Rain, rain go THIS way

It feels kind of anticlimactic to be talking about rain and water conservation at the tail end of our rainy season, here in California. But it is raining as I write this, so I guess El Nino may keep us wet for a little longer – although it seems to be interspersed with glorious sunny warm days that make me grateful to live here (and not shoveling snow in Cleveland).

Bathroom sink greywater collected by SF Landscape's Casey Allen

I’ve had water on the brain recently. Its impossible to live on the west coast without talking about rain or drought. In San Francisco we measure our water based on the Sierra snow pack – which melts and eventually becomes our drinking water (and shamefully, also our toilet flushing water and our irrigation water). According to NBC news, the snow pack is is “above average” this year – hopefully that means there is enough water for everyone this summer.

But water discusision seem to go beyond the west coast. Its even being talked about in Ohio, where I know two people on either end of state that have rain barrels hooked up to their gutters – so its not just a hippy California thang.

Rain barrel attached to the garage gutter

For me it began with a rainwater catchment workshop put on by the PUC, in December, where I saw an awesome graphic showing the impact of the built up urban environment on the water system. Covering the city with buildings, concrete and asphalt has only left small patches of earth to absorb our yearly rains. Instead, enormous sewer systems capture most of the rain, sending it to the waste water treatment plant. Here in San Francisco we have one sewer system – most other cities have two, one for waste water and one for storm water – which means that in a heavy rain storm, the sewer system overflows and dumps storm water and untreated waste water (like from your toilet) into the San Francisco Bay. The nitrogen in the waste water, which is much loved by your plants becomes toxic in our waterways. Allowing the rain to infiltrate into the earth can save the Bay as well as our depleted and polluted underground aquifers and, hell, maybe it can save us as well.

Rain barrel on the sidewalk in the Inner Sunset

Ironically, not long after that workshop I was admiring some sidewalk landscaping when I was surprised to see a rain barrel sitting on the sidewalk. Now, I see all kinds of things on the sidewalk, but a rain barrel is something I haven’t seen before. I was tickled to see it and wondered who had put it there. And thanks to the internet, someone saw my photos of the rain barrel and put me in touch with Barbara, the lovely woman behind the rain barrel. She has three actually – the one  in the front of her building downspout is on the sidewalk, there is one on the back of the house and  she has one on the garage downspout. She found the old French wine barrels on craigslist and put it all together for less than 30 bucks each.

If you want something brand spanking new – and you live in SF –  you can check out the PUC, they might still be selling rain barrels at a discounted price. Get ’em while its still raining. Or, like Barbara, you can make your own with used food-grade barrels (wine, honey, etc.). Drill two holes on the side, one for the brass  faucet at the bottom and a small overflow at the top. If it has a lid, drill a hole on the top for the pipe that will connect to the downspout. Cover the whole on the lid with a filter to keep out the leaves. And then feel all powerful when you disconnect that gutter from the sewer pipe and use that water for your roses. or your corn. or to wash your car.

Water use for the US, Europe, Asia and Africa from left to right

Nothing brings out the importance of water than the greywater guerrillas. I was lucky enough to recently spend a week with them at the Greywater Installers Training in Oakland. Now called Greywater Action – since greywater systems are finally legal in California – they’ve been giving classes and hooking up greywater systems throughout California.  You might be wondering about the spelling of greywater –  I was especially confused after I read the California greywater code that spells it “graywater”. Apparently the U.S. is alone in its spelling – so to align yourself with the rest of the planet and spell it with an “e”.

The L2L autovent & 3-way valve

Anyway, if you’ve been living under a rock, greywater is water that comes out of your clothes washing machine, bathroom sink and shower. Last June, California joined Arizona, Texas and New Mexico with a building ordinance allowing greywater systems – for more info on state policies check out the Oasis website.  The California ordinance allows laundry to landscape (L2L) systems without a permit. Bathtub/shower and bathroom sink systems are allowed but require a permit (the original ordinance passed in June 2009 allowed these systems without a permit till January 2010).

I was first introduced to Greywater Action last November when I went to a training they did for installing a L2L system in a home in Berkeley. About 25 or so of us congregated at a little house  for a crash course in the basics of greywater and L2L systems and then broke up into group to install the system. Some of the parts of the systems had been done before hand (like drilling through the wall and attaching the pipe to the house) but we got to glue the ABS pipe and layout the irrigation hose. Check out my photos of the L2L workshop here.

Branch drain from bathroom sinks to the landscape

The installers class is a week long intensive, Monday – Friday, 8am – 5pm. Over the course of 5 days,  we cut and glued pipe, wired an accuator, dug holes and trenches and learned the names for all the different types of pipe. We became familiar with plumbing, California’s new code and ended with 5 groups installing systems that diverted water from laundry machines and showers from sewers to fruit trees. We also had to take a test and pass in order to get our coveted Installers Certificate.  I thought I might be at a disadvantage because although I’m familiar with irrigation, I knew next to nothing about plumbing. But I left the class feeling able to identify the jumble of pipes in a crawl space, able to drill through a wall and hook up a 3-way valve to a laundry machine, autovent, stand pipe and outside to fruit trees. The mysterious world of plumbing opened up and is no longer intimidating. Check out my complete class photo album here. A reporter joined us and wrote up a fabulous piece and also got photos of some of my classmates.

My final project team installed a L2L system. We met with the client on Wednesday, designed the system with the help of the instructors Thursday and installed it on Friday – which was a little overwhelming but totally doable. Our system was straight forward so we thought we’d be done early but we were challenged with drilling through the stucco wall (the right tool can make all the difference) and then balancing the water to each tree.

3-way valve diverts washing machine to the landscape

Hose to each fruit tree

Connecting the irrigation hose

We ended the day with a load of wash (done with greywater safe laundry detergent, of course, like from Trader Joe’s) and watering the new trees!

If you live in the Bay Area and want to take advantage of low cost greywater installation, send me an email!


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