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Tips and inspiration for gardening in drought
Home & Garden

Recycling bath water takes muscle

Even before L.A.'s new water restrictions were scheduled to kick in, I'd been using a bucket to haul the murky bath waters from my dirt-encrusted 6-year-old's nightly scrub-down into my garden. I was on a mission to save as much water as possible, and the 30 gallons he was defiling every night seemed like an excellent resource.

The upside is I now have a lower water bill -- and a raging pair of biceps, just in time for summer! The downside: The routine is a total drag.

Well-intentioned as it was, my enthusiasm for hauling so much water, bucket by sloshy bucket, was on the wane when I heard from the Australian company Greywater Recycler International. Some genius in the land from down under had invented something called an Enviro Water Boy, which promised to recycle my bath water, a.k.a. gray water, without having to futz with any plumbing. It sounded ideal. Clearly, I needed this thing -- I wanted this thing -- even though I had a hard time conceiving how it would work.

Gray water is the wastewater generated from household sinks, washing machines and baths or showers. Already, I'm sort of a maniac for reusing it. It just makes sense to me, especially in desert areas during a drought. It is, however, largely illegal in California, which requires an elaborate and expensive system of plumbing, pumps and filters for systems to be legit. Although a new gray water code is being hammered out in Sacramento and is likely to legalize laundry water diversion systems like the one I (illegally) installed at my house last year, it only addresses one source of household gray water. It also won't go into effect until January 2011.

We're in a drought right now -- a drought that may continue -- so I'm trying to do my part by reducing my use of imported water and reusing as much as possible. Outdoor irrigation accounts for about 40% of a household's water use, according to the L.A. Department of Water and Power. The rest comes from inside the home, so it would make sense that whatever water can be salvaged from inside can be used for outdoor plants.

The top water hogs in a home: the toilet (which accounts for 26.7% of daily use), laundry machine (21.7%), shower/bath (18.5%), faucets (16.7%) and dishwasher (1.4%), according to the website H20use.com. I already have low-flow and composting toilets, an unsanctioned gray water system for my laundry and a pan in my kitchen sink to catch the water I use from hand-washing my dishes.

The shower and bath were next on my list. In fact, they'd been on my list since fall, when I purchased the valves and other plumbing I needed to divert the water from the sewer and into my landscape instead. A gray-water system for a bathtub or shower is a lot trickier than a washing machine, I learned when I crawled into the cramped , spider-web-ridden underbelly of my 1919 bungalow and checked out the maze of rusty pipes and fittings that needed to be hacksawed, removed and reconfigured. I don't like spiders. I'm not that handy. And the licensed plumber I approached about doing the job for me eventually stopped returning my calls.

That left me with the most lo-fi of options: a bucket. A gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds. An average bath uses about 30 gallons. Each night, it took me about 15 trips and twice as many minutes to complete this laborious task.

Until my Enviro Water Boy showed up. It's a large plastic contraption that looks something like a city-issued trash can, only smaller. It's equipped with a handle, two wheels and two plumbing fixtures with hoses protruding from the front -- one for sucking (and filtering) the water out of a bath or shower stall, the other to pump it out of its holding tank.

It's like a bathwater vacuum, only there's no cord. Plugging it into the wall for a few hours juices the battery, which runs the inlet and outlet pumps and lasts, in my experience, about a week even when used twice a day.

It's pretty ingenious, but it's also quite heavy. The model I've been sampling holds 16 gallons. That's a short shower by American standards. Still, it's a lot of liquid to haul around. When full, the water alone weighs about 135 pounds. Add 65 pounds for the device itself, and you feel like you're wheeling around a linebacker. It's a little unwieldy, especially for someone like me, who needs to tackle three steps to get the Enviro Water Boy outside and to my trees. But it's doable.

And far preferable to buckets.

Using the Enviro Water Boy, I continued the workout regimen I'd begun with my little silver pail, only the process was a lot easier and less time consuming. It isn't without its glitches, though. The Enviro Water Boy is supposed to turn itself off when it gets to capacity, but mine doesn't. The first time I used it, it sucked the water up the hose, into its cargo hold . . . and onto my floor when the tank was full. When I tilted it back onto its wheels to roll it outside, the seam that's supposed to keep the water inside broke, which led to further sloshing. And the sprayer hose that draws water out of the Enviro Water Boy popped off after a mere three uses, requiring me to add a hose clamp to keep it in place.

Even with its flaws, I'm still a huge fan. None of its problems interfered with its operation, which is otherwise easy. And it doesn't cost that much: $299 for the 8-gallon version, $359 for 16 gallons, $399 for 24 gallons, and that includes shipping from Australia. I asked the company's chief executive what guarantee or service is available for this product, since it doesn't have distribution or a support system in the U.S. There's a one-year replacement warranty, he told me. If anything goes wrong, customers send the unit back and the company ships a new one. A service kit is also available for the battery. The pumps will hold up for at least 2,500 hours, the company says.

Like my laundry machine rig, which required me to switch to a vegetable-based, salt-free detergent so I wouldn't destroy my plants, the Enviro Water Boy has prompted me to change my bath products. The salon shampoos and conditioners I've been using contain a largely unpronounceable list of things that can't possibly be good for the trees whose produce I plan to eat. Methylchloroisothiazolinone, anyone?

I had changed to Dr. Bronner's pure castile soap, but I recently switched my shampoo to Alaffia, an obscure brand I found at Whole Foods that was the most natural product I could find. So far, my plants seem happy. And so do my pocketbook and my conscience.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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