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Doing your part for water conservation can sometimes be heavy lifting. Literally.
“It is sort of a bucket brigade model,” said Orem’s Tara Bishop.
There is a barrel outside her home for collecting rainwater, a bowl in the sink for runoff from rinsed vegetables, and a bucket in the shower for collecting the drops that would otherwise swirl down the drain.
Many experts see grey water, or water that has been used once but could be used again before returning to the sewer system, as critical to the future in an increasingly dry Utah.
Yet the labor involved and the makeshift nature of homemade systems that can attract stares from neighbors, fines from homeowner associations (HOAs), or even violate state law, have long made grey water recycling a rarely used strategy in the fight for water conservation.
Now, some companies want to bring grey water recycling into the mainstream. But the cost is high. And you’ll need to cut through some red tape before you can install one in your home.
DIY water recycling
Tara Bishop’s kids are critical laborers in their recycling system, lifting the five-gallon bucket from the tub and carrying it on a journey through the house to the yard in search of a thirsty garden plant.
“My kids enjoy it. It’s not what I’d call fun, but I do feel good about doing it,” said Bishop, who works days as a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service. Her work takes her into Utah’s deserts to study the effects of climate change on fragile ecosystems.
“I’m trying to teach my kids how precious water is,” she said.
As a former high school science teacher, she notes that the often neglected piece of the famous “water cycle,” are the human beings that disrupt nature’s means of recycling water.
Utahns may not realize that the water that flows from their kitchen faucet, showerhead, and down their toilet all flow from the same source and that they all flow into the same system once used.
America’s urban water, over the past century, has been organized into centralized, linear systems, says Courtney Crosson, Asst. Professor of Architecture at the University of Arizona. This provided efficiency from an engineering standpoint, but not when it comes to getting the most use out of each gallon. Stormwater systems are designed to channel water down grates as quickly as possible, not find ways to reuse them for, say, irrigation in your neighborhood.
“We need to stop using potable [drinkable] water as the only possible water source for all activities.” But to do that, Crosson said, “Requires a lot of collaboration and new thinking in government.”
Isn’t it illegal?
Finding individuals willing to share their grey water or rainwater systems can be difficult. Joan Winslow of Salt Lake City uses grey water from her air conditioner condenser to water her garden and she collects rainwater in barrels. But she wanted to do more.
“We did some reconstruction and tried to get our laundry to do grey water,” Winslow said, “but were told we were not allowed to by the city.”
Tribune attempts to get clarity from city staff were met with circular referrals among departments. Confusion, within government and for consumers, is a common theme when it comes to grey water.
A maze of state, city, and water district laws and ordinances, HOA rules, and a huge body of contradictory information floating on the internet, feed numerous online discussions about what is and is not allowed. It was enough to lead one social media commenter to jokingly suggest witness protection for anyone willing to share details on their water recycling system.
You can even get in trouble with the state by collecting too much rainwater without a permit.
The most recent revision to state administrative rules regarding grey water weighs in at 20 single-spaced pages. The short version is that in-home grey water systems are possible, but you must contract with a state-certified wastewater professional to design it.
This type of “bespoke grey water design,” is a barrier, notes Professor Crosson, that deters homeowners because of the complexity and unknown costs involved.
Solutions in practice
Interested in doing your own grey water recycling in Utah? Here’s a quick guide from Utah State University.
Want to try your hand at rainwater harvesting? Here are some useful tips.
Tara Bishop uses a sustainable garden watering system based on terra cotta pots called olla irrigation. Learn more about here.
The Apple of grey water recycling
Arthur Valkieser has a way of talking about reusing shower water that makes it feel like putting a man on the moon. As with many entrepreneurs, water wasn’t Valkieser’s first passion.
As a young photographer in The Netherlands, he saw the need for quality post production facilities for film and music. He built a regional business empire over the next two decades. He sold the company in his late 40s and then began the hunt for some new venture - one with a social impact.
A fan of the idea of water recycling, he had a pre-built grey water system installed in his home.
“It never worked,” he said.
He began work on creating an effective, reliable, user-friendly in-home water recycling system built to meet the most stringent standards.
The result is Hydraloop, an in-home system designed to look and feel like the Apple of water recycling. The units take up little floor space and look like designer refrigerators. They do not rely on filters because filters clog and then require maintenance (even so, it cleans grey water until it becomes theoretically drinkable, though it’s never reused as drinking water).
“From the beginning,” Valkieser said, “I had the dry American west in mind.”
So he made sure that his system met not only the stringent safety standards of the European Union, but also those of the U.S. National Sanitation Foundation, receiving the NSF 350 certification.
Hydraloop can recycle 90% of the grey water for a household of four. Using average household rates for the U.S. that would be a savings of over 34,000 gallons per year, or enough to fill three industrial tanker trucks. In Utah, Valkieser estimates that a four-person household could reuse an average of 16,500 gallons of indoor grey water for lawn and garden irrigation each summer.
Taken to scale, the results could be impressive: if 50% of Utah homes adopted Hydraloop or an equivalent water recycling system, approximately 15 billion gallons of water could be saved each year. That’s roughly the capacity of the East Canyon Reservoir in a good year.
Agriculture is by far the largest water user in the state, but that does not mean that real, reservoir-sized water savings can’t be realized through the water recycling efforts of average Utahns.
Hydraloop is not the only option in existence for grey water recycling on the home level and commercial and industrial systems exist, such as AquaRecycle, that could help Utah companies take seriously Governor Cox’s recent challenge for businesses to do more for water conservation.
“Water recycling today is where home solar was a decade ago,” Valkieser said.
Yet he acknowledges that there are major obstacles to overcome.
What it costs
Valkiesser expected getting Hydraloop in American homes would be easy compared to the strict environmental standards of the European Union. Yet, Hydraloop is only beginning to make some installs in the United States, mostly in California.
“It turns out that, even with NSF 350 certification, we wind up negotiating with one city or county water district after another, each with its own set of regulations,” said Marc Rico, of the U.S. division of Hydraloop.
University of Arizona Professor Crosson notes America’s water system has largely focused on water safety and with good reason. The problem is that when this focus on safety is applied across 50 states and over 148,000 separate water authorities, it makes creating a universal water recycling system nearly impossible.
Wide scale adoption of in-home water recycling could be achieved by either a state law to create a single standard (as one bill in Florida would do), or even federal legislation.
For now, a Utahn interested in retrofitting their home for either a ready made system like Hydraloop, or a individually designed model, could theoretically do so by going to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s list of certified wastewater professionals and hunting down a contractor with the specific skill set required.
Cost is also a challenge. Aside from any fees paid to contractors and consultants, a basic Hydraloop home unit costs $4,000. Some cities, like Tucson, are providing incentives and rebates for homeowners to purchase home-based grey water systems.
“The price of water right now is mostly a political decision,” Valkiesser said, “as water becomes more scarce and the cost of water in most places comes to reflect its true value, recycling systems will more than pay for themselves.”
Until policymakers take steps to make water recycling practical for average homeowners and small businesses, there are those, like Bishop, who will continue to do their part despite the labor involved in a makeshift system and the sidelong glances from neighbors.
“All my neighbors just know me,” Bishop said, “and when they see me doing water recycling they go, ‘That’s just Tara.’ Regardless,” she adds, “I’ll just keep doing what I can.”