitchen sink water from landscape to sewer and back again. Very convenient!

Note that kitchen sink water is considered “dark grey water”.  This is because kitchen sink water often includes things like grease from washing dishes or harsh chemicals such as cleaning supplies, or other things people put down sinks like solvents (paint thinner, etc).  While kitchen sink water can be used as a resource, you have to manage it more closely than other sources of greywater.  And you definitely need a jandy valve – a valve that will allow you to switch from venting the water from your landscape to your sewer and back again, to control the water quality that goes to your landscape.

Toilet water is considered “black water” due to public health concerns with human waste products.  The best way to handle toilet water is to get (or make) a composting toilet.  There are sleek models for inside the house or versions for outdoor models you can build yourself.

So back to greywater.

One of the common problems of greywater is access – how do you get it from inside the house to the landscape?

In my case, my bathroom shower/tub was located on an outside wall, but on the other side was a screened in back porch with a cement slab floor.  It would have cost a lot for me to retrofit the indoor shower to vent to the outside.  So I decided to turn this problem into a solution and create a fabulous outdoor shower.  It’s piped for both hot and cold water and the weather in Phoenix makes showering outside possible all year ‘round.  I think I’ve used my indoor shower less than a dozen times since this project was completed in May of 2008.

With greywater, you want to immediately direct the water into an area where it can soak in – you want to avoid storing greywater or directing it to a place that has poor drainage.  Always do a “percolation test” (or “perc test”) on your soil by digging a hole about a foot deep, filling it full of water, letting it drain, filling it again and then seeing how long it takes that water to completely drain from that area. If it drains in under 4 hours – you are good to go.  If longer, your soil needs work.  Consider a different spot.

Using the perc test, we determined that even though I have fairly heavy clay soil, the “perc rate” was adequate for the amount of greywater that would be generated for 2 people taking daily showers of about 5-10 minutes.  We designed the shower to have three drains.  Each drain feeds an infiltration pit.  The idea is that you block off two of the drains with rubber drain covers each time you shower, leaving the third open.  The next person to take a shower, moves the drain covers according to a predetermined plan.  It’s easy to water some plants more with this system, if say, you have a higher water use plant that will need extra water.

 

Frame out of the base of the shower stall with three drains, each leading to an infiltration pit.  Note the shower is slightly raised allowing for gravity feed from the shower base into the infiltration pits (1/4” drop per linear foot).
Frame out of the base of the shower stall with three drains, each leading to an infiltration pit. Note the shower is slightly raised allowing for gravity feed from the shower base into the infiltration pits (1/4” drop per linear foot).

 

These two infiltration pits will grow grapevines up and over the yet-to-be-built shade house across the back (east side) of my house.  In the hot desert summer, the vines will block the morning sun from hitting the bricks of my house and heating it up during the summer.  In winter, the vines lose their leaves and the sun hits the bricks, helping to passively warm the house.
These two infiltration pits will grow grapevines up and over the yet-to-be-built shade house across the back (east side) of my house. In the hot desert summer, the vines will block the morning sun from hitting the bricks of my house and heating it up during the summer. In winter, the vines lose their leaves and the sun hits the bricks, helping to passively warm the house.
This is the wall that needs protection from the early morning desert sun – you can see I have outdoor blinds protecting my windows.  These pictures were taken in mid-May and we’re already well into the 100°+ days.
This is the wall that needs protection from the early morning desert sun – you can see I have outdoor blinds protecting my windows. These pictures were taken in mid-May and we’re already well into the 100°+ days.

 

The finished shower platform with three drains.
The finished shower platform with three drains.
The beginnings of the shade house structure that will ultimately hold the outdoor shower, henyard with compost piles and propagation area.
The beginnings of the shade house structure that will ultimately hold the outdoor shower, henyard with compost piles and propagation area.

 

Dad building out the shower surround.  We also have hot and cold water hookups ready to go! (Gotta love having a father who’s a civil engineer!)
Dad building out the shower surround. We also have hot and cold water hookups ready to go! (Gotta love having a father who’s a civil engineer!)
The interior of the shower.  The walls are white fiberglass that will withstand our intense summer heat and sun.  There’s also a light in the shower for nighttime use.  The shower functions as an outdoor lighting feature at night – with the light on it looks like a large Japanese shoji lantern – an unexpected and delightful effect.
The interior of the shower. The walls are white fiberglass that will withstand our intense summer heat and sun. There’s also a light in the shower for nighttime use. The shower functions as an outdoor lighting feature at night – with the light on it looks like a large Japanese shoji lantern – an unexpected and delightful effect.
The shade house starting to take shape around the shower.  The slated parts are the back of the compost bins (slats are removable).  The hens’ roosting areas are located over the compost bins.
The shade house starting to take shape around the shower. The slated parts are the back of the compost bins (slats are removable). The hens’ roosting areas are located over the compost bins.

This greywater portion of this project was led by Brad Lancaster, author of the bestselling “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Vol. 1 and 2”.  These books are invaluable to any water harvesting endeavor.  You can find them in my shop.

 

 

 

Share on Google+Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone