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Conserving Water: Simple Ways to Collect and Use Grey Water at Home

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You may have heard that here in California we’ve been going through a drought. Brown is the new green, fines for over-use, and all of that. Water use is such an important topic and I hope all Californians make permanent changes in the way we use water and acknowledge that our overuse of water in general is in stark contrast to the lack of clean drinking water available to humans around the globe. Without getting completely overwhelmed, heart-broken and throwing our hands in the air and thinking the problem is bigger than any small impact we can make on our own, there are simple and attainable changes that can easily work in our busy lifestyles. It’s what we’re all about at The Green Mom Company – we know we all have the ability to make an impact on the world around us.

The Basics: What is Grey Water?

  • Grey water is the water that comes out of the drains of showers, baths, sinks, and washing machines*
  • Black water is what gets flushed down the toilet (under some codes kitchen sink/dish water is also considered black water because of organic matter and soap residue)
  • Rain Water is just what it sounds like, and can also be considered grey water. I included it because of all the talk of collecting rainwater being illegal in some states. If you want to know more, here is the real deal on rain water harvesting by state.

Using Grey Water without installing a system:

Grey water really has a bunch of uses around the home, like watering houseplants, landscaping, and even flushing the toilets. You may see signs in your community notifying you that reclaimed water is in use on lawns and community parks and not to drink it. A side note, but interestingly enough, my dad who has over thirty years of experience installing residential, comercial, institutional and public works pipe lines was telling me the other day that some communities are working toward convincing residents that reclaimed water is actually potable (aka safe for human consumption) and to go a head and drink it! Personally I need a bit more convincing on that one, but we’ll see what the future holds.

When it comes to reclaiming the water used in our homes, there are grey water collection systems that can be installed to collect grey water to flush the toilet or filter laundry water* and send it to the sprinkler systems.  If you’re not up to the cost or work needed to implement those systems you shouldn’t be intimidated to instead make some simple changes that allow you to give the grey water from your sink or bath another life in the yard or toilet. Sure, a grey water collection system will catch and reuse more water than a using, say a bucket, but not making any changes makes no impact at all, and really all you need is something to catch the water (like a bucket), commitment from the members of your family to catch the water during their cleaning and bathing routines, and a few simple tweaks to things you do everyday.
What to do:

  • Collect warm-up water during shower time: Not even grey water, this is perfectly good water that’s just the wrong temperature. This alone can have a huge impact if you think about how many people shower in your home daily and how long it takes to warm up. To do this just keep a bucket in the shower to place under the faucet/move out of the way when the water is hot.
  • Collect from your sink: Simply use a small bucket or container of your choice to collect the water you use at the kitchen sink – bail out dishwater and catch rinse water. If it’s more your style you can even remove the “j-trap” from the water pipe from beneath the sink and replace it with a bucket (careful to empty as needed to avoid a mess). If you’re not using a biodegradable dish soap already, Babyganics Foaming Dish and Bottle Soap has an A from the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
  • Collect from the bath: Bath times around here happen only a couple of times a week and due to my son’s sensitive skin we use less soap products than ever before. Something like Dr. Bronner’s is a great biodegradable option and you check the EWG’s cosmetics database to see how the soap you’re using rates, which will help you decide if collecting bath water is a good option for your home.
  • Use grey-water to flush: The simplest way to do this is to keep that bucket of shower water in the bathroom, turn off the water to the toilet, pour 1 to 1.5 gallons of grey water directly in to the bowl NOT the holding tank, use this water to flush.
  • Turn off your automatic sprinklers: Unplug that timer and manually water your landscape with the grey water you now know how to easily collect and use – This is a simple and age appropriate chore for small children and if you end up re-evaluating your lawn and choosing drought-tolerant/friendly plants all the better!
  • Use your grey water often: I like ours from collection to use quickly and frequently to avoid issues with storing it that can include pests, smells, and microorganism growth – and so we don’t have to add the extra step of treating it. If you’re going to store any water for much later use I suggest doing this with the warm-up water using a bucket with a lid.
  • Don’t forget the basics: The “little” things do count! Keep on being mindful of your water use by fixing leaks quickly, turning off the spout while brushing teeth and sudsing up, take sorter showers and make sure you’re not overwatering lawns and plants.

In summary, unless we manually divert or capture it, grey water essentially becomes black water and we must rely on our municipal water treatment process before it’s useful again. If there’s a simple process you can implement today to intervene and give that water one more use while simultaneously consuming less why not do it?!? Imagine the impact if we ALL took some of these straightforward steps!

More Information:

Grey Water Harvesting Laws and Programs

Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetics Database

GOODNET’s 2013 article on 7 Water Organizations You Should Know  give a resource if you want to help other’s get access to clean drinking water

*While we mention grey water from washing machines, we haven’t found a laundry to landscape technique that we’d suggest or try ourselves yet. If you have one we’d LOVE to hear in the comments below!

Time to water!