By: Sandra Barrera
In the backyard of Penny Pengra’s Glendale home, there are no signs of the historic drought that has ravaged Southern California for the past three years.
“My plants are crazy awesome,” says the 40-something who works in television, crediting her lush, green backyard oasis to the affordable, low-tech grey water system she had installed last year.
In Southern California, gardens are going grey. Grey water systems that take spent water from showers, bathroom faucets and washers and use it to quench the landscape are seen by some as the next step in sustainable gardening across bone-dry Southern California. The systems vary from simple gravity-flow styles that don’t require a filter or pump to high-end models like the self-cleaning ReWater — the Rolls Royce of grey water systems.
Of all the possible setups, Pengra went with a basic filterless, pumpless unit that relies on gravity to drive bath water to the heavily-planted perimeter of her downsloping yard, where non-native shrubs and trees flourish. Grey water isn’t recommended for lawns, or edible garden, so the small island of grass is watered the old-fashioned way: by sprinkler.
Everything else gets irrigated by a flip of a switch.
“If it’s been raining and I don’t want all my water to go down to my plants, or I’m cleaning with some extra heavy-duty solvents, I can flip the switch and it goes straight to the sewer,” she says, adding she’ll divert water back to the sewer on occasion just to prevent her pipes from clogging up. “You don’t even know how easy it is to use.”
While it’s been a happy experiment for Pengra, sustainable landscaper Marilee Kuhlman of L.A.-based Comfort Zones Garden Design is planning to do away with the system she installed at the Encino home of her client, Jim Davidson.
“This is a worst-case scenario,” she says, and she isn’t kidding.
The grey water system is one of a few irrigation alternatives used in the garden, which includes four 5,000-gallon cisterns and an underground infiltration system to collect rainwater runoff to use in the landscape via drip. Only on the grass is potable water used through highly efficient MP rotator sprinkler heads.
With the grey water system, water drains from a single shower to a 35-gallon tank in the garden buried just below the surface. A supplemental irrigation system sends potable water into the container to get it going. When the tank is full, the water is automatically pumped to a specific area of the yard, and that’s when the trouble starts.
“We have one zone that was getting water every single day, which promoted waterborne fungi to grow and it’s attacked the plants; you’ll see the plants are dead,” she says, adding another hurdle was the area’s water-repellent soil. “We have to water more slowly to get the water to penetrate.”
Grey water isn’t meant to be stored. If it isn’t emptied daily, anaerobic bacteria will grow in it.
“When we did this, we were overcompensating,” Kuhlmann says, explaining that in addition to fungi, a soils report shows a jump to toxic levels of phosphorus since November 2011, when the garden was installed. “There’s nothing that can attribute that since we’re not using any phosphorus fertilizers; that’s coming out of the grey water system, and that’s one of the nutrients that are in soaps.”
Still another downside is the period cleaning of the filter that captures soap, sludge and other debris.
“Filters can be pretty gross so we tend to stick to really low-tech systems that have no filters and just bigger pipes so there’s no clogging issues,” says Leigh Jerrard, a licensed architect who founded Greywater Corps five years ago and now installs residential grey water systems from Long Beach to Topanga to Claremont.
He’s also worked with the city of Los Angeles to streamline the permit process for basic systems.
Perhaps the simplest is a laundry to landscape setup easy enough for any handy homeowner to take on because it requires no permit, inspection or fees. In fact, there’s a diagram of it at http://greywatercorps.com where homeowners can also sign up for upcoming seminars intended to promote grey water systems.
At his own Glassell Park home, Jerrard irrigates his peaches, plums, avocados and other fruit trees on grey water. The amount is regulated by simply moving around a nozzle-less hose between loads of laundry or showers — a practice he adopted during the recession.
“I had just bought a house, I planted a bunch of fruit trees and I had a 2-year-old son who was taking a lot of baths,” he says. “When I’d pull the plug, 50 gallons of water would go down the drain. It was maddening to me that we couldn’t recapture that and use it on our plants.”
Jerrard started rigging up homemade systems. He took an installation how-to seminar through Greywater Action, read everything he could about grey water systems and got to work.
“It’s been a slow growth over the years but finally things are really busy for us,” he says. “If the drought continues, honestly, I could see all new construction will have grey water systems of some kind because it really doesn’t make sense to put usable water in the sewer system.”
Not that Pengra needed any convincing.
“I have lived all over this country and so I know how horrible it is here in California; it is terrible,” she says. “We live in a desert. That’s why I decided I would have a grey water system. It is the responsible thing to do.”