Going green with grey water takes some doing

It takes determination and resourcefulness to make every drop of water count. We cannot afford to waste the dwindling water reserves we have during what may become a serious drought.

Shower and use the water for the looCredit: Sue Visser

We need to change our habits in and around the home to save significant amounts of water every day. According to statistics, the people of a city like Cape Town use 240 litres of purified (potable) water per person per day. Not everybody has a garden, where they say over 35% of this water goes. Not everybody owns a car, even though it takes over 30 litres to wash it with a hose pipe. So where does most of our water really go? Down the toilet – down the drain! Can we become more water wise in the home? Yes we can! We all know about washing, brushing and flushing more efficiently but few of us made a serious commitment to recycling the water we use within the home. At least half of the water we waste can be used to water the garden and flush the toilet.

Modified plumbing can direct water from the shower, bath and washing machine to the
garden. A new invention intercepts the bath or shower outlet pipe and provides an attachment for the garden hose. This automates the process and we are having these nifty gadgets installed by a very enterprising gentlemen. Not every drain pipe is at the correct level but some of them are ideally situated above a sloped area of the garden or even a bucket. Bath water can be kept and used to fill watering cans as needed to flush toilets and water plants. We can have fun exploring ingenious ways to distribute this water using recycled items, especially large plastic bottles, pieces of tubing and (now redundant) hose pipes.

A bottle garden effectCredit: Sue Visser The internet abounds with bright ideas and we can come up with clever ideas to make it easier to water our gardens without sprinklers or hose pipes. Delicate new plants can be covered by domes, made of plastic water bottles cut in half to create a bottle garden effect. This also protects them from snails - a great way to make sure you are the only one who eats the baby basil and mint.

Old water bottles save a lot of time when watering larger plants. Fill them with water and make a tiny hole near the top. Plunge the bottles in a large bucket to fill them up or use them to drain a fish pond. When inverted, the water drips slowly down into the soil and this prevents the run-off that is the curse of the watering can. More ingenious is to make a hole at the bottom of a large 20 litre water bottle or bucket. Insert a 3 way hose fitting into the hole and seal it with a glue gun. Attach two short hoses to it and you have a two-way grey water distributor. We load our bath water from upstairs into this device using a watering can. Apart from the fitness and muscle training we get it helps to keep the most arid areas of our little garden dripping wet.

 Adapt your planting and watering habits

To keep a garden reasonably green during the hot summer months we need to become more water wise. A burnt up lawn and parched garden is the grim alternative. We have to use as little water as possible and make it go further than ever before. The best alternative to filling buckets and watering cans with potable (drinking) water is to redirect “grey” water from the bath, shower and washing machine. When you can’t sprinkle water everywhere the ground becomes very parched in neglected areas and healthy, once luscious plants begin to die in front of you. It is a sad situation and we need to facilitate the watering process by directing the water to the roots of the plants and preventing a run-off. Where we live, the roads and gutters alongside communal gardens and flower beds often receive more water than the plants do!

Where is the mulch, why does the water run into the road?

Don't do this at home!Credit: Sue Visser

To my amusement I noticed the same to be true when buckets of water are now splashed at the plants that grow in their dome-shaped sandy flower beds. This is a very time-consuming and costly way to water the roads and the wind blows the sand all over the place. Our complaints and requests for mulch fall on deaf ears and no ground cover is planted to help knit the soil together. Mulch is anything that can cover up the soil to keep the ground cool and moist. Even gravel can be used as it helps the water to seep down into the soil. We need to plant small groups of new seedlings into what I call a “bakkie” or dish, dug into the soil with a raised edge around it like a dam wall. Fill it with compost and cover with mulch or gravel then all it needs is a good splash of water from a bucket once in a while. 

Drip feeder with fish pond waterCredit: Sue VisserWe are told to grow more succulents and drought resistant or what they call water wise plant species with good root systems that can store water. Having a smaller garden is also helpful. A big garden with a sprawling lawn is going to be a challenge if you don’t have a bore hole. Grey water (from showers, baths and laundry) will have to be distributed far and wide wherever possible. 50% of our personal water consumption is going down the drain, so rather use it to save your garden. Ask for an expert to help you set up a modified system of pipes and low pressure sprinklers to do the job. It is illegal to store grey water or allow it to lie around in puddles because it does contain bacteria. So use it with discretion.

Hose pipes versus watering cans

I did a study on comparative flow rates to find out how much water is used to fill a watering can or bucket versus hose time. The efficacy of the watering process was also taken into account. One watering can holding 12 litres takes ½ minute to fill with a tap fully open and 1 minute to fill if the tap is half open. In other words, 1 minute with the tap half open provides enough water for 2 watering cans (24 litres) or the same hose pipe time required to water a small courtyard garden.

With a watering can the same area needed 4 – 6 refills to do the job. More than double the water and it took me at least 8 times longer. A lot of water rolled off the dry soil and landed on the paving. In other words, with my hose pipe I use half the water to evenly spray the foliage, soak the soil and save myself 7 minutes!

2 way water distributorCredit: Sue VisserSo if you are a frail old lady who can’t even lift a bucket of water, it is worth considering where we are really wasting most of our water. By paying attention to leaky taps and even toilet cisterns and taking shorter showers at longer intervals or recycling grey water you prevent a lot more hidden wastage than merely banning hosepipes. Use a makeshift gadget to recycle grey water even if it uses hosepipes! For washing cars, buckets are enough and less water is consumed that way. Best of all, is to wash the car on the lawn and waste not a drop of water.

 The tooth brushing ritual and the best solution

The way we brush our teeth tells all! Fluoride is not a substance that is safe for a grey water system. We are constantly reminded not to leave the tap running while we clean our teeth. Do we really need to wet the toothpaste or the toothbrush before we use it? Some people squeeze the toothpaste onto their finger and pop it into their mouth before scrubbing. The mug that holds your tooth brush and toothpaste can be used instead. Fill it with water, wet the toothbrush, rinse and clean the toothbrush after using it. Take as long as you like and only consume 250 ml of water as opposed to 3 – 8 litres if the tap is left running all the time. When we used to go camping, a mug of water was all we ever needed to brush our teeth.

A brick in the toilet is not always the best option

As a gesture, we are asked to place a brick in the toilet cistern to save water. This means that less water is used to flush away your personal load. If the burden is too large and bobs back in triumph, a second (or third) flush is required. Experts on conservation now tell us that the brick trick can damage the delicate mechanism within most of our modern toilets. Most of them have a duel flush system that helps to prevent excessive flushing and they use 6 – 9 litres. Older toilets release a full 13 litres and placing 2 bricks or plastic bottles of water inside the cistern can reduce the flush volume by 2 – 4 litres. But using old bathwater to fill the cistern or directly flush out the bowl is the thriftiest option of all, apart from "doing it in the bush or using a long drop". 

Another problem with toilets is that a lot of water leaks down from the cistern unnoticed. Sometimes you can hear water running in the bathroom when the flushing mechanism is faulty and the valve does not shut properly. Other leaks are more devious. A crafty way to detect them is to add some food colouring to the cistern. If you see the coloured water appear in the toilet bowl and nobody has been near it – you have a leaky toilet and need to fix it.

Constant flushing of the toilet after every tiny splash needs to be more disciplined. The tiniest tinkle does not need to be as urgently eliminated as the foaming brew of a man who pees like a fire hose. (Some still can!) A big jug of grey water from the bath or washing machine can ease the consumption of potable water considerably. If you are into urine therapy you will be recycling the stuff and skipping the need to flush it away. It's not everybody's cup of pee, but is worth saving up urine in a bottle and sloshing it down mole holes to drive them away. Some people say it works, so it is worth a try!

How to harness the power of the shower

10 litres on average escapes down the drain for every minute we turn on the shower and that includes the time we waste in warming up the water. So the average shower uses at least 30 - 50 litres of water that gurgles away. Prevent this wastage by placing a large plastic basin on the floor beneath the shower head. Scoop the grey water into watering cans and make a few free trips to the garden or use it for toilet flushing. A natural alternative is to install a shower in the middle of your lawn. The neighbours would be delighted! Either way, try to use eco-friendly body washes that are more pH friendly. Best of all is to have your drain outlet modified so the grey water can be channelled onto the garden directly. A bush shower is a plastic bag that hangs in a tree and it holds 5 litres of water. That is all you get, so you learn to soap yourself up using just a mug of water before showering.

The bathtub provides nourishment for you and your plants

A hot sudsy bath provides therapeutic bliss for aching joints and shivering shoulders. Run a bubble bath, using an eco-friendly body wash and tip in a big scoop of Epsom salts. This provides magnesium sulphate for you and doubles up as a plant nutrient. When lemon tree leaves turn yellow it means they need more magnesium. We don’t turn yellow, but if you are already what they call insulin resistant, get too many cramps or have high blood pressure you definitely need more magnesium. It is easily absorbed by the skin, according to research done by a group of nutritional scientists. It feels good and relaxing on the skin and eases your creaking joints, so enjoy the benefits of your bath! Don’t pull out the plug - recycle the water. Mother Nature will give you a medal for being so resourceful.

The washing machine is a great source of grey water

The drain outlet pipe of your washing machine is easy enough to find – It has a ridged or flexible pipe that is placed inside the larger rigid drain pipe. This is where the grey water gushes out so we need to redirect it into large buckets or channel it directly out of the nearest door. Many years ago I needed to reduce the acidity of the soil beneath a row of pine trees in the garden. I attached an ordinary hosepipe to the washing machine’s drain outlet pipe (with duct tape) and the area was automatically watered. After a month or two, the soil pH balanced out and I could grow shrubs in the new flower bed. It is advisable to use washing powder that is eco-friendly because the regular super whitening big smile detergents are too high in phosphates.

One option is to allow the first rinse to flow down the drain and then capture the rest of the rinsing water in large buckets. The average modern washing machine consumes 57 – 114 litres of water so it is worth the effort. Older machines squander between 109 – 170 litres so make sure you have a full load of washing. We need to be more considerate when tossing items into the wash basket. Not every pair of denim jeans, for instance needs to be washed every time you wear them and being more careful with treating stains will help to prevent extra wash loads.  

If all else fails, get a plastic lawn and water your roof garden with grey water!

Plastic lawn and potted plantsCredit: Sue Visser