Kill Your Plumbing

The Greywater Guerrillas say it's time to use less water.

After the driest spring on record and a statewide drought proclamation, North Oakland resident Laura Allen would seem an ideal candidate for some sort of conservation award. Armed with little more than some piping, a few buckets, and a bit of creative plumbing knowledge, Allen built a home graywater system that bypasses the sewer system by reusing the water from her sinks, showers, and washing machine to flush the toilets and irrigate the deep-rooted plants and trees in her lush backyard garden. Her five-member household uses about 100 gallons of water a day, almost 80 percent less than an average East Bay household of the same size. Too bad that in California, what she’s doing is not allowed under the state plumbing code.

Even as the East Bay Municipal Utility District and a number of its peers have ordered mandatory water rationing, Allen’s plumbing system is a straight violation of graywater guidelines spelled out in the state plumbing code. With stringent parameters for things such as pipe size and burial depths and soil tests, the code is primarily designed for industrial-sized systems, replete with health precautions related to harmful bacteria.

Drawn up in 1995 by California’s departments of health and water resources, it was the first state-level graywater guidelines, inspiring a number of other states throughout the country to follow suit. Yet many advocates of graywater have long asserted that the code is outdated and unnecessarily restrictive, making it far too expensive and complicated for most homeowners to install their own systems, and ultimately resulting in millions of wasted gallons each year. Some have actively lobbied officials in Sacramento to amend the code to resemble those of more arid states such as Arizona and New Mexico, which have guidelines that they say are far more reasonable for the average homeowner.

“California has such a bad code and makes it so restrictive that basically no one follows it,” said Allen, 32, an elementary school teacher who devotes much of her free time to spreading the graywater gospel. “We talk of water scarcity when we actually have a lot of water that we’re just dumping in the bay.”

Graywater, which includes all reused water from homes with the exception of toilets, comprises 50 to 80 percent of residential waste water. According to the American Water Works Association, the average American uses about seventy gallons of water per day, just for indoor use. That figure is nearly doubled when outdoor use is considered.

As cofounder of the Greywater Guerrillas, Allen and a handful of like-minded Bay Area plumbing activists offer occasional local workshops to help residents install simple clandestine systems. Part of a larger movement centered in arid regions of the west, the Guerrillas oppose the construction of new dams and encourage the use of graywater, lawfully or not, as a way of using water responsibly and respecting the ecological limits of a region. Allen is editor of Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground, a recently published history of water politics, do-it-yourself guide, and manifesto for the fringe conservation movement, which stresses direct action and individual responsibility over mainstream environmental activism.

She first got involved in the cause ten years ago, upset by the amount of water her presumably eco-conscious house was using. After attending two session of a plumbing class at Laney College, she headed down to the basement of her rental house, armed with little more than a saw and a flashlight. Lacking much of a plan, she and co-conspirator Cleo Weolfle-Erkskine found the shower drainpipe, severed it, and promptly wrote to their housemates: “Please don’t use the shower today, it temporarily drains into the basement.” After much trial and error, and what turned into a few days without shower water, the two constructed the first of many graywater systems.

The small systems outlined on the group’s web site,, cost a few hundred bucks at most, as compared with modifications that comply with the state’s plumbing code, which cost as much as $7,000 with materials and labor. Allen also points out the difference in turnaround time: While low-tech systems can be installed in a day or two with volunteer labor, more complex permitted systems can take years to work their way through the pipes of government permitting. Allen asserts that her group’s homespun modifications — of which she estimates that about 2,000 exist in the Bay Area alone — are just as effective as the legal ones in annually conserving thousands of gallons while not posing any health risks. She says there have been no known cases of illness caused by graywater in the United States.

And while Allen said she has never heard of any crackdowns of bootleg systems by county health or building inspectors, she believes that many more people would install their own graywater systems if the guidelines were looser. For instance, professional plumbers generally won’t do work that deviates from the code for fear of losing their licenses, and inspectors won’t grant permits to new construction and remodeling projects that include such guerrilla systems.

“Some people don’t care, they’re going to do it no matter what,” said Allen, who notes that the code practically applies the same precautions to graywater as it does to contaminated septic water. “Some people, they’ll wait until the code changes.”

Among the most vocal advocates for a revised plumbing code is Santa Barbara-based graywater guru Art Ludwig, an ecological systems designer whose web site,, offers hundreds of pages of installation suggestions, pitfalls, and overt commentary on water policy. Ludwig argues that graywater systems are a simple solution to many ecological problems and provide plants with healthy doses of nutrients — mainly phosphates from detergents — that serve as fertilizer.

“Unrealistic laws have poor participation rates,” Ludwig has written. “Santa Barbara, for example, has issued approximately ten permits for graywater systems between 1989 and 1998. There is evidence that during this time of severe drought over 50,000 Santa Barbarans used gray water! There are so many obviously overkill requirements that the entire law, including the sensible provisions, is dismissed as a source of design guidance.”

A key consultant in drafting and lobbying for the code was Steve Bilson, founder of ReWater Systems, a company that manufactures and installs legal graywater irrigation systems. While his firm has installed more than 1,000 code-compliant systems, he’s publicly admitted that the current code is so overly detailed that bootlegged systems make more sense in many circumstances.

Even some local water officials, increasingly anxious about the level of their shrinking reservoirs, question the code’s logic. Generally steering clear of the argument, they’ve grown accustomed to turning a blind eye on illegal conservation activity. “We encourage water conservation, and how the homeowner does it is really their call,” said EBMUD Water Conservation Administrator Dick Bennett, who notes that in the summertime, about half of all water used indoors can be put into the landscape. Guerrilla graywater installers, he added “are to be commended in the sense that they’re saving water.”

Bennett traces the state plumbing code’s current restrictions back to the state health department in the ’90s, which he said was against allowing graywater use altogether. In a compromise, he said, health officials consented to the guidelines with the addition of a clause requiring that graywater be transmitted nine inches underground — to avoid possible surface leakage of contaminated water. Such a depth not only makes it more complicated and costly to lay piping, it prohibits using graywater for the irrigation of lawns and other shallow-rooted inedible plants that typically require heavy irrigation.

“That part of the code is pretty onerous,” said Bennett, expressing hope that legislative pressure might mount to revise the code during current drought conditions. “It makes it a lot harder for the average person to deliver it legally.” Bennett referred to the California droughts of 1976 and 1988, when there was a ban on all outside water use and people ran hoses outside their houses or collected buckets to water their gardens. Although blatantly illegal, he never heard of any citations being issued.

In contract, he added, Arizona’s plumbing code allows graywater to be applied at the surface with a drip system. While it can’t be spayed, it doesn’t necessitate a deep trench, and there have never been health issues associated with that. “Arizona’s doing it,” he said. “Why isn’t it good enough for California?”

But changing a fourteen-year-old regulation is no easy task, as was made abundantly clear when a state Department of Health Services spokeswoman, asked about the graywater code, said it was completely under the jurisdiction of the water conservation department. However, Simon Eching, an official with the latter agency responded: “Whatever was decided was based on health concerns. We can’t revise the law by ourselves.”

On a recent evening, Allen proudly displayed the plumbing in the North Oakland house that she co-owns. Named House of Appropriate Urban Technology, or HAUT House, it has six separate graywater systems, one for each fixture, including nearly every sink and shower as well as the clothes washer. In each system, the used water is diverted from the drain, piped either directly to the irrigation system in the garden, or into large holding drums where it’s left to settle before hitting the plants. A series of valves control the flow and direction of the system. Toilet water, considered black water, is never supposed to be reused, but since the idea of flushing gallons of potable water down the drain is unacceptable to Allen, she recently set up a waterless composting toilet in one of her bathrooms. The tiled wooden box toilet has two five-gallon collection containers, one for feces and one for urine. The system is sealed to prevent any odor from being released, and after each use, woodchips are added. When full, the containers are emptied through a hatch on the side of the house into outside drums, where the feces compost for a year. In the other bathroom, she disconnected the pipe under the sink and replaced it with a bucket. When full, she pours the water into the toilet bowl to flush it.

Allen’s lush vegetable garden, shaded by verdant kiwi and apricot trees, eagerly receives her graywater. There’s not much plumbing to see; most of it is buried well underground, positioned to soak into the mulch and water the deep-rooted plants. Among the most visible installations is a wetland constructed in an old bathtub, filled with gravel and tall cattails, the roots of which purify the gray water. Although a testament to nature’s cleaning ability, Allen said such a system ends up sucking up too much water and lacks the efficiency of direct graywater irrigation.

She insists that many of the potential bacterial health issues can be easily abated by setting up a system that goes immediately into the ground, is deep enough to never surface, and evenly irrigates either non-edible plants or ones that produce fruit far above the ground. It’s also important, she notes, to use eco-friendly shampoos and soaps and to never pour bleach or other toxic chemicals down the drain.

“When you shower, your plants are getting watered,” she said. “These are systems that are really simple. There are no tanks and pumps and this and that. It’s important to look at low tech.”

The materials for each of Allen’s various graywater installations cost between $30 and $200. In contrast, the Eco-House, a Berkeley demonstration house operated by the Ecology Center, applied for a permit to build its graywater system, a far more complex installation that also includes a constructed wetland. Materials for the code-compliant project cost around $4,000.

Oakland resident Christina Bertea has been a licensed plumber for more than ten years, but just recently got involved with the Guerrillas. A strong proponent of low-tech systems, she is hesitant to install them professionally because of the code issues.

“I’m coming from a place of being totally indoctrinated,” she said. “I understand the mindset of formal training about following the code, but in this case it is more important to be reusing the water.” With reasonable standards, she added, local utility districts could educate their clients on how to safely recycling graywater. “This precious thing, clean potable water at our tap, that much of the world wished they had, we use it once and dump it. We need to rethink our whole relationship to water.”


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