House & Home

Get the Dish on Recycling Graywater

Posted November 27, 2013

If you've been putting serious thought into how to make your home more efficient when it comes to water use, you've probably thought about a graywater recycling system, which captures used water and reroutes it for irrigation and other purposes. But you might be intimidated by the different kinds of wastewater, the systems available, and the legal ramifications of graywater recycling, because regulations can vary tremendously by state and region; are you getting into a minefield with graywater?

You aren't, but it can help to have a guiding hand (or a cheerful work crew, like the one seen above).

First off, it helps to understand the different kinds of household wastewater. Graywater is that used for showering, bathing, dishes, and handwashing: it comes from the bathroom and laundry room sinks, as well as your washing machine. Dark graywater includes particles of food and grease, originating from the kitchen sink and dishwaster. And blackwater, which you do not want to mess with under any circumstances, comes from, as you may have guessed, the toilet.

Graywater recycling systems can vary from something as simple as a collecting tank attached to the drainage system to a more complex recirculating pump. The reclaimed water is great for irrigation and flushing the toilet, but it can also be used for washing after it's allowed to settle and filter. The best option for you can depend on how much water you use, your home, your plumber's advice, and...local regulations, which brings us to the tricky bit.

Some regions don't regulate graywater at all, leaving it a bit of a legal gray area (ba dum bum CHING!). That's good news for you, in a sense, because it allows a great deal of flexibility in terms of which systems you install and how you use them. However, others have concerns -- legitimate, as it happens -- about greywater recycling, and they want to make sure it's performed safely for households and communities. That means they may restrict such recycling to graywater only, eliminating the risks of potentially contaminated dark graywater.

Other regulations may include the type of systems you install, or could require you to get a permit and have a system installed by a licensed plumber. These are for your protection, to ensure that you don't have substandard work that later comes back to bite you, as for example if a plumber installs a system improperly and you end up with damage to your San Francisco roofing.

You can go to the local building office to find out which regulations, if any, pertain to graywater recycling systems. If there are none, you can try obtaining a permit anyway -- your request can actually trigger a region to start thinking about creating a coherent regulation system. If such systems are not allowed, we of course would never want to encourge you to violate the building code, but you could launch an appeal or work with a plumber on a permit application that would press the issue.

And, uh, if you did accidentally install a graywater recycling system without knowing that you weren't supposed to, the punishments you'd likely face would include fines and a corrective citation: you'd need to essentially bring the system up to code, which might require removing it.

Katie Marks writes for

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