Gray Water: Great recycling idea or foolish plumbing risk?

Gray garden: A growing trend in the western U.S. is the use of gray water, water that comes from the drains of shower, bath tubs and washing machines, to go through an outdoor filtering process and then be used to water plants. Some see the idea as too big of a health
Gray garden: A growing trend in the western U.S. is the use of gray water, water that comes from the drains of shower, bath tubs and washing machines, to go through an outdoor filtering process and then be used to water plants. Some see the idea as too big of a health
As more and more people become environmentally conscious, to what extremes should we as a society let them go to help protect the environment?

That’s a pressing question these days in some western states where water is scarce and some people are trying to find creative ways to reduce their water consumption.

Meet gray water, that water that comes from the drains of bath tubs, showers and washing machines. It’s not full of hazardous waste products, but is not usable for drinking or cooking. How about flushing your toilets or water lawns with gray water?

A growing “gray water brigade” is finding creative home plumbing solutions to re-route gray water into other uses in their homes. Sometimes the modifications are quite simple to do, costing just a few hundred dollars.

But they rarely meet the building codes of the cities the gray water. Systems that have been put into use by contractors meeting local construction guidelines can cost as much as $7,000. In a recent story in the New York Times, a plumbing contractor admitted that he now encourages people interested in recycling grey water to find their own home remedies rather than fork out big bucks for a professional solution.

The same story gave a quick description of one such homemade system. A pipe running from the house deposits shower and sink water into an elevated bathtub in the yard that is filled with gravel and reeds. The roots of the plants begin filtering and absorbing contaminants. The water then flows into a lower tub, also containing a reed bed, before flowing into a still-lower tub of floating water hyacinths and small fish. The whole system cost about $100 and the final product is used to water flower beds at a California home. Chemical tests of the filtered done by the homeowner show a slightly high level of phosphorus, but nothing the plants can handle.

But other water experts share their concerns with gray water, including the risks of open pools of water becoming a mosquito breeding ground, the possible crossing of gray water lines with other plumbing that could contaminate clean water, or using gray water to irrigate plants that might be eaten raw.

Most states now have regulations about gray water usage. But proponents of gray water say those rules make the idea cost prohibitive.

So what should be done on the gray water front? Is it okay for people to play with gray water at their own risk? Are the health risks too great for this kind of experimentation? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

The Bronx Zoo has a new "Eco Restroom" that uses a gray water system and other energy and water saving techniques. Pretty cool.

posted on Mon, 06/04/2007 - 8:59am
Chris Brown's picture
Chris Brown says:

Hi, i think your referring to "risks" is exaggerated - the same article in the NY Times that you quote above indicated that no, let's repeat that: NO instances of disease have been traced to the use of graywater.

posted on Tue, 06/05/2007 - 10:03am
Thor's picture
Thor says:

The word risk doesn't simply mean health risk. The major risk pointed out in the article is that to do this economically requires going against most city building codes for plumbing and doing it yourself. The reason we have zoning laws and building codes is to reduce the risks of problems of improper systems. That seems like a risk to me.

posted on Tue, 06/05/2007 - 5:56pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I read with interest comments RE: grey water, plumbing regulations and governing regulations. In Australia grey water has become a very common alternative to keeping gardens and lawns alive in drought conditions.
Many systems have been developed from the simple laundry hose to mega expensive systems.
One system which has been widely accepted is the Water Leech, a portable grey water collection system used to collect grey water from the shower, bath or laundry.

One of it's great advantages is that it does not require and any modifications to existing plumbing, is relatively inexpensive and falls within the general guidelines set out for grey water harvesting and distribution.

Check it out www.waterleech.us

Good Luck Paul

posted on Thu, 08/16/2007 - 9:19pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

This subject is very interesting to read about and to talk about i find and I learned quite a bit from the gray water i didn't know before. Gray water is at our own risk for health and for the plants, but we could change our systems and not have to pay a lot or instead recycle our gray water. I hope that some of us will sacrifice the way we are living now to be more environmentally friendly.

posted on Sat, 09/08/2007 - 11:00am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

well, i think this THOR guy is right,, ya no?

posted on Sat, 10/27/2007 - 6:52pm
Timothy Ferraro's picture
Timothy Ferraro says:

In the state of MN, any homeowner can pull a permit to work on their plumbing legally.
Perhaps it would be in everyone's best interest to encourage code approved systems that individuals could install. It is possible to be legal (from a code perspective) and still control costs.

posted on Sun, 12/02/2007 - 9:24am
Kristin's picture
Kristin says:

My husband and I are building a Cargo Container Home and are searching for alternative means to a sewer/septic system, as our property is too small for both a well and septic field. We intend on purchasing incinolet toilets, but need an inexpensive way to process grey water to later be used to water plants, etc. We would like it to be permantly located in a mechanical room and not a portable unit.

----------Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

posted on Fri, 12/07/2007 - 5:26pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i have the same problem i'm in ma. would you pass on any info;'

posted on Sun, 12/23/2007 - 9:20pm
Leah's picture
Leah says:

I believe as Americans we should have the right to operate our homes to the benefit of our selves and our families without the government regulating, fining, or policing us to death. I for one believe that my grandparents and parents used dishwashing, bathing and laundry water to water their gardens and guess what - they lived to tell it!
Now that we are faced with needing to recycle our water any way we can, we have to go to our government and ask permission. This is not freedom. Some of you will say that there are some who will dump even blackwater on their lawns and gardens, but I say that number is small. As for doing things up to regulation and code, come on folks, our homes are usually our highest ranking investment, what mentally stable person is going to really risk destroying their homes with leaking drainage systems, or allowing water to stagnate and cause other problems in their yards.
Thanks for all the great tips on grey water use, and be sure to stand up for your rights to do what you want as long as it harms no one else. "Live free, or die!"

posted on Sun, 03/09/2008 - 5:43pm
curious's picture
curious says:

i'm not a big fan of standards either, but water is easily contaminated- w/out realizing it is- and also spreads quite far quite easily. If you want to play with gray water, just be careful, because some of these experimenting people are the people who will complain later when something goes wrong. why didn't the government regulate it? why didn't the government develope a safer program everyone could use ad guidlines? why won't the government take care of the water contamination problem that arises?

it is not a matter of denying people their rights, it is a safety matter. who is going to take responsibility when something goes wrong and lots of people/things are harmed/damaged. you're not the only one who will ever use that water and all water used will not stay on your property only. i'm for recycling! but just be responsible about it. if it does more harm than good, is it worth it?

posted on Thu, 07/09/2009 - 2:49pm
Mazoo's picture
Mazoo says:

Our Geography teacher just gave us a sheet about water use, and it is amazing how much water we can use without even thinking of it!!! Save our water!

posted on Sat, 04/25/2009 - 8:06pm
Sandy Swiss's picture
Sandy Swiss says:

Hmm, the idea of gray water is cool. It sounds like a good alternative and could probably save certain businesses and homeowners money. However, I don't think it should be used everywhere, the water from your toilet and shower gets drained for a reason.... if I decide to use gray water I'll consult my nj plumbers, www.lauryheating.com and ask them what is best. Great article!

posted on Tue, 07/06/2010 - 8:11am
KelsiDayle's picture
KelsiDayle says:

I'm not saying there aren't risky disadvantages to using gray water, but I'd like to know who's citing "risks of open pools of water becoming a mosquito breeding ground" as a key argument against gray water usage.


Are they also getting on people's case for owning bird baths, watering cans, koi ponds, and other potential mosquito breeding grounds commonly found in backyards? (Like the old tire pile my grandparents used to keep out back... don't even get me started on that one.) I'm just saying I like consistency in my arguments.

posted on Tue, 07/06/2010 - 11:00am
FormerInspector's picture
FormerInspector says:

In at least some areas, a property owner can be cited for mosquito harborage.

posted on Mon, 11/25/2013 - 12:44am
KelsiDayle's picture
KelsiDayle says:

Santa Rosa, CA provides an example of how gray water can be used legally and efficiently, according to a Scientific American article. The project is reportedly the world's largest geothermal wastewater-to-power project.

"[Santa Rosa and Calpine Corporation, an wenergy company] are using urban effluent to generate clean energy, improving life not only for humans but also for fish."

The risks in this part of the country, however, aren't so much mosquito breeding grounds as they are earthquakes.

"Small earthquakes can be caused in the area immediately surrounding such plants—a serious complication that municipalities must consider."

posted on Tue, 07/06/2010 - 3:03pm
regg's picture
regg says:

For someone who know few things about plumbing the gray water drainage can be simple, some equipment rental is enough to get the job done. But how many people meet these requirements? Not all of us are plumber and not all of us have to time to find solutions for the gray water. I think a specialized service just for this matter that's also affordable would be on high demand.

posted on Fri, 08/13/2010 - 8:48am
Lora's picture
Lora says:

Check out the use of reclaimed water at the kanapaha gardens in Gainesville, FL.

posted on Thu, 09/23/2010 - 6:21pm
plumbing sonoma county's picture

its a great way to conserve, reuse, recycle, and protect the earth. we use that in our state, gray water is filtered and then processed for much effective means of filtering it. been 12 years now and there is no pollution nor health hazard that resulted from it.... torontodude

posted on Wed, 11/24/2010 - 8:15pm
inout's picture
inout says:

you can start protecting your environment buy buy ecological things and tried to keep a clean home and garden. it is very important to start the process with you and your family and home too. i made some modification in house to fulfill this target. Facelifters

posted on Tue, 12/28/2010 - 4:26pm
tuningval's picture
tuningval says:

Reusing bathwater gives plants the moisture they need to survive when rain is scarce and sprinklers aren't allowed. If you follow precautions, it is generally safe to recycle this water. Be aware, however, that high soap or chemical content can harm plants. Water from a bubble bath is not ideal for reuse, nor is water with traces of cleaning agents.

Val - cfd trading consultant.

posted on Tue, 05/03/2011 - 12:45am
Boston Plumbing's picture

I love how we are going more green. And the more we go green the better the earth will be.

posted on Wed, 03/27/2013 - 1:57pm
Boston Plumber's picture

Recycling Gray water is a great idea, as it gets more and more popular, the new inventions will come, which will eliminate the hazards like "open pools of water becoming a mosquito breeding grounds" discussed over here. Surely this post will serve as an eyeopener on Gray water recycling. Thanks for this wonderful information.

posted on Mon, 04/29/2013 - 2:56am
Randy's picture
Randy says:

I agree to we need to be safe and I researched and talk to people and more research to develop a system I feel will work for me and mine with out government interference-who bought hepititus strawberry's from mexico and fed them to school kids in LA and allowed tainted peanut butter to be put out and killed many people so who we kidding the government just wants the bucks you buying permits will give them to the heck with what is safe or a good idea.

posted on Sun, 08/10/2014 - 8:59pm

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