Rainwater Harvesting and Beyond

If you live in a dry climate like we do here in Los Angeles your bookshelf should have a copy of one of Brad Lancaster’s amazing books. Through very simple techniques, most of which can be executed with a shovel and a free afternoon, Lancaster shows you how to turn a barren landscape into a Garden of Eden. Lancaster empasizes earthworks which capture and channel water where you want it to go, instead of uselessly sending it down the gutter.

For those of you in Southern California, Lancaster will be delivering a free talk at the Santa Monica Public Library Monday September 15th at 6:30 p.m. More info via Westside Permaculture Gatherings.

If you’re not in SoCal, you can get more information about Lancaster’s work and order a copy of one of his books on his website, www.harvestingrainwater.com.

Greywater Guerrillas in LA this Weekend

With the prospect of at least ten more years of drought here in California, greywater is a hot topic. This weekend Oak-town’s fabulous Greywater Guerrillas are heading down to Los Angeles for a weekend of talks and workshops. If you’re not in Southern California, make sure to check out their informative website and their new book Dam Nation. We especially enjoy the GG’s project examples.

Here’s the 411 on their LA appearances:

Saturday July 19th: Hands-On Greywater Installation Workshop.

Time: 11am-3pm
Location: Silver Lake (You’ll get an email with directions once registered)
Cost: $30-$40 sliding-scale
To register: email Matt Moses Space is very limited so register early!

Workshop will include a presentation on greywater reuse, the design process of the system we’ll be building, and the construction of a greywater system from the washing machine to ornamental of plants. Activities will involve digging, measuring, cutting pipes, observing, and more!

Sunday July 20th: Presentation: How to Disengage from the Water Grid: With Greywater, Rainwater, and Composting Toilets.

Time: 7:30- 9:00
Location: LA Ecovillage 117 Bimini Place, Los Angeles, 90004
Cost: $10 (no one turned away)
For more info contact Lois at the LA Ecovillage 213/738-1254 (www.laecovillage.org)

How to Disengage from the Water Grid- with Rainwater, Greywater, and Composting Toilets. We will connect the water in our lives to local and global water struggles, look at rainwater as a resource, explore options of reusing greywater, and contemplate waterless (composting) toilets. From the apartment, to the house, to the city, ecological sanitation offers a path to a sustainable and just water future.

Monday, July 21; Greywater Design Workshop.

Location: 3983 East Blvd. Mar Vista, CA 90066
Time: 7-9pm
Cost: $25
To register: email Ray Cirino 818-834-7074

Greywater Design Workshop; Interested in reusing your greywater? Want to learn more about it and how to build your own system? Come to our design workshop. We’ll present you with information on the most common, low-tech, low-cost, effective, residential greywater systems. Then we’ll break into groups and help you plan a system for your own home. Participants will be emailed a greywater planning sheet, that you’ll fill out and bring to the workshop.

Monday and Tuesday (July 21st and 22nd) Greywater Consultations.

If you are interested in having a consultation and/or system design for your own home, please contact Laura Allen at least one week before the consultation dates.

Planting a Mini-Orchard

Ignore the bucket in this illustration! See update below.

Update 3/13/2011: I met Brad Lancaster last night and he told me that he and Art Ludwig no longer use the upside down bucket described in this post. The reason is that detergents can build up in the hole. In my experience the bucket was also an unnecessary step. While I have a clay soil, the hillside drains fairly well. A properly sized mulch basin should suffice to allow greywater to infiltrate. Also, the new generation of washing machines use a lot less water than the old one that I still have. Other than the unnecessary bucket and the persimmon tree (died, for some unknown reason) this greywater application has worked very well. Our fruit trees are lush and happy.

With the news that Lake Mead could go dry by 2013 we figured it was about time to figure out how to grow food with very little water in a Mediterranean climate that gets on average 15 inches of rain a year (3 inches last year). Our water worries sparked the beginnings of our draught tolerant mini-orchard. Thankfully greywater and some tough, water sipping trees make it possible.

Step one was figuring out how to reuse our washing machine water (read our earlier post on the washing machine surge tank we built). Step two was matching that washing machine water output to the right kinds of plants for the mini-orchard. We settled on the three “Ps” — pomegranate, persimmon, and pineapple guava, plus a mission fig tree to replace the substandard one we cut down (even though God Hates Figs!). The advantage with these four trees is that they can survive, once established, should we find ourselves unable to use any water due to the aforementioned bad-ass draught scenarios.

Our house sits on a small hill, with the front yard sloping down towards the street. We placed the trees at the top of the slope and made mulch basins like the one illustrated above. The outlet chamber consists of a upside down three gallon bucket with a bunch of holes punched in it. The purpose of the outlet chamber, which is buried in the mulch basin, is to help the greywater infiltrate our heavy clay soil. To use it we simply place the hose coming from the surge tank into the hole in the top of the outlet chamber. We cover this hole with a brick when not in use. The photo below shows the digging of the mulch basin and the installation of the outlet chamber in progress:

The completed mulch basin and (hard to see) pomegranate tree to the right. We used straw for mulch We use wood chips for mulch (replaced the straw):
These craptacular photos don’t show the details very well, but the mulch basins were dug in such a way to also catch rainwater as it flows down the hill. Both rainwater and greywater work their way into the soil and slowly move down the hill over the course of many months. Since installing the greywater system we’ve seen previously sad plantings we did years ago of rosemary, wormwood and Mexican sage thrive. And we’ve got lots of nopalitos coming our way from the prickly pear plants.

For more information on these simple, water saving strategies see Brad Lancaster’s excellent book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands.

Greywater Linkage

Outlaw water activists the Greywater Guerillas have added a nice set of examples to their website showing some creative greywater strategies. As figuring out how to get greywater out to your garden depends a lot on, say, if your shower is higher than your bamboo grove, it’s great to see some real world examples.
Next step around our little crackhouse will be to figure out how to reuse our shower water. The GGs have given us some ideas . . .

Using Greywater from your Washing Machine

With our current bad drought conditions it makes no sense to pour perfectly good water down the sewer. So we just joined the greywater underground with our illegal washing machine surge tank, and the installation was a piece of cake.

We built our washing machine surge tank based on the design in Art Ludwig’s book Create an Oasis with Greywater. The purpose of the surge tank is to prevent the built-in pump in the washing machine from burning out, which might happen if you tried to pump the water through pipes. The tank also slows down the flow of water going out to the garden, allowing more time for it to percolate into the soil. In addition the tank lets the water cool a bit, should we run a load in hot water.

Bottom of barrel showing fittings

Top of the barrel where the hose from the washing machine comes in

For the tank we picked up a used and cleaned 55 gallon plastic drum with two “bung holes”, and plumbed it based on a design from Aquabarrel.com. The folks at Aquabarrel offer kits or a DIY video. We put our barrel together ourselves with a couple of common pvc fittings from the hardware store and omitted the overflow pipe, since our washing machine load will never exceed 55 gallons. The basic idea behind the Aquabarrel design is to turn the barrel upside down and use the preexisting threaded bung holes to connect up a garden hose. It took just a few minutes to complete, and our washing machine surge tank was ready to use. We highly recommend the Aquabarrel design, and you could combine a washing machine surge tank with a rain barrel with the addition of the overflow pipe and a fitting for the gutter.

When we do a load of laundry the waste water that collects in the barrel flows immediately out the garden hose and down towards the front slope of our little compound. Ludwig warns against keeping grewater around as it will quickly turn septic. We use Oasis Biocompatible detergent which is manufactured specifically for greywater systems. Regular “eco” detergents, while not harmful to aquatic plants, often contain substances that will kill terrestrial plants so you must use a greywater specific detergent.

Our next step will be to figure out some plantings that will take advantage of our laundry schedule, and to construct some simple earthworks and mulch basins to accommodate the water flow. Right now we just let the water percolate into the front slope, and our rosemary and Mexican sage look a lot healthier for it.

Plantain!

Homegrown Revolution neighbors Annelise and Eric intercepted us on our nightly dog walk and not only invited us up to their front porch for a glass of wine, but also sent us away with a couple of plantains harvested from their next door neighbor’s tree. It’s exactly what we’d like to see more of–folks growing food instead of lawns and everyone sharing the abundance.

While there’s a lot of banana trees in Los Angeles they tend not to yield edible fruit since our climate is not quite hot and humid enough. But plantains, judging from the delicious taste of the ones we fried up, are a different story. They do require a lot of water to grow, but greywater expert Art Ludwig calls bananas (the same family as plantain) “the premiere plant for greywater in warm climates”. You can bet that as soon as the building inspectors sign off and leave the scene of our newly retrofitted foundation at our crumbling 1920s vintage compound we’re going to try to figure out a way to route the shower drain out to a new mini-grove of plantain.

We’ll be our own banana republic and do the world a favor considering the amount of blood that has been spilled bringing bananas to North America. Witness Chiquita’s recent admission to teaming up with right wing terrorist groups in Columbia.

In the meantime, for the Homegrown Revolution readers out there in warm climates here’s the lowdown on growing bananas and plantain.

Flexible PVC Pipe for Greywater

Following up on an earlier post about using your washing machine’s greywater in your garden we thought we would revisit the sexy and exciting world of flexible 1″ pvc pipe and other exotic plumbing materials to be found in the isles of your local pool and spa supply shop–the unlikely go-to source for greywater revolutionaries. Flexible pvc pipe is probably the easiest way to run washing machine waste water out to your plants, just like you would with a garden hose. But garden hose could burn out your washing machine’s motor because it’s too small and has a tendency to kink up, hence the need for flexible 1″ pvc.

Another handy item from the bourgeois land of pools and spas is the swing check valve which will keep waste water from flowing back into the machine and gunking up your clean clothes. We hope graphic designers will appreciate (or perhaps not) those glowing blue drop shadows, but we digress. Apparently, this back-flow problem is not an issue with all washing machines so we’d hold off on getting one of these slightly expensive things until you know it’s an issue.

We’ve already discussed the not-safe-for work-sounding “three way diverter valve” which seems like something this business located in our neighborhood might carry (NSFW!). The tree way diverter valve, you may recall, is a way to send that greywater temporarily back to the sewer should the need arise. Another, much cheaper way to divert grewater is with a duo of two way valves. The radical Greywater Guerrillas of Oak-town show you how to do this on their fantastic website (which seems temporarily to be under construction–check back later).

So when the inevitable zombie hordes cause chaos across the land, just remember that you can scavenge hot tub parts in their wake to run your greywater system.

A Bicycle Powered Washing Machine


Homeless Dave’s Bike Powered Washing Machine

Of all the potential bicycle powered applications, other than the primary one of simply gettin’ around, washing machines seem the most practical to us. With the bike powered wash cycle, someday spin class and laundromats could co-locate. In the meantime, if you’ve got the space, a BPWM can also water your garden while giving you a chance to loose a few pounds.

There are a couple of designs floating around the internets, but we like Homeless Dave’s the best because it you don’t need to do any welding or fabrication of special parts. Homeless Dave’s extensive instructions require scavenging a bike, a trainer (we found one in the street, but we’ve also seen them at garage sales and thrift stores), and a top loading machine.

Homeless Dave’s design only does the spin cycle, not the washing, so it will be up to Homegrown Revolution to come up with a design for a full-on bike powered washing machine (we’ll wait for our hated Sears model to die first). When that day comes we’ll post the design and a special soak and spin music mix.

Water Conservation


“the price we paid was the price men have always paid for achieving a paradise in this life — we went soft, we lost our edge.”
-Frank Herbert Dune

SurviveLA was planning on discussing rainwater collection today, but we realized that we would be getting ahead of ourselves without first discussing what we call BOC, or boring old conservation. So before delving into greywater and rainwater harvesting it’s time to assess where your household is in terms of water consumption and see if that level can be reduced. It’s generally far easier and less expensive to conserve resources than it is to resort to the latest techno-eco-gadgetry.

So let’s count down the major sources of domestic water use (according to percentages calculated by the American Water Works Association Research Foundation) and consider how to conserve:

58.7% Outdoor Water
Clearly, the place to start with water conservation is outdoors, in designing a landscape that doesn’t need supplemental irrigation. Our rule around the SurviveLA compound is, once again, if you gotta water it you gotta be able to eat it. The vegetables that we grow are irrigated with a water-saving drip irrigation system that we’ll describe in detail in a later post. We have no lawn, and other than the vegetable garden, all the other plants are either natives or from the Mediterranean, many of which are also edible. Reusing greywater from your shower and washing machine can also reduce the amount of outdoor water usage. Above all remember that lawns are the wasteful and evil thought-spawn of generations of golf-obsessed Republicans. Replace them with edible landscaping, or decomposed granite.

10.8% Toilet
All toilets should be low-flush, and todays low-flush toilets are considerably better than the first generation. A low-flush toilet uses less than 1.6 gallons of water compared to 3.5 to 5 gallons for an old toilet, which many municipalities will give you a substantial rebate for getting rid of. If you live in an apartment or don’t have the energy to dump the old crapper, it’s possible to fill a plastic water bottle with stones and put it in the tank to displace and thereby reduce the amount of water used to flush. Don’t use a brick for this purpose since it can kick around and damage the flushing mechanism.

And remember the charming slogan, if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down. The mellow yellow strategy can save hundreds of gallons a year. This idea can be automated with a so-called dual flush toilet. These toilets, common in Europe, have two buttons–one for pee-pee and one for poop. Most dual flush toilets use the standard low-flush rate of 1.6 gallons when you hit the #2 button, but use only .8 gallons when you hit the #1 button.

And don’t use the toilet as a trash can. Not only does this waste water, but it puts an additional burden on sewage treatment plants. Having visited a sewage plant in person, SurviveLA can personally attest to the depressing sight of witnessing hundreds of plastic tampon applicators afloat in a vast sea of poo.

8.7% Clothes Washer
Wash only a full load. Run the waste water outside to irrigate your landscaping using either a surge tank, or directly.

Adventurous homesteaders, willing to put in the extra labor, may wish to consider a James Washer, an electricity free hand washer, commonly found in off-grid households, where you put some hot water in and agitate the clothes for a few minutes with a lever on the side. A hand wringer is used to dry the clothes before hanging them on a clothesline. A simple drain line can be hooked up to a hose and run out to the garden.

6.8% Shower
Shower less and celebrate your body odor–pretend you are the type of person Andy Warhol used to lovingly refer to as Eurotrash. Barring lifestyle changes, install a low-flow shower head. Also consider a shower head with a cutoff valve to allow stopping the water while soaping up. Use a bucket to catch the water that flows before it heats up. Use this water for plants or to “bucket flush” the toilet.

It’s cheating somewhat, but take your showers at the gym and let someone else pay for the water.

6.3% faucet
Turn off the water until needed when brushing teeth or shaving.

5.5% leaks
This is a no-brainer, but something everyone seems to forget. Fix leaks immediately! The knowledgeable folks at your local hardware store (not the idiots at Home Depot!) can tell you how.

.6% dishwasher
Run your energy efficient dishwasher only with full loads. And incidentally, a study conducted by the University of Bonn in Germany concluded that dishwashers use half the energy, one sixth the water, and less soap than hand washing.

One last sobering statistic to remember–the average American uses between 80 and 100 gallons per person per day, with the higher consumption coming from folks living in the dry Southwest. The average African uses 5 gallons a day.

More Washing Machine Greywater Fun

One of the problems with the washing machine surge tank greywater strategy is that what you are watering has to be downhill of the machine. This is a common problem with greywater systems, and trying to use pumps to get the water uphill is simply not economical, nor is it environmentally hip since those pumps have a lot of plastic and other icky industrial materials in them.

Fortunately washing machines have a pump built-in and it’s possible to use your washing machine’s pump to get water both uphill and a reasonable distance horizontally. Unfortunately, washing machine pumps are not designed with this in mind, so you run a slight risk of burning out or decreasing the life of your washing machine’s pump should you attempt to move the waste water out to your garden. There are, however, ways to minimize the risk of pump burnout.

The guru of greywater, Art Ludwig, suggests the following methods for using your washing machine’s pump to irrigate plants:

1. Use only 1 inch HDPE or either rigid or flexible 1 inch PVC pipe. Smaller pipe may burn out the washing machine’s pump and larger pipe will allow water to accumulate and get stinky. Standard garden hose is not a good idea because of the risk that it will kink and burn out the pump, however flexible 1 inch PVC can be easily substituted.

2. Every 50 horizontal feet of run equals the same amount of pressure as running 10 inches vertically. Ludwig suggests limiting the combined horizontal (using the 50 feet = 10 inches formula) and vertical run to the equivalent height of where the water would normally empty out into the standpipe near the top of the machine.

3. Install a three way valve at the standpipe to allow diverting the water to the sewer.

4. The pipe may need to be vented (either by running a vent pipe up or using a swing check valve as a vent) if the end of the pipe is lower than the water level in the washing machine. This is to prevent an unintentional siphon that could empty the washing machine before its cycles have completed. This is apparently not a problem with all washing machines.

5. It’s best to get the pipe up to its highest point early and then run down from there though it is possible, since the water is under pressure, to run pipe up, down and up again. Having sections of pipe where water will stagnate, however, runs a slight risk of the aforementioned stinkiness, and burst pipe in places where it freezes.

6. Installing a swing check valve close to the washing machine will prevent water from flowing back into the machine should you be moving a flexible hose around and lift that hose above the level of the machine.

7. Rig up a bypass to somewhere the water can flow if you live in a place where it freezes. This is not a problem for us in sunny LA.

8. Since the water is under pressure it’s possible to rig up fancy distribution systems in the garden. For ideas on this see Ludwig’s book, Create an Oasis with Greywater.

9. Lastly, a note to our rentin’ homesteaders–this is a greywater strategy you may be able to get away with. And if you burn out the pump, and the machine is owned by the landlord, you’ll be sticking it to the Man!