New Times article: Shower to Flower

Josh Carmichael started installing simple gray water systems with landscaping to accompany it in 2009, after California plumbing laws changed to encourage gray water use. At first, he constructed about one system per year as part of his environmental landscape and design work, but gradually, as the reservoirs emptied, that part of his business picked up, and then it exploded. In the second week of July alone, Carmichael installed three new systems around SLO County—laundry-to-landscape systems that irrigate a garden. He said he averages about one per month now. 

“It’s just more acceptable now,” said Carmichael, who owns Carmichael Environmental Landscape and Design serving the Central Coast. “Recycling water is just another way to recycle. You recycle everything else, why not learn how to use this too?” 

Gray water’s a class of water that has been used, but not spent. The water we drink is called potable. The stuff that flows from faucets and flushes toilets is, for the most part, potable water. Once it leaves the pipes, however, it becomes gray water or black water, depending on how it’s used. Water used in kitchen sinks and toilets is considered blackwater—it’s got too much bacteria and solid waste, so it’s no longer safe to re-use, unless it’s treated. Water from laundry, non-kitchen sinks, and showers has less harmful bacteria, and can be used to water landscapes. That’s gray water: lightly used water that can be reused without being treated. 

On a side note, water recycling is not the same as “recycled water,” which many cities are beginning to use. “Recycled water” is black or gray water that’s been treated at a waste treatment plant, and then reused for irrigation or to support fish in streams. The Damon Garcia sports field in SLO, for example, uses recycled water to irrigate the grass. 

Reusing water isn’t a new concept. Many people already use gray water by putting a bucket in the shower and catching water for flushing the toilet or watering plants. That’s about as simple as a system can get. What’s new is the systematic, automatic approach. Not everyone wants to carry a sloshing 5-gallon bucket to the garden every time they shower. What Carmichael and other gray water installers provide is ease and convenience. 

“I’m not telling people to change their lifestyle,” Carmichael said. “I am saying change the materials they use to live better.” 

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