Build a Washing Machine Greywater Surge Tank

After the shower, the next best source for greywater is the washing machine. Constructing what is called a surge tank with a fifty gallon plastic drum is the simplest way to reuse your washing machine waste water. Perfectly good water that would ordinarily just go down the sewer will instead water your plants after first spending a short time in the fifty gallon drum.

Temporarily draining your washing machine into a fifty gallon drum has two advantages. First, it allows hot water to cool and secondly it prevents siphoning mishaps and washing machine pump burnouts that can happen if you try to move the water directly to your garden through a pipe. Here’s how to create a surge tank:

1. Get ahold of a fifty gallon plastic drum. Most big cities, Los Angeles included, have businesses that resell used drums. Make sure that you get a food quality drum and not something that held toxic materials. The best kind of drum for this purpose is one that has a lid, both so that you can clean it out periodically, and to make it easier to fit the hose connection at the bottom.

2. Drill a 1 inch hole in the side of the tank at the bottom.

3. You will need to improvise what is called a “bulkhead” fitting in order to hook up the tank to a regular garden hose. Instructions for doing this can be found here. Seal the fitting with silicon. Connect this fitting with a standard garden hose and use a ball valve if you want to be able to hold the water in the tank temporarily. Remember that greywater quickly turns into black water if allowed to sit around for more than 24 hours, so use this water quickly.

4. Direct your washing machine’s drain hose into the tank. The hose must first go above the top of the machine before going down into the tank in order to prevent the machine from draining accidentally. Also, don’t make this connection airtight–the washing machine needs an air gap, normally provided by the loose connection to the standpipe to prevent waste water from siphoning back into the machine.

5. For a deluxe installation, use a three way valve so that waste water can be easily shifted back to the sewer line should the need arise.

6. Place the tank on bricks to increase water pressure.

7. Remember not to use washing machine waste water if you are washing diapers.

As always, for more detailed information on how to do this get Art Ludwig’s excellent book Create an Oasis with Greywater.

Make an Aluminum Can Lamp

Inspired by an article in Wilderness Way, SuriviveLA made our own post-apocalyptic lighting out of two aluminum cans. According to the author of that article, Del Gideon, the Vietnamese used to make these lamps back during the war. You can also use these lamps to heat up water. Making one is easy:

    1. Remove the top off a can. We like to do this by scoring the inner ring of the top with a razor blade and then using a pair of pliers to bust it out. The fastidious and safety conscious may want to file down the sharp edge.

    2. Cut a 2 1/2 inch square window out of one side of the can with a pair of scissors.

    3. Now cut the bottom 1 1/2 inches off of another can. We like to do this by taping a razor blade to a piece of metal and inserting it in a book. Simply rotate the can against the blade a few times and you will get a nice even cut. Precision isn’t necessary for this project (unlike the Pepsi can stove) so you can also do this step with a pair of scissors.

    4. Punch out a 1/4 inch hole in the bottom of the can for the wick.

    5. Cut a 1/2 inch by 3 inch piece of cotton from an old shirt for the wick.

    6. Cut out a 2 inch by 1 1/2 inch piece of aluminum and use it to wrap up the wick tightly.

    7. Fill the can with the window with lamp oil. Insert the aluminum wrapped wick in the hole you drilled in the other can and squeeze both cans together as shown in the image at top.

    8. Trim the wick, light it, and wait for WWIII.

    Backwoods Home Magazine

    Imagine Martha Stewart as a gun-toting radical libertarian and you’ll have some idea what the always informative and entertaining Backwoods Home Magazine is like. Even though its primary emphasis is rural off-grid living, every issue has something to offer for the urban homesteader. The current January/February issue features a detailed article on how city dwellers can maximize their vegetable production in small spaces. Even the article on running a cattle ranch has the side benefit of letting us all know where our food comes from, and the challenges of running a family farm, “Jessica Troxel has donned a plastic sleeve, greased it with mineral oil, and reaches in through the cow’s anus to see if this one is pregnant.” reads the caption over a photo in that article.

    While the mainstream media fawns over the latest gadgets and ignores the nefarious doings of our proto-fascist government, the folks at Backwoods Home are calling hydrogen cars bullshit and informing us of Halliburton’s contract for building domestic detention camps.

    If that ain’t enough the magazine features long, rambling reader letters, recipes, fetishistic firearms advice, and endearingly naïve cover art! But what SurviveLA especially appreciates is the magazine’s emphasis on techniques and knowledge over technological gimmickry.

    Six issues (one year) is $23.95, but most of the articles are available for free online.

    California Buckwheat

    Here’s a plant SurviveLA would like to see in more Southern California gardens. California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum) has multiple uses–it provides cover and nectar for animals, grows with almost no water, and best of all it produces edible seeds. We’ve gathered the seeds we’ve found in fields and baked it into bread and added it to cereal to both boost nutritional value and to add a nutty flavor. The local and resourceful Tongva Indians used the roots and leaves for headaches and stomach problems, among many other uses including using the stems to pierce ears.

    California buckwheat is available from the Theodore Payne Foundation which runs a native plant nursery in the Sun Valley area. We can easily see California buckwheat fitting into your permacluture strategies, as well as something to look out for when foreging for food–not to mention the DIY piercings . . .

    Sweatin’ Pipe

    Working with copper pipe is a skill that everyone should know, in fact SurviveLA thinks it should be taught to elementary school children. Home owners, renters and kids all should know how to put pipe together with a blow torch since you never know when a pipe is going to burst, not to mention being able to construct some of the solar water heating projects we touched on last week. The tools needed for this job are cheap, and thanks to youtube, we have this dude to show you how to do it. We don’t know why one of his hands is bandaged, but he does a great job sweatin’ that pipe. Just remember not to catch the house on fire – keep some water handy!

    Bubble Wrap Your Windows


    Photo by Nick Lowe

    From the remarkable folks at Build It Solar comes this heating conservation tip – bubble wrap your windows. Simply cut sheets of bubble wrap to fit your windows, apply some water with a spray bottle and before it dries stick the bubble wrap on the glass. While you can buy special bubble wrap designed for greenhouses, according to Build It Solar, regular bubble wrap will probably work just as well. If you number the pieces you use, you can stick it up again next year.

    Bubble wrapping the windows cuts down on visibility, so it’s a strategy best left to back rooms of your house or apartment. Of course, LA’s so ugly it may not matter . . .

    DIY Outdoor Shower

    Photo by the MacAllen Brothers

    Showers are overrated. The first step in considering whether to build an outdoor solar heated shower is to take a step back and consider boring old conservation. Shower less and make sure that your domicile is equipped with a low-flow shower head. Not only will you be saving water and burning less fossil fuels to heat that water, but your body odor will soon separate your real friends from superficial hangers-on.

    But we urban homesteaders don’t need to be stinky since it’s possible and easy to build an outdoor solar shower. There are two reasons this makes sense, particularly in a place with as warm a climate as LA. First of all, you can direct the water straight into the garden and in so doing irrigate some plants and keep that water from uselessly running down the sewer line. Secondly, placing the shower outdoors makes rigging up a solar heating system somewhat easier and less expensive. Of course, the solar heating part isn’t completely necessary, and it’s possible to run the hot water line out into the garden, especially since you don’t need to worry about the pipes freezing here in sunny LA. One thing to remember–however you rig the shower, make sure to keep the water directed away from your foundation.

    Let’s say you’re ready to build your own solar heated shower and you’ve overcome your fear of being nude under the all seeing eye of LA’s police and media helicopters, what we like to call our “ghetto birds”. We’ll start with the most simple solar shower designs and proceeding to the deluxe models.

    First off is the camping shower in a bag concept. The principle is simple–you fill a black bag with water, leave it out in the sun, and hang it somewhere for your very brief shower. We’ve not tried one of these things, but we suspect that the result would be less than luxurious, and after all, part of the reason to bathe is the relaxation it offers. But, for the mortifier of the flesh out there, one of these things might just suffice. They are certainly cheap at around $18. If you are really cheap, you can improvise the solar bag shower by filling a car inner tube with water and leaving it out in the sun.

    A variation on the bag shower can be constructed out of inexpensive black ABS pipe. Basically you construct a square out of pipe, put water in it and let the sun heat it up for a few hours. Your shower lasts as long as the amount of water contained in the ABS pipe. Plans can be found here. ABS is easy to work with, and this particular design could be scaled up for longer showers. SurviveLA will run some experiments with this design and let you know about the results.

    In terms of other do it yourself options several folks have experimented with simply coiling up a length of black garden hose on the roof. A nice example can be found here, and also at the Path to Freedom. The problem with this approach is that when the water is out of the hose, that’s the end of your hot shower.

    A more advanced DIY solar shower that resembles commercially available (and expensive) solar water heaters can be made by constructing a glass covered collector box containing a manifold of copper pipes that feed into a used water heater. Hot water contained in the copper pipes in the collector box rises up into the water heater that is kept above the level of the collector. Hot water rises just like hot air and the cold water from the tank sinks back into the collector thus forming a circulation loop–this phenomenon is known as thermosiphoning. Some plumbing skills, are necessary, but it’s relatively easy to learn how to sweat copper pipe. We’ve used a system like this provided by the National Park Service on SurviveLA’s trip to Santa Rosa Island. The nice thing about storing the water in a tank is that you can take a shower well after the sun goes down. Plans for this project can be found on the Mother Earth News website.

    Whatever approach you try, the key thing is to keep the costs down and to use as many found materials as possible. The water and gas savings per year are minimal, so in our opinion it does not make sense to buy expensive commercial outdoor showers (like the one made by Hammacher Schlemmer) when you can make something yourself.

    An excellent roundup of DIY solar projects including water heating can be found at Build It Solar.

    Leaf Litter


    My people were entirely Nordic, which is to say idiots. Every wrong idea which has ever been expounded was theirs. Among them was the doctrine of cleanliness, to say nothing of righteousness. They were painfully clean. But inwardly they stank. Never once had they opened the door which leads to the soul; never once did they dream of taking a blind leap into the dark. After dinner the dishes were promptly washed and put in the closet; after the paper was read it was neatly folded and laid away on a shelf; after the clothes were washed they were ironed and folded and then tucked away in the drawers. Everything was for tomorrow, but tomorrow never came. The present was only a bridge and on this bridge they are still groaning, as the world groans, and not one idiot ever thinks of blowing up the bridge.
    -Henry Miller Tropic of Capricorn

    SurviveLA’s approach to our small patch of land has been slowly evolving over the past year towards integrating permaculture principles. One of our favorite notions in permaculture is the idea that “work makes work”. An example used to be the annual fall cleanup after our two large trees dropped their load of leaves in the back yard. Dave Jacke, author of the massive two volume permaculture guide, Edible Forest Gardens puts it this way,

    Simply relinquishing a need for “order” and “tidiness” in your garden will make a huge difference. . Order and tidiness by definition reduce structural diversity in ecosystems. Structural diversity provides shelter for many animals for many purposes.

    In short, when it comes to fall leaf raking, just say no, be a slob and be proud of it.

    The mulch created by leaf litter serves multiple purposes. All those fallen leaves provide shelter for beneficial insects, reduce water usage by preventing evaporation, prevent weed growth, inhibit soil erosion and may even stop acid rain from penetrating soil. For these reasons SurviveLA says banish your leaf blower! In fact, when planning a garden around permaculture principles you may want to consider plants that produce mulch, and placing them where the mulch will benefit your landscaping. Remember though that some trees such as black walnut and eucalyptus produce so called alleopathic chemicals that kill neighboring plants and hence would not be good candidates for mulch production. With the exception of these alleopathic plants, there is simply no good reason to rake up leaves.

    Blow up the bridge, let the leaves fall, let nature do its thing, and join the SurviveLA idleness non-revolution (as the folks at SoapboxLA would say, it would take too much effort to start an idleness revolution).

    Showers to Flowers

    Here’s the truth, I’m lazy. So when it comes to the aforementioned greywater strategies such as bucket flushing and siphoning, while we might try them for a while we’ll most likely quickly tire of all the repetitive effort barring some apocalyptic water shortage. SurviveLA agrees with Art Ludwig, author of Create an Oasis with Greywater that the best greywater systems are the simplest, and involve the least amount of effort and maintenance.

    One of the easiest and more permanent greywater solutions is simply rerouting your shower straight out a pipe and into the garden. Here’s how to do it:

    1. Confirm that your shower is higher than the point you are watering. The minimum fall for waste pipes is 1/4 inch per foot — any less and you’ll risk a backup.

    2. Cut the waste line from your shower, making sure that you are cutting the pipe before the point it meets up with anything coming out of the toilet. Remember you don’t want blackwater in your garden. If possible (i.e. if easily accessible via a trap door or some other configuration), install a three way diverter valve like the one pictured above, so that water can be shifted back to the sewer, if needed, such as during a long rainy period. Keeping the minimum fall rate in mind, run the pipe out to where you want to water.

    3. Choose plants whose watering requirements match the amount of water coming out of your shower. To do this you’ll need to estimate how many showers and how much water you use per shower. Odds are it will be water hungry plants such as banana trees.

    4. Create a mulch basin around the plants you are watering. The mulch could be gravel, wood chips or leaves. The mulch basin has multiple purposes – it slows the flow of greywater, preventing runoff and it stops greywater from forming stinky pools. Mulch also prevents contact by kids and pets and helps keep down the mosquito population.

    5. Some precautions – put a screen over the end of the pipe to prevent rats and other critters from climbing up the pipe and surprising you in the shower. Keep the destination of the pipe well away from your house’s foundation, especially if you have clay soil.

    Siphon Your Bathwater

    So it’s back to greywater today with a tip on siphoning your bathtub water. The concept goes like this. When you take a shower keep the plug in. Yes it’s a bit gross at first, but you get used to it. When you are finished, submerge a length of tubing in the bath water. Hold your finger over one end and pass it to an accomplice waiting outside in the garden. As long as your bathtub is higher than the part of your garden being watered, you will have created a siphon and the water will drain out of the tub.

    Now if this sounds like a pain in the ass, or if you have no accomplices there is (or perhaps was as the website does not seem to be working) a siphon device on the market for just this purpose. Called the “Ban Beater” this siphon pump was being sold in the UK as a result of the draught that struck south-east England this year. However, this greywater siphoning tool is on the expensive side and it’s hard to justify spending a lot of money just to save a few cents worth of water, especially when the siphon devices themselves are produced with plastic and other petrochemical products. Devices like these suddenly become popular when governments institute water rationing as did the British earlier this year. There are less expensive siphoning devices available in hardware and auto parts stores made for siphoning gas, but SuviveLA has not tested them yet.

    If siphoning is too much effort for ya, it’s time to move on to more permanent solutions involving rerouting your plumbing that we’ll get into in subsequent posts.