Reusing Water to Make Every Drop Count : Conservation: Some people are rigging their homes with devices that let them use gray water in their yards.


If the plastic buckets in Norma Trost and Tim Foor’s hallway don’t tip visitors off, the garden hose sticking out the bathroom window offers conclusive proof: the Spring Valley couple take water conservation very seriously.

For the past month, they’ve put every drop of water that has fallen from their faucets to double- and triple-use. Before a shower or shave, they catch the warm-up water in a bucket. Trost boils that to wash dishes, and, when she’s done, she saves the rinse water to pour on the yard. Used shower water is collected in the tub and then pumped out the window (via the garden hose) to water the lawn and plants.

Buckets are everywhere. There are 32-gallon drums outside to store the used shower water, or “gray water.” There’s a tiny pail that fits into the sink in the upstairs bathroom. Five-gallon buckets are in the hallways and on the stairway landing--equipped with handles, they are perfect for hauling clean water (which Trost calls “white water”) for use around the house.

“We call it our Jack and Jill routine--we’re lugging water up and down stairs,” said Trost, a public information officer for the San Diego Unified School District. Foor, who owns a San Diego machine shop, threw his back out carrying one bucket, she said. But, despite that, she said, the results have made it worth the effort.


By Trost’s calculations, the couple is using an average of 76 gallons a day--less than one-third of the amount the Helix Water District has asked them to use to achieve a 50% cutback. And so far--at least during these recent rainy weeks--they’ve been able to keep their lawn green and their trees alive.

With slightly more than a week to go before mandatory water use prohibitions are imposed across the county, Trost and Foor are among several San Diegans who have come up with creative ways to save water. Driven by competing desires to be responsible citizens and to preserve their lawns, many are rigging their homes with devices that let them reuse gray water on their yards.

There’s only one problem with the innovative plans: technically, at least, they’re illegal.

“Any water that’s waste water, it is illegal to discharge that on the surface of the ground,” said Mike Devine, San Diego County’s chief of environmental health services, who said his office is getting 200 calls a day from people curious about how to use gray water.

Devine said the use of gray water for below-ground irrigation is completely safe. Step-by-step directions for installing such a system are available from the county in a 15-page pamphlet titled, “A Homeowner’s Guide to Temporary Use of Gray Water During a Drought Emergency.”

But the more common use of gray water above ground, Devine said, can threaten public health, especially if it is stored for long times and allowed to stagnate. Even the cleanest people leave bacteria in the water after they bathe, Devine said, and that bacteria can cause illness.

“What’s in the gray water, if your pet drinks it and comes in and licks your kid’s face, you’ve got a potential for spread of disease,” he said, adding that the level of bacteria can vary widely. “If somebody takes a real dilute shower, it may be that that’s not a harmful product. But, if the next person has an infant in diapers, there could be fecal contamination there. There’s no way to tell the public for sure that it’s going to be OK.”

The county’s main goal, Devine said, is to make people realize the risks--both to themselves and their plants, some of which will not thrive on a constant diet of soapy runoff.

But, although the use of gray water is a misdemeanor on the books, Devine says he doesn’t expect the county to press charges against anyone soon. County inspectors will respond to complaints, he said, but will probably not even cite violators unless they see a serious infraction.

“If they have a tight-fitting lid (on their storage drum), so there’s no danger of a child drowning, if everything looks in order and they turn (the water) over regularly enough so it doesn’t get septic, then, we wouldn’t cite them,” he said.

Jail terms? “Absolutely not,” Devine said. “We’d give them the advice on what they should do. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.”

That’s reassuring news to at least one Del Mar dentist and his wife, whose leafy yard is surviving completely on gray water and rain water they collect in trash cans outside their home. Still, although they were eager to give a reporter a tour of their homemade gray water collection setup, they were reluctant to divulge their identities.

“I realize we’re in, well, a gray area,” the dentist said, referring to the county regulations. He says he has not installed his system without thought to the risks. He fears that, over time, soap in the water will deposit salts and other damaging agents into the soil. But, for the short-term, he figures it’s better to try to keep his lawn alive.

Like Trost and Foor, the dentist and his wife and daughter are conserving in other ways too. They collect the warm-up water for their military-style showers (wet down; turn shower off; soap; turn shower on; rinse) in a bucket and pour it into the toilet, which is flushed less and less frequently these days.

But the dentist’s real pride and joy is his handcrafted gray water pipeline. One pipe, attached to the dishwasher discharge valve, weaves out of a kitchen window and into a 32-gallon drum outside. Another pipe leads from the clothes-washing machine to a second outdoor drum. The dentist plans eventually to modify this setup to allow him to discard the soapiest wash water and collect only the cleaner rinse water.

Lately, during the rain storms, the dentist diverted all the downspouts on his Del Mar cottage to collect the rainwater as well. Using an $8 pump that attaches to an electric drill, the dentist has pumped that water all over his front yard.

And, like Trost and Foor, he has realized a savings. By his own calculations this month, the three people in his household have used about 214 gallons a day--32 gallons less than their 50% cutback goal. And that average includes one weekend when the dentist’s other daughter and four friends came home from college.

“Six teens in the house!” he said, shaking his head.

His wife added, “You tell your kids all your life: ‘Flush! Flush! Flush!’ Then, all of a sudden, it’s, ‘Don’t flush!’ This has put me in the worst mood.”

Overall, though, the consensus among these conservation-minded households is that the Rube Goldberg-type devices can be gotten used to.

“It’s a pain in the neck, but it’s not that big a deal,” said the dentist.

“It’s a whole new way of operating, but, if you think about it, it’s not that different,” Trost said. “You have to do it in moderation and you have to decide what you’re capable of. We’re young and healthy, and five gallons is still pretty heavy.”

So far, she and her husband have saved so much that they could probably go back to long, blasting showers and still stay within their limits.

“But I don’t think it’s socially conscious,” Trost said. After a short pause, she added, “Ask me again in three months.”