After six hours of handiwork and a trip to Home Depot one Saturday last year, Mark West had MacGyvered himself a low-commitment water-conservation system.

West, the 47-year-old chair of the Surfrider Foundation and a test director for the Navy, had only just heard of graywater set-ups, where residents reuse laundry or shower water to water their lawns and for other landscaping. A Surfrider event attendee sought West out and evangelized about the ease and utility of the systems.

“I’ve done a lot of irrigation throughout my house,” he said. “So I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh, I can do that no problem.’”

At the time, neither San Diego County nor Imperial Beach, where West and his wife Megan have lived since about 2007, had information available online about the systems, he said. Instead, West followed the event attendee’s tip to look at Los Angeles County’s site, which offered a how-to. He sprang for the option with the least amount of work involved, hooking up pipes and a three-way valve to his washing machine.

“The listing from L.A. County had everything you need,” West said. “I used that as a checklist.”

Mark West

As California’s drought drags into its fourth year, conservation efforts have become increasingly advantageous for homeowners. To that end, graywater systems like West’s offer an attractive set-it-and-forget-it approach to saving water. And depending on which system a resident chooses, the investment can be negligible compared with replacing a lawn with turf (which, for the record, West has also done).

Aside from a three-way valve – the system’s most expensive piece, which he ordered on Amazon for $8 – West used PVC pipes, PVC glue and a hose clamp (in the photo above, it’s that small metal ring around the black tubing, which is the discharge from the washing machine). A little leaking around the clamp was the only snag he ran into at the start, he said. Teflon tape nipped that in the bud.

A yellow handle sticks out from the piping on the wall just above the machine.

West turns the yellow handle to the left if he needs to do a load of laundry with bleach, or some other plant-unfriendly contaminant; this directs the water toward the sewer system, along with the water from his shower, toilet and kitchen sink. When the handle is turned up, water generated from the washing machine flows under the floor boards through pipes and tubes to his backyard.

There, four purple discs on the ground cover hose outlets surrounded by mulch, which distribute the graywater to West’s lemon and plum trees and Phoenix palms.

Mark West Graywater

West and his wife order Oasis detergent online, a biocompatible brand that goes easy on his plants out back. He estimates they do about three or four loads a week on weekends, generating 25 gallons of water each time. It’s more than enough to keep the trees and palms in his backyard happy.

“It’s so simple,” West told me. “The hardest thing to do was literally drilling through my tile [in the laundry room]. Any chucklehead can do this, swear to God.”

Apart from the physical work and supplies it takes to get the system going, though, there are the steps you must take beforehand to clear a project with the city.

Before jumping into the project, West said he reached out to Imperial Beach’s code compliance department to get the OK. Because there wasn’t any construction involved, he didn’t end up having to pay any fees or apply for permits.

Jack Holden, a building official with Imperial Beach’s Community Development Department, said the city allows a no-permit installation for a washing machine system as long as a few requirements laid out by the state’s plumbing code are met (check out page 5 of the code here).

“Sometimes a permit must be drawn if the washer is not on an outside wall or if a plumbing alteration is done, so every installation is different and we are here to help to make sure the owners’ plans will work,” Holden said in an email. “So we just ask that people come in or call and tell us their plans.”

The city of San Diego appears to be even more lenient. Jose Salcedo, an associate mechanical engineer for San Diego’s Department of Development Services, said the department doesn’t need any notification if you want to install a washing machine system, as long as you install it according to the plumbing code.

The only caveats the city lists for these no-permit systems are that they can’t include a potable water connection, use a pump (this isn’t referring to the one inside your washing machine) or affect other plumbing or electrical elements in the house.

But what if you’re dreaming a bit bigger? If you want to take greater advantage of your indoor water, incorporating your bathtub or shower, for example, you’ll have a few more hoops to jump through.

The Graywater Hierarchy

From easiest to install to needing the most intervention, the systems line up like this: First, the clothes-washer arrangement that West has. These are supposed to accommodate one- or two-family homes. That goes for simple graywater systems too, which incorporate showers or sinks and require more equipment than the washing-machine systems. Simple systems are supposed to discharge 250 gallons of water or less per day.

Next up are complex graywater systems, which are expected to discharge more than 250 gallons a day. To figure out your family’s projected output, check out page 7 of the California Plumbing Code, which appears to estimate you’ll do laundry every day, which we can all agree is insane.

Finally, there’s treated graywater – you’d have to go this route if you wanted to reuse discharged water to flush your toilet. Treated graywater has to meet minimum water quality requirements set by the county health department, and is still nonpotable.

Here’s a pretty nice flowchart (heh) of a simple graywater system, from the city’s public utilities department:

Graywater chart

Clearly there’s some more construction involved in simple and complex systems, not to mention requirements to measure soil depth and test the absorption rate in the beds around your plants. You’d have to apply for a construction permit with the city’s Development Services Department since these systems interrupt your usual plumbing.

Outside, graywater should be released underground, or at the very least covered by two inches of mulch, rock, soil or some kind of solid shield to minimize contact with humans or pets. The intended destination of the graywater once it’s outside your house is called an “irrigation field” – this could be a drip system like the one in the chart above, or a “mulch basin” that’s filled with mulch around the base of a tree or resembles a trough along a row of plants. These are in part to prevent runoff or a small pond forming because of your system – a big graywater no-no.

Fees and Plans

If you decide to install a washing machine system, you’re off the hook as far as fees.

For a simple or complex graywater system, you’ve got to get the all-clear from the city. Make an appointment at the Department of Development Services to submit a general application, along with two sets of: the plot plan (showing your property’s boundaries, nearby structures, the slope where drainage might flow down, etc.); graywater system plan (showing the anticipated size and location of your tank, water lines and waste pipes, valves, etc.); expected graywater discharge (as calculated using the California Plumbing Code); manufacturer specifications of those pieces; determined soil absorption rates and groundwater levels (the plumbing code dictates how to find the absorption rate, and a “registered design professional” needs to figure out and report your groundwater level for you).

You’ll pay $39 when you submit these plans, plus a $20 records fee. The fee for checking the plans is an hourly rate of $148.

You’ll need to undergo a minimum of two plumbing inspections at $127 an hour, and there might be further structural or geotechnical (examining the “earth materials” around your set-up) inspections for an additional hourly fee.

All of this can be found in more detail on the city’s site.

Dos and Don’ts

DON’T use your graywater system for water you just used to wash soiled diapers. It’s the same thing as water from the toilet, in the eyes of the city, so it needs to be directed to the sewer.

DON’T use your graywater for vegetable gardens. This water isn’t supposed to go on plants that yield veggies down in the dirt, where the surface skin you might bite into makes direct contact with the graywater. Fruit trees like West’s are a pretty perfect option instead, along with other trees, shrubs and lawns.

DON’T mix any hazardous chemicals in the water you’re planning to direct through your graywater system. This includes anything involved with cleaning car parts, washing greasy or oily rags or solutions from home photo labs – things like that.

DO keep your operation and maintenance manual handy. The person who installs your system is supposed to give you one once it’s up and running.

And DO warn the next tenant if you decide to move out of your graywater-abled abode.

All photos by Dustin Michelson.

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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