Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Harvesting household water

If you live in an area that experiences frequent droughts or you just don't like paying high water bills, there are a number of ways you can capture or reclaim the water that your household uses for other purposes.

First, I want to state that the suggestions I make in this post require very little in the way of equipment, installation or, really, intelligence. The main thing to know is that there are different kinds of water: white water (clean, potable water that you can drink), gray water (used water that may have some chemical or particulate matter in it) and black water (water that has fecal matter in it). Because of the high potential for disease, I'm not going to include black water (mainly water flushed from your toilet) in this discussion because processing that kind of water takes more than most people are interested in doing.

So, what kind of household water can you use?

Well, the most obvious is rainwater capture. Roof run-off collected in rain barrels is the easiest way of going about it, but unless you have multiple rain barrels stationed at every downspout, you won't get a tremendous volume, which is probably okay for most of you anyway. Additionally, most of us aren't interested in digging up the yard and burying a cistern, but that certainly is a great way to store your rainwater. So, I'm going to assume that most people will be willing to try a rain barrel or two, just to see what it's like before investing in anything more complicated.

What can you use your collected rainwater for? If you don't mind lugging around a lot of buckets, you can use it for flushing your toilets, washing your windows or any other number of creative uses in addition to watering your lawn and plants (indoor and outdoor). I also have a low-budget idea for using it for shower water (to be explained in a future post). I would suggest it for washing your car, but you should already know that washing your car at home is a bad idea unless you do so on a permeable surface to filter out the grease, dirt and other goop your car collects. We don't want that dirty water draining straight into the local waterways.

There are a number of potential issues that come up when discussing captured rainwater for use on food plants. Because of the dust, dirt, bird poop and chemicals that can leach from roof surfaces, you might want to look into a "first-flush" system where the first five minutes (or equivalent amount of rainwater) of runoff gets diverted away from your rain barrels. Kind of like rinsing off the roof before using the rain that falls afterwards. Of course, using captured water on fruit or nut trees shouldn't pose a problem.

White water
Here I'm referring to the water that comes from your sinks, bathtub or shower that doesn't get used - mostly because you are waiting for the water to heat up. This water can be collected in buckets (shower/bath) or Tupperware (for smaller sinks and the kitchen). Water captured in clean containers specifically for this purpose can be used for drinking or filling the pet's water bowls. Remember, this water is clean and potable, it just wasn't the "right" temperature. Again, the water collected can be used for watering indoor and outdoor plants as well.

Water from the shower can be used for flushing the toilet (just dump it into the toilet bowl until it flushes) or really any number of the uses mentioned in the above section. Since this water is clean you can use it for food plants with no worries. One thing I like to do is to keep a rain barrel just for dumping warm up water since I know it has no contaminants in it (like the aforementioned bird poop and asphalt shingle juice) and can be safely used on food plants when the rain is less prevalent and I actually need to water my food plants (like during the summer versus the rest of the year).

Gray water
Gray water gets a little more tricky, mostly because of what might be in the water. Used water from the bath, washing machine, and bathroom sink are considered gray water*. It's a little difficult to capture sink water (unless you divert it from the drain), so the easiest gray water to reuse is from a bathtub/shower and washing machine if your machine plumbing drains into a sink or is easy to divert.

Since we are dealing with water that potentially has some contaminants in it, it can safely be used on nonedible landscape plants only. Some plants may be sensitive to the sodium and chloride found in some detergents, but if you are using more natural cleansers this may not be an issue. Gray water may actually be better for your plants since some detergents contain nitrogen or phosphorus which are plant nutrients. Basically, the rule of thumb is to experiment in small quantities with plants and see how it is tolerated and/or use biodegradable soaps.

I would also caution against using diverted washing machine water if you are doing a load of cloth wipes, cloth diapers or the like that may contain fecal matter, since you don't want to be using this water without some extra precautions. In addition, don't keep your gray water sitting around for more than 24 hours, since there is an increased risk of growth, bacterial and otherwise.

Gray water can also be used for watering fruit trees, flushing the toilet or pre-rinsing those poopy cloth diapers. Finally, some areas have laws against using gray water. Since you aren't employing some huge gray water system in the yard, I can't imagine you'd run into any problems, but you should look into it, if you end up diverting all your washing machine water out into the yard or something of the like.

*Water from the kitchen sink drain, garbage disposal and dishwasher usually is considered black water because of high concentrations of organic waste.

What kind of household water do you capture or reuse? If you aren't doing any of the above, which would you be interested in doing?


Anonymous said...

Hi there

We do save all our washing machine water for the veg plot.

But I can divert the pipe if the laundry is very dirty (eg nappies) or I need to use high dosages of 'normal' detergent.

It is fine for use on the veggie garden just so long as it isn't put on root crops or edible parts of plants AND people wash well after using it.

Our shower & washbasin runs to an ornamental pond which does overflow to water other ornamentals. But no nit shampoo or people with contagious diseases are to use the shower!

dixiebelle said...

For your shower recess, you can buy slim-line rectangular buckets, that have a pouring spout on one end. Move it out to catch the warming-up water, but it can be kept out of the way when showering (though still catch run-off water). Then you can easily pour the water into the toilet bowl, without making a mess, because of the spout (keep the bath mat on the floor, to catch any drips though!)

Using drinking standard water to flush toilets seems ridiculous! We say, "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down!"

Anonymous said...

As an apartment dweller, I have very little control over the big rain water catching, washing machine run off collection, or even recycling H2O for the toilet.(We have a tankless low-flow system, a city requirement.) So I try on the very small scale. I save the morning warm up water for hand dish washing in my pasta pot for the evenings cooking. (Yes...we cook and eat at least a lb of pasta almost everyday.)It probably only saves a few gallons a day...but it's a start.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to use more of our water this way, but we live in a row home in the northeast and basically have no yard. When I do dishes by hand I always use the water for the (few) plants outside and of course we don't waste any if we can help it, but I don't really see being able to utilise all household water without some kind of "real" yard. I'd def. have a greywater system set up if we had a garden.

Delora said...

One easy way I save water is from our home dehumidifier. It drains from the furnace into the washtub, so I just stick a container under that tube and collect the white water from there. I use that on indoor plants and seedlings.

Anonymous said...

I have been using used bath water from my kids to flush the toilet---ughh!!! One bath was enough water to flush the toilet for 2 days (using the let it mellow rule, in conjunction). But anyhow, I am wondering if I did it "wrong" I put the water in the toilet tank...are you suggesting to put it into the bowl? Should I turn the water supply off to the toilet (that is what I have been doing). Thanks!!1

KatieB said...

I have thought about getting rainbarrels to catch roof runoff. I would start there and then move on to saving more water from in the house. I'm not sure where my dirty clothes or dishwasher water drains to. I'm not on a sewer system, so I guess it goes in my septic tank.

Instead of capturing that water, I would rather look at options to save the 'warming up' water.

Oldnovice said...

I keep a bucket in the bathroom which I use to save shower heat-up water. We also use 5-gallon buckets (with lids) to save rain water. We don't save it off the roof, just open the buckets before rain and close them again after rain. We may get rain this week and our two buckets are full, so we'll probably buy two more before the rain comes. Water's a pretty precious commodity in the Southwest.

While on the topic of saving water, did any of you have problems switching to different shower heads? I really want something that allows me to turn off the shower while I suds my hair. We haven't been able to find one in the brick/mortar stores and we're afraid to order online because my husband doesn't think every shower head will fit on our shower. We just have maybe 6" of pipe sticking out of the wall with what looks like screw lines before the head.

scifichick said...

We are in the apartment, so we can't do something big with our water. I have been keeping a bucket in the tub to catch the warm-up water and then I use it to flush the toilet or water the plants. We haven't done anything else though. The water in the sinks warms up so much quicker, that we use it right away, without letting it warm up.

Anonymous said...

Water Rights Issues Concerning Rainwater Harvesting

Other regions might also have restrictions.

sara l said...

Collecting rain water is illegal in my area, so I do shower warm up water. I use it on houseplants (including herbs and a tomato plant that's been inside all winter)and to water our tree over the winter. I plan on using it for the vegetable garden.

I use old water bottles and (washed out) juice containers to make transport/watering easier

Crunchy Chicken said...

Oldnovice - I use something that looks like this thingy. It goes in between the pipe and the showerhead and is easy to install and is relatively cheap. It is awesome for reducing the flow when you need it without some complication contraption. I picked mine up at the local mom n' pop hardware store.

I like your idea about using the 5 gallon buckets for capturing rainwater. I might just steal that idea.

Jamie D. said...

With spring coming, and time to start plants in the greenhouse again, I've really been thinking about saving "white water" from sinks and white/gray water from the shower for use in the greenhouse. I want to get several rain barrels this year, but it will have to wait a few months until I have the money. But we really do need to do more with regards to water conservation around our house.

We're considering drilling a well just for watering the garden, but will have to get an estimate on that. It wasn't financially feasible before, but now that our water rates have gone to a sliding scale, if we can scrape the money together somehow, it will be cheaper in the long run. But I do want to start saving shower water and sink "warm up" water for the greenhouse, and other plants.

Rather than fertilizers for the garden/seedlings, I use the aquarium water from my fish great, reuses the water, and no worries about chemical fertilizers!

GreenieJoy said...

to Beth:
Yeah, I was pouring the water into the tank at first as well but I learned that you're not suppose to do that because the water poured into the tank could house bacteria and some times when the pressure is off it water from your tank can go back into the community water supply and contaminate the whole supply. So its best to pour the water directly into the toilet (which is a little bit more of a pain) but hey we're saving water so thats always good :)

I have kitties and use the flushable corn litter and it usually seems to require extra water to flush it down so I always use grey water to flush it. Some times the water from washing my hands after scooping the litter box is enough water to flush it.

Anonymous said...

I've been using the skinny bucket with a pour spout to catch showerwater, and my cats love to drink right out of that, they prefer it over their waterbowl for some reason.

I also have a rainbarrel, and I use that to water the garden with the 100 ft hose. Nice clean soft water, and the plants love it!!!

Anonymous said...

I haven't been doing any of these things. I think I'm interested in trying a rainbarrel or two, though. And also I can capture and use my 'warm-up' (and, for that matter, 'cool down') water. In fact, I think it would be a perfect way to re-use my laundry soap buckets as well. Two birds with one stone, awesome!

Oldnovice said...

I use something that looks like this thingy.

Thanks so much. I ordered exactly THAT thingy from THOSE people. ... Ya can't steal the bucket idea; it's open source.

Anonymous said...

We are bad about our water conservation and don't do anything. (But I don't wait for water to warm up, I just jump in and scrub vigorously and then rinse off with the warm.)

My husband always dumps out water that's been sitting out over night. I would like him to start at least watering plants with it. Also, using gray water to flush the toilet intrigues me..

Alison Kerr said...

In the summer I try to remember to catch the "warm-up" white water from the kitchen sink and I use it on the vegetable garden. Also, the water used for washing veggies from my garden goes right back onto the garden - on a nice day I'll take the bowl of water outside, wash the veggies, and put the water straight back onto the veggie bed. I also tuck the veggie tops and scraps in under the mulch layer on the veggie bed.

I've not tried catching any other warm-up water.

When it rains here we get so much water through that I've so far scrapped any thoughts of rain barrels. I am trying to plan a rain garden though to stop all the water running straight out to the street.

dixiebelle said...

You can get cold-water diversion systems, that put the 'warming up water' back into the system, and only deliver the warm or hot water through the tap when it gets to the right temperature...

I never even thought to put the greywater into the toilet tank for flushing, and find pouring it into the toilet bowl is easy. You can easily see when you've used enough to have 'flushed' the waste away... it takes less than 30 seconds. If you find the bowl is getting 'stained' looking, use some bicarb or lectric soda to clean it.

Marimoy said...

where I live, everyone has a cistern and many of us have gray water and some have black water systems built into it. The processing is good though. Plants like the organic wast of the black water systems. I am so used to a cistern that if I ever live stateside again, I may suffer depression from the loss of it! :D

theUngourmet said...

I like the idea of capturing the water while you are waiting for the temp to rise. Great idea!

Jen said...

I would like to do more of this type of conservation. In our previous home, we caught the "warming up" water in a bucket by putting the showerhead into the bucket and letting it run until it got hot. Here, our shower is right above the water heater, so no lag time.

Also, hubby installed a diverter under the master bath sink, so we could turn a valve and send the water into a bucket under the sink or send it out the normal way. It was somewhat complicated to install, esp because he was designing it himself as he went. But it was worth it, and not much work to pick up the bucket and use it to flush with. I'd like to do that with a kitchen sink where we use more water. One day...

cindy24 said...

I save warm up water for the container garden. My goal is to use all captured water for my garden this summer. I have a tankless water heater and for some reason it takes over 2 gallons to get it warm. In the summer I used the bath water for the yard and trees. Will have to start using the winter bath water for toilet flushing - had not thought of that. I find that i need to use the water immediately or it gets funky in my rain barrel.

House Sparrows Academy said...

Once I got past the "Little House on the Prairie" feeling, recycling the white and greywater became habit. In fact it became weird to actually flush a toilet when using public restrooms.

We converted our home to an elementary school and seeing how much water was getting used for hand washing alone has really changed the students' notion of water use and they encourage each other to conserve.

We use both grey and whitewater for toilet flushing and fruit/nut tree irrigation and the water comes from the shower, washing machine and hand washing dishes. In the shower we collect the water in a large rubbermaid container. This gets used for toilet flushing or sent outdoors via sump pump to a holding barrel with spigot. The lo-tech set up in the kitchen is a bucket under the drain pipe. From the washing machine the water runs into a barrel and then out a spigot/hose. I heard that having a barrel for the water to initially discharge into was necessary so the water wouldn't run back into the machine. So far so good.

dixiebelle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

We have 4 rain-barrels (we have a ranch house, that's a lot of roof). I think it's much better for the garden to use rainwater b/c it isn't icy cold like water from the hose.

I can understand the "ick" factor of knowing that bird droppings are in the runoff from the roof ... but if chicken poop is good for gardens and chickens are birds, who's to say that sparrow & robin poop are bad for tomato plants?

Erika said...

We capture most "white water," well, I do, DH isn't so fond of it yet. I've been begging for rain barrels for a while, but my DH still thinks they're "tacky," one of these days, he just might come home and find them already in place... Hmmph. Since DH really isn't on the same page with me as far as water conservation goes, I'm not even going to go there with him re: "gray water" and other "more extreme" methods of conservation. :-(


Anonymous said...

We save "warming up water" in a watering can (one in the bathroom, one in the kitchen) to use for humidifiers, houseplants, rinsing out the toddler potty, etc.

Sometimes I keep a 5-gallong bucket in the shower, to catch water for toilet flushing; also in the summer I use dishwater for watering herbs & veggies.

We had rain barrels, but they weren't toddler safe, so we took them down. I'm getting new, safer ones this spring (ooh, I should go order those right now!) That's for the yard & some person-washing in summer, esp. people who have been gardening, building, or playing in mud.

Erika, check out this pic of our friends' very classy water barrel setup - this is what I'm going to try for -

Anonymous said...

i have a question.. i use a dehumidifier in the basement an it collects a good amt of water after some time. Can i use it for watering plants (flowering) and for moping the floors? It seems pretty clean..

From the lion's mouth said...

We have a plastic tub in the kitchen sink and if I'm rinsing the coffee pot or the tea pot, I use that water on the garden (and the garden likes the tea leaves or coffee grounds) and ditto if we're rinsing fruit and veg. We also have a bucket in the shower, but can't do grey water (we live in an apartment, and all the plumbing is inside the concrete walls) or a rainwater tank or even barrels (gutters are internal, no access from our courtyard to anything resembling a downpipe). So although we can't do anything more fancy, we do what we can.

Daisy said...

I have re-used some cooking water, especially that used to cook pasta or to power the steamer and cook vegetables. Gray water from the sink has watered my hollyhocks and other flowers.
And I'm going to a workshop to build a rainbarrel next weekend! I predict I'll like it so much I'll want more.

Anonymous said...

I love the ideas here. It takes about 5 minutes (!) for the water to get hot for my shower since my water heater is on the other side of my house. I hate how much water gets wasted and have been searching for a solution. I'm sure it would fill a5 gallon bucket or more. I need to find a solution. I'm not getting any younger and doubt I could lift a 5 gallon bucket out of my tub/shower even now.