What is the Sound of One Hand Flushing? Greywater Harvesting and Reuse, Part I

By Jessica

My family lives in the house I grew up in, a 1950’s rambling ranch in a middle-class, mixed ethnicity neighborhood of southern California. When we remodeled (leaking roof had led to mold inside the walls), we went with the reigning “bigger is better” ethos of the early 2000’s in a few high-value areas. Case in point: double sinks in both bathrooms. Never mind that the two of us didn’t really need to brush our teeth and gel our hair at the same time in our master bath. Who knew what the future would bring? If we ever needed to move, it would be a good selling point for the house. Besides, the contractor had included it in his standard bid.

Well, the dual vanity turned out to be far more practical than I could have imagined. You see somewhere around 2004 I learned about greywater. Used extensively in Australia and more and more often in other desert and drought-stricken areas of the world, greywater is the used water from any household drain other than the toilets or the kitchen sink/dishwasher. In the Outback, they collect this once-used water from showers and laundry and use it again, usually on their landscaping, but sometimes on their food gardens,
especially fruit trees. Using household greywater is illegal in many cities due to bacterial contamination concerns (mostly unfounded – judicious greywater usage has not factored into any documented disease outbreaks). But I figured a small private test wouldn’t hurt anything, especially if I used it for something completely unrelated to the food supply. I would use greywater to flush my toilet. I disconnected the p-trap under my vanity sink (hubby can’t complain if I don’t mess with his side) and put a 2-gallon bucket salvaged)
in place. My experiment was set up and ready.

I was already the sort of person who didn’t flush until the contents of my facilities, figured in schoolyard slang, added up to at least two. Not in public restrooms – that’s just gross. But at home, where I spent most of my time as a stay-at-home, work-at-home Mom, I had no problem with squeamishness. I just put the lid down, closed the door, and didn’t think about it until the second time around. The kids had their own bathroom (where they also flushed rarely, even though I encouraged them otherwise – kids are born
environmentalists, you know) and none of them were so small anymore that I was afraid of finding someone playing with the pee in the porcelain pool.

Anyone with a reasonable amount of training for how to cope during a natural catastrophe knows that you don’t need water pressure to flush a toilet. A bucket of 1- 2 gallons of water, poured straight into the bowl, will activate the siphon action that empties the contents of the bowl into the drain line below your toilet. And good, thorough hand-washing uses about a gallon of water. So according to my math, after I had used the facilities a couple of times, I would have enough greywater saved to flush. Sure enough, I did. Almost. Because of water-saving aerators on our faucets, I didn’t get as much hand-washing greywater as I had calculated. I took to using another bucket to catch the warm-up water from my morning shower to gather a little extra, and that did the trick. Also, a once a day old-fashioned freshwater flush-after-use ensured that the bowl got a good rinsing down. And of course, I cleaned the toilet regularly.

Only problem? I have to leave one of the cabinet doors open to remind myself to use the greywater, rather than just flush. And my dear, well-trained husband keeps shutting it to tidy up. There are far worse problems to have, but I added the dishpan under the bucket to avoid water damage from the occasional overflow that ensues as a result of his fastidiousness.

Next up: Laundry and the Low-water Landscape.

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4 responses to “What is the Sound of One Hand Flushing? Greywater Harvesting and Reuse, Part I

  1. Alliegator May 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I was just talking to my Mister about how we don’t need two sinks in the master bath. Maybe we do… 🙂

    My kids are very “environmentally conscious” too. They hardly ever flush the toilet. Except right before they use it… So maybe they’re not so great.

  2. Nicole I May 13, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Last month I went to a demonstration of the AQUS water reuse system that looks pretty easy to automate this process should you be interested. (http://www.watersavertech.com/AQUS-System.html) For around $300, you can purchase this system to capture the water from 1 vanity (1 or 2 sink) and replace about 80 percent of the toilet water with your sink grey water. It is legal in CA and OR for sure and probably would pass the muster in every state because it is a closed system that marginally sanitizes the water by passing it over a bleach tablet and has an automatic overflow, etc. It also seems to be pretty easy to install.

    From an economic point of view, where do you break even? We figured in a 4 person household in Portland it would take about 6 or 7 years at current (which we anticipate will be rising steeply) rates.

  3. Corktree May 16, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Great ideas! I usually let the yellow mellow myself, but flushing with sink water is genius! And using the warm up water? Eliminates some of the guilt for wanting a hot shower when ours is the furthest from the water heater. Thank you! We live in Boise, which seems to get a decent amount of rainfall, but being surrounded by desert stresses me out. It’s why I will probably always ignore my family’s requests to move to St George or Phoenix. I just can’t handle the thought of what would happen in a true water shortage. But that doesn’t mean that living is a relatively moist area doesn’t still help me to find new ways to conserve. Great practical post!

  4. Fran May 22, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Nice. I feel like this is the perfect place to admit to my never flushing our master bathroom toilet during the night (unless it’s No. 2). And, even throughout the day, we don’t flush that much. But, I feel like I could never tell anyone about this “dirty” little secret of our’s since it would just gross everyone out.

    Anyway, we don’t have any double vanities right now, but I’ll give this a try when the opportunity arises.

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