My Laundry-to-Landscape Greywater System Will Take a 25,000 Gallon Bite Out of the Drought

Thomas Smith

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Amid California’s historic drought — which is the worst one the West has seen in 1,200+ years — we often hear about high-tech solutions like desalinization plants and cloud-seeding drones. But there’s already a simple, money-saving, drought-busting solution you can install in your home today.

It’s called a laundry-to-landscape greywater system. I just installed one in my house in the East Bay; my system will save me 25,000 gallons of water per year, nourish a beautiful garden despite watering restrictions, reduce my carbon footprint and help take a bite out of California’s historic drought. Applied at scale, simple greywater systems could save the Bay Area billions of gallons of water every year.

Local Water Recycling

Laundry-to-landscape (L2L) greywater systems are fairly simple. Basically, they’re a form of local water recycling. When you wash your clothes in the washing machine, the water your machine uses is typically flushed down the sewer after the wash cycle. That’s a waste — unless you’re a seriously dirty person, your used laundry water is still fairly clean and germ-free and could be put to better use.

L2L systems take advantage of this by diverting the water from your washing machine and using it to water your landscaping or backyard garden instead of flushing it away. When your washer completes a cycle, its internal pump moves the wash water through a valve, into a special pipe, and out into a system of hoses buried in your yard. Each hose ends in a mulch basin — basically, a hole filled with wood chips — delivering that dose of life-giving water directly to your backyard plants’ roots.

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L2L greywater systems save a ton of water. The average American family washes about 400 loads of laundry per year, burning through about 16,000 gallons of water. Even here in the water-wise Bay Area, a 2012 study showed that the average Marin County home uses about 14,500 gallons per year for clothes washing. An L2L system diverts every drop of that water into your landscaping instead of sending it down the drain.

That reduces your need to use drinkable water for irrigation since the L2L system essentially replaces your existing sprinklers or drip irrigation system. An L2L system effectively kills two birds with one stone — it recycles the washing water you’d normally waste while also drastically reducing the amount of drinkable water you need to use for irrigation.

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The best thing about an L2L system? In most places in the Bay Area, you don’t need a permit to install one. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of working with your local building department (and forking over the thousands of dollars that some building permits can cost), you’ll get what a huge advantage that is.

State approval for L2L greywater systems was a hard-fought battle, and until 2009 such systems were illegal. Through the tireless work of groups like Greywater Action, though, the California plumbing code now explicitly accepts and authorizes L2L systems. A handy homeowner with some willing friends can install one over a weekend for around $300. Professionally-installed systems typically cost between $1,000 and $2,000.

Discovering Greywater

Like most Californians, I had never heard of a laundry-to-landscape greywater system, despite living in the state for nearly a decade. As the drought intensified earlier this year, though, our local water utility EBMUD started placing increasingly strict limits on water usage. I love my backyard landscape and didn’t want to see it shrivel and die for lack of watering. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to be “that guy” who keeps blithely watering his plants despite the ravages of a historic drought.

In researching potential solutions, I happened upon the website of Greywater Landscape Design. The company is the brainchild of Joseah Rosales, a Bay Area native. Rosales, an avid snowboarder and the holder of an MBA from Indiana University, loved visiting the Sierra Nevada mountains and seeing the dense snowpack growing up. Over time, though, Rosales became acutely aware of how fast that precious snowpack — which supplies much of the water for the Bay Area — was dwindling.

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In 2014, Rosales pivoted from his corporate career managing supply chains for Silicon Valley companies like San Disk and Hewlett-Packard, teamed up with two childhood friends, and launched Greywater Landscape Design. His company has grown over the last several years, and work has been busy as the state’s current drought intensified. Rosale’s company installs complex pumped greywater systems for recycling water from showers and tubs, but a lot of their business is in installing L2L systems for homeowners like me.

My L2L Greywater System

After a site visit during which Rosales walked my landscape, peered behind my washing machine, and squeezed himself into the 18-inch crawlspace under my house, Greywater Landscape Design sent me a detailed quote for an L2L system. I decided to move ahead with installing it. Within a week, Rosales was there on my doorstep with his business partner Michael Plansky, a staff member, several massive spools of coiled, snake-like plastic tubing, and a van full of mulch.

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I’m lucky to live in a semi-rural area of Contra Costa County, which means I have a fairly large and reasonably unruly yard. With three kids, I also do a ton of laundry — about 50 loads per month. For that reason, the L2L system that Rosales designed for me is fairly complex, incorporating 11 mulch basins dotting the hillside on which my house sits.

Rosales began the installation process by staking out locations around my yard using small flags. One ingenious part of an L2L system is the fact that it uses your laundry machine’s existing pump to distribute water around your yard, eliminating the need for any external moving parts. Washing machine pumps are fairly strong — they’re designed to do such things as raising water out of a basement since East Coasters have their laundry room belowground. That means the pump can move water about 50 feet or more on a downward-sloping yard like mine, distributing it throughout the landscape.

Rosales and his team marked out a pathway that would take water to several flowering trees around my yard, as well as two newish fruit trees that I planted when I moved in. Those trees have always seemed unhappy with my drought-friendly watering practices, so the sudden bump in water should do them good.

I also had him route the system through a small plot of land where I hope to plant a vegetable garden. L2L systems work best on plants with deep roots (like trees), but you can still use them on other plants, provided that the edible part of the plant stays above ground (think tomatoes or raspberries, not carrots or potatoes.) Crucially, Rosales designed the system to replace three large sprinklers that I currently use in my garden, allowing me to “cap them off” and eliminate their water use.

After laying out the system, Rosales and his team set about installing it. Wielding a jackhammer-like electric shovel, Rosales’ staff member dug the mulch basins for my system, filling each with wood chips and capping it with a plastic cover, while Plansky dug trenches to route piping to each basin.

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The mulch basins allow the water to slowly percolate into the soil, nourishing nearby plants without flooding their roots. The basins also serve to naturally filter the water and to keep curious animals (like my dog Lance) away from it.

While Plansky and the staff member dug outdoors, Rosales handled the plumbing. He clearly loves his work. At one point in the installation, I walked into my laundry room to check how things were going. Rosales had just finished installing the component that routes water from my washer to the landscape, a core part of the system. He was beaming — I’ve never seen a man so happy about installing a diverter valve.

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In his former life, Rosales attended corporate events and met bigwigs like Michael Bloomberg, “back when I was presentable.” His Linkedin page shows a photo from this time in his life. He wears a suit, has close-cropped hair, and sports the wane, headshot-friendly half-smile of every other corporate profile you’ve ever seen on LinkedIn. Today Rosales wears coveralls, keeps his hair long, and pursues his mission of empowering homeowners to conserve California’s precious water resources. Although he appears to have been successful in his former career, this work is clearly a calling for Rosales, and it shows.

After rigging up my washer, Planksky and Rosales met in the middle, connecting the outdoor components of the system to the indoor ones. Such was Rosale’s commitment to conserving water that when he wanted to test the system, he insisted on doing some actual laundry for me rather than running my machine empty.

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In total, I calculated that my laundry to landscape system took about 18 person-hours to install. Again, while that’s within the reach of a dedicated DIYer with a weekend or two to kill, installing an L2L system to code is definitely an undertaking. My system cost a bit over $2,000–a typical amount for a professionally installed system of its size.

Living With Greywater

Now that the system is installed using it is dead simple. The only change I had to make was switching to a greywater-friendly laundry detergent. Because you’re dumping your wash water right into your yard, you don’t want it to be full of polluting chemicals that could harm your soil.

Instead, you need to use a low-salt, boron-free detergent. Studies have shown that if these are used consistently, an L2L greywater system won’t deplete the soil. In fact, it will actually improve the soil over time. All of a family’s collective ketchup stains and sullied napkins, combined with a bio-based detergent, translate into beneficial nutrients that help fertilize the soil.

Honestly, I had thought about switching to one of these detergents anyway since they’re better for sensitive skin. I’ve tested Sensitive Home and Ecos with my system, both of which work great and are greywater safe. The former has the inestimable advantage of being made in the Bay Area. (Full disclosure: I originally learned about Sensitive Home because the company sent me free samples to test for a YouTube video.) The aforementioned diverter valve allows me to direct water to the sewer instead of the yard if I’m using bleach or washing clothes soiled with chemicals.

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Otherwise, I do my laundry as I normally would. When the cycle finishes and my washer starts pumping out rinse water, the water travels through the pipes in my yard, making a vague hissing sound. It then pours out of the hoses in each of my mulch basins, directly nourishing the roots of my plants with gallons of watery goodness that would otherwise be wasted. Maybe I’m a nerd, but I find it thrilling.

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Greywater’s Impact

My system will also have a serious impact. Again, I do about 50 loads of laundry per month. My efficient washer uses about 20 gallons per load. That means my system will create about 12,000 gallons of recycled water per year.

I’ll likely save even more water than that, though. Since my L2L system delivers water directly to my plants’ roots, it’s far more efficient than the sprinklers I normally use for irrigation. It also allows me to water every day, versus the current limit of three days per week, and to water during the hottest parts of the day. All of this boosts efficiency.

Again, my system is designed to replace three irrigation sprinkler heads. Each one of those heads puts out 4.5 gallons per minute for 12 minutes, three times per week. Replacing those sprinklers will thus save me a total of around 25,000 gallons of water per year, not just the 12,000 gallons directly generated by my L2L system.

Of course, one might argue that I could be really hardcore and instead rip out all my landscaping, thus reducing my irrigation water usage to zero. That sounds like the greenest option, but it’s actually not ideal. Landscape elements like my flowering trees reduce local temperatures substantially, helping to prevent heat islands. They also suck carbon out of the air, lower wildfire risk, provide habitats for birds and other animals, and help nourish native pollinators. A lush garden watered by recycled greywater is much better than a barren landscape that uses no water at all.

My L2L system will cut my carbon footprint, too. Treating water, pumping it to my home, and purifying it once I’ve used it all takes energy and generates emissions. I calculated that my system would save about 200 pounds of carbon emissions per year — the same as driving my admittedly gas-guzzling minivan to Tahoe. (Rosales also pointed out that it will help “offset the guilt” from the small patch of lawn in my backyard.)

My own system already has some serious eco benefits. But If laundry to landscape systems were applied at scale, the impact on the Bay Area would be massive. If even a third of the Bay Area’s 2.5 million homes installed an L2L system like mine, we’d collectively save over 25 billion gallons of water per year. That’s more than the 18 billion gallons that a state-of-the-art desalinization plant would generate — all using a technology that basically amounts to some valves and tubing.

Invisible Systems

Given the potential impact, why haven’t laundry to landscape greywater systems caught on? As a recent San Francisco Chronicle article points out, the systems are by design fully underground and thus hidden. That makes them less likely to come up in conversations between neighbors than big, flashy technologies like solar panels.

Local governments have also largely failed to offer strong incentives to install L2L systems. For all the hemming and hawing about water shortages, California utilities charge shockingly little for water. My utility, for example, charges just 1.3 cents to deliver and remove one gallon of water.

At those rates, a $2,000 professionally-installed L2L system like mine would take about six years to pay for itself through water savings. Local governments could offer monetary incentives to offset the systems’ installation costs, but most don’t. My county provides a paltry $50 rebate for an L2L system. Many provide none at all. (Santa Clara is the exception, offering a generous $400 rebate.)

Over time, though, that could change. EBMUD has already hiked water rates 8% in response to the drought. If dry times persist, water could get a whole lot more expensive over the next few years. In that case, L2L systems will suddenly look a lot more attractive to many Bay Area residents who want to protect themselves against higher prices and stricter watering rules.

That future security is one of my favorite things about my L2L system. Now that I’ve installed it, I know that no matter what happens with the drought, that little section of my yard will go right on thriving. Even if EBMUD banned all outdoor watering, I could keep my trees, grow a veggie garden, and reap all the aesthetic and environmental benefits that come with backyard greenery. That feeling of abundance and environmental self-sufficiency was a major part of my family’s reason for investing in an L2L system.

L2L systems are also something of a gateway drug for more complex greywater systems that have even bigger impacts. My L2L system doesn’t irrigate my whole yard. But from Rosales’ site survey, I know that a larger pumped greywater system using water from my shower and bathtub would meet 100% of my watering needs. It’s good to know that if the drought gets really bad, such a system is just a phone call (and a sizeable check) away.

Ultimately, the biggest hurdle for L2L greywater systems is a lack of knowledge. Passing favorable laws was a huge start and a big feather in the cap of California’s regulators. Now, to encourage wider adoption, we need more people trained in installing the systems (including more resources for DIYers), more municipalities recognizing the importance of incentives and tax breaks, more real estate agents who can articulate the systems’ benefits to future buyers, more funders willing to finance system installation, and more people talking about and promoting greywater. In short, we need an ecosystem built around these systems.

Laundry to landscape greywater systems may seem humble, even boring. But they’re exactly the kind of ingenious, simple, available-today technology that — applied collectively and at scale — could help us persevere and thrive despite the drought.

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Award-winning entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Gado Images. Thomas writes, speaks and consults about artificial intelligence, privacy, food, photography, tech, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As a professional photographer, Thomas' photographic work regularly appears in publications worldwide. Pitches/news tips: tom@gadoimages.com

Lafayette, CA
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