Ask Umbra: Are they going to lock me up for reusing my washwater?
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Q. I’m considering moving to a state where gray water recycling isn’t legal (somewhere in the Midwest). I’d like to hook up a laundry gray water system when I get there. Of course, I’d follow all the best management practices as defined by the states where gray water is legal.
But if I’m caught, what can they do to me? It’s not like I’m going to be arrested and sent to jail for using gray water, right? I’m hooked on gray water and just can’t stop using it.
Highlands Ranch, Colo.
A. Dearest Jude,
I’m glad you’re ready to talk about your gray water habit. Admitting that you’re hooked is the first step toward solving the problem. But in your case, the problem isn’t so much with you as it is with the country’s widely varying water reuse regulations.
Gray water (or greywater), to the uninitiated, is the stuff that runs through the drains of your shower/bathtub, bathroom sink, and laundry room (as opposed to “blackwater” from your toilet and “dark gray water” from your kitchen sink and dishwasher). Handy homeowners have been rigging systems to collect and reuse gray water for years, most often to water trees and plants in the yard or to manually flush toilets.
There are good reasons this practice catches the attention of the authorities: Your gray water could be swimming with grease, soap, hair, cleaning chemicals, and — oh, the things I learn on the job — trace amounts of fecal matter, all of which may be of interest to the health department. (Head over here for more.)
Still, when managed properly, gray water systems are safe (there’s never been a report of illness due to residential gray water). And there’s a lot to love [PDF] about the practice: It conserves potable water, saves cash, and reduces the load on your local water treatment plant (thereby saving energy). A review from the Water Environment Research Foundation estimated that a gray water system can reduce a home’s potable water use by 30 to 50 percent.
But not every state makes it easy to reap the benefits of twice-used water: A crazy quilt of state and local laws control whether and how you can do it. States like California, Arizona [PDF], and Wyoming let you set up a system on your own (as long as you follow their guidelines, that is). But others — and unfortunately for you, Jude, these tend to be the ones east of the Rockies — keep mum on the issue, meaning you’ll need to sift through several different agencies to find out who’s in charge. That might be the department of environmental health, the plumbing department, or a local building office. And even when you do find the proper authorities, they might put the kibosh on your gray water dreams.
Should you decide to politely ignore the regs and go about your water recycling anyway, the punishment will also vary greatly from state to state and town to town. I checked in with Laura Allen, co-founder of the advocacy group Greywater Action: “An unpermitted greywater system would be viewed the same as any unpermitted or not-up-to-code work on the home. You could be fined, you could be required to take it out, or you could have to upgrade the system to make it legal.” Without knowing where you’re moving, there’s no way to find out for sure.
Really, the risk of getting caught for your unobtrusive pipe or bucket system is low — Allen hasn’t heard of a single instance of a homeowner getting nailed for gray water alone. About the only way to get in trouble is for a neighbor to call you in. (Perhaps a few “Hi, I’m your new neighbor” fruit baskets are in order?)
But I’m not one to suggest you turn scofflaw, Jude, when you can put your zeal for gray water toward civic action. In many areas, you can apply for a special permit to set up your system (like this Chicago-area couple did, or these Minnesota officials [PDF] advise). “Before state codes exist, that’s a way for people to start pushing on laws in a positive way,” Allen says. Or take an even bigger step: Get involved in a local advocacy group and/or petition your new local politicians to help trigger code rewrites. As you well know, a thriving gray water system begins with a single drop.