One simple, cost-effective way to reduce your water use is to set up a greywater system that allows you to capture and redirect water from your washing machine for use on landscape trees, shrubs, ground covers, and lawn. (It should not be used on vegetable gardens where you are growing root crops or where edibles touch the ground.)
On average, a laundry-to-landscape system will recapture 17 gallons a day per person. For a family of four over one month, that amounts to a whopping 2,000 gallons for reuse.
Some counties offer rebate programs that cover all or part of the material costs for setting up a greywater system. The Santa Clara Valley Water District offers a Graywater Laundry to Landscape Rebate for properly connecting your washing machine to a greywater irrigation system. For most cities in the district the rebate is $200; some, such as Cupertino, are subsidizing the program and offering $400 per household.
According to Justin Burks, manager of the rebate program, “laundry to landscape greywater systems are simple, relative to other greywater systems. Most folks are able to set the system up over a long weekend or two.” But if you aren't all that handy, or just don't have the time, there are many trained professionals who can do the job for you. Installation prices range from around $700 to $1,000, including materials. A properly maintained system should last about 10 years.
Greywater can't be stored; it needs to be distributed to one or more areas that have been dug out, backfilled with mulch and are large enough to absorb the water. The mulch basin must be large enough to prevent runoff or pooling, and tubing needs to labeled appropriately so the water isn't used for drinking.
When you apply for the rebate, the water district will provide you with the square footage needed for a minimum mulch basin, based on your washer's age and type, the amount of laundry you do and the soil type on your property. In many areas, no permit is needed, but customers must verify that with their local planning or building department before starting the project.
No pre-inspection by the water district is necessary, but after installation, an inspector will visit to verify the system was set up and is performing properly. After passing the post-inspection, applicants will receive their rebate checks in four to six weeks.
When using the system, you will need to use biodegradable and non-toxic detergent (widely available) and avoid bleach, since it can be harmful to plants and soil. It's also best to avoid using greywater to irrigate acid-loving, pH-sensitive plants, such as blueberries, ferns, camellias, and rhododendrons.
“Recycling and reusing every drop of water that you possibly can not only saves you money, it's the right thing to do,” says Richard Santos, vice chair of the district's board of directors. “Using water wisely, especially on your landscape, is a win-win!”
But before you reach for that toolkit, go to the website valleywater.org to check out the rebate requirements and fill out the application. Wait to receive a Notice to Proceed before starting work.
Although a greywater system may not be at the top of your holiday wish list, it truly is a gift that will keep giving back — to you, your family and the planet!
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the December 10 print issue of the San Jose Mercury News.