Recently, I wrote an article about passively heating and cooling homes when they haven’t been designed well for it, and to my delight, lots of people left comments, many of them appreciative, regarding the tips. Within those post-article conferring, someone asked for a similar article in relation to gray water usage, so here I sit with that task at hand.
Before delving too deeply into it, I just want to say that I believe these sorts of intermediary steps from conventional living to a more sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle are perhaps some of the most important we can address. The sad fact is that most homes haven’t been designed optimally for energy-efficiency and resource management, which means that many people—existing homeowners—don’t realistically have the option to acquire or build a “permaculture” home from the ground up. Retrofitting might not even be possible right away. They’ve already got a place and just want to make the most of that situation. It’s important, in the name of progress, to meet them along those lines.
Water conservation is a huge part of what we have to do as permaculturists, and in ideal conditions, our homes are designed to deal with day-to-day gray water rather mindlessly. Sinks and showers drain into reed beds and cycle back into the eco-system. Modern conveniences like washing machines and dishwashers are hooked up to immediately feed into filtering systems. Unfortunately, for those who don’t have these ideal systems, dealing with gray water is a little more labor-intensive. However, there are some options available for those who want to work within the confines of a home not designed to deal with gray water.
How the Water System Works
When plumbing isn’t set up to carry wastewater to its appropriate onsite spot for filtering and/or reintroduction to the immediate environment, perfectly usable gray water is usually combined with black water, creating a much larger amount of heavily contaminated slush that must be treated. In some cases, especially in more rural locations, this happens in septic tanks that have leach fields for a subterranean reintroducing of the water that cycles through them. In urban environments, gray and black water are more than likely combined and sent to treatment plants, where they are chemically “cleaned”. Neither option is optimal.
Dealing with gray water separately from black water is important because it isn’t necessarily dangerous and, prior to being mixed with black water, doesn’t need the same kind of treatment. Hence, the mixture creates much more contamination in a much larger amount of water than need be. (Check out Humanure Is No Laughing Matter, a two-part article, for some thoughts on minimizing black water.) If gray water is never mixed, it is much easier to use and often can be applied right to garden systems. Combining gray and black water elevates the risk for the environment, animals, and people.
Catching Gray Water Manually
Regrettably, homes that haven’t been designed to work with an automatic gray-water system are going to require more effort to avoid further contaminating gray water with black. More than likely, it is going to have to be dealt with, at some point, manually. This might mean leaving the tub full while that water is moved to different places. It might mean disconnecting the sink drain so that it drains into a receptacle that can be emptied in a more environmentally friendly location. This is the difficult price of combining bad design with a permaculture mindset.
One thing that can help to make the bulk of household gray water more versatile for secondary use it to avoid chemicals. That means using biodegradable, natural soaps. It means making home cleaning products from safe ingredients. Keeping the water free of harsh and harmful chemicals of makes the resulting gray water much eco-friendlier, which diversifies the ways in which it can be safely used. To put a blunter point on it, cleaning up the household gray water produced is the first step for using gray water when it’s too late to design a home for it. When it’s kept relatively clean, using it becomes much easier.
Where to Empty Those Buckets
Hoping that some people don’t find the notion of gray water buckets—collecting beneath the sink, bailing out the bathtub, getting the drain from the washing machine—too far a reach, the next question is where all of that gray water should go. (Note: This is why efficient design is such an important part of permaculture: To avoid having to do this type of stuff.) The good news is that, assuming the water doesn’t have chemicals, there are many places to put it to good use.
For the basic bathwater, bathroom-sink water, or washing-machine water, in which nothing more than soap and a few skin cells are dirtying it, the water can be used in several ways. Firstly, having a couple of buckets of this water to use in the toilet would prevent using perfectly clean water to flush, which is notably worse than using gray water. This relatively clean water can also be used to mop floors, wash cars, scrub sidewalks, clean tools, and do other basic tasks that would normally use up clean water. It can also be worked through compost systems, used directly but cautiously on trees and grasslands, or dumped into mulch pits.
Kitchen water can be a tad different as it can be exquisitely clean or notably greasy. For water that is used to wash vegetables, boil pasta, or something of the like, that water—once cooled—is great for water plants, including potted houseplants. In the case of greasy pots, it’s good practice to use a drain screen to remove any solids, and cleaning these dishes separately is probably the best idea as it would create less greasy water. With regards to the greasy water, a simple, DIY biological grease trap can filter it while providing some greenery.
Final Thoughts on Gray Water
For those with houses that aren’t set up to responsibly and passively deal with gray water for them, dealing with it can be somewhat of a hassle. Catching water in buckets and dumping them adds extra steps to basic tasks like washing the dishes, doing laundry, or taking a shower. In reality, even under these less than ideal set-ups, these efforts can also become slightly more efficient as certain gray water gets designated to specific tasks based on making the waste cycle efficient and productive.
There are a couple more important things to keep in mind when approaching this makeshift gray water system. The more stuff, such as soap or detergent, that is put into the water, the more difficult it becomes to use. It makes sense to avoid soaps when possible—washing a drink glass—and using alternatives to it, such as soap nuts for doing laundry. Using water conservatively still very much factors in to what’s happening: Just because the gray water has found a new, more ecological route doesn’t mean we should use clean water haphazardly. Creating less gray water is a huge part of the goal here, especially when a bucket needs to be emptied every fifteen-to-twenty liters.
For some, the rudimentary systems presented above are a little too far out of the box. That’s understandable. In that regard, two things should be realized. This need only be a temporary or part-time effort to improve the situation, which is to say start by using pasta water and water used to wash vegetables if that’s all that seems realistic. Expand slowly from there. For those with the money to retrofit, more convenient gray water systems are available and, in many capacities, not all that difficult, either via DIY projects or hired professionals. The point is to do something rather than nothing.
Header Image: Grey Water Garden (Courtesy of Jeremy Levine)