The greywater solution

Relaxed state laws let locals re-plumb their homes to recycle water

Facing an ongoing drought in California, the state government has passed an emergency bill to make it feasible for Californians to recycle their own water, and two Mountain View households are among the first to do so.

As of Aug. 4, state law allows greywater -- the non-potable water from washing machines, bathtubs and bathroom sinks -- to be reused, typically for landscaping. Last week, Mountain View-based Vox Design Group was installing a basic greywater system on a house on Eldora Drive, which will recycle the water from the home's washing machine to go to three trees in the backyard. It is possibly the first such installation under the new law.

"A number of us have been advocating for this change for a long time," said Forrest Linebarger, president of Vox. "It's so nice to see California get a law straight, especially one we've been asking for." (Linebarger is a former Home & Garden columnist for the Voice who wrote about greywater last year.)

Linebarger said that on average, 50 percent of a home's water goes to landscaping. But a greywater system can reduce water use by more than 20 percent.

Previously in California, such systems were installed only by outlaw groups like the Oakland-based "Greywater Guerillas." The state had required civil engineers to be involved before a costly permit could be issued for a greywater system costing upwards of $15,000. Few, if any, were built legally, Linebarger said.

Today, a basic system from a single source, such as a bathroom sink or a washing machine, can be installed by anyone, without a permit, and with materials costing around $200. State law still requires that you follow a few rules, however, and water from toilets and kitchen sinks is considered "black water" and off limits.

Meanwhile, a "complex" system, which can recycle all of the greywater in a house, still requires a permit, but it's less costly than before. Vox is also installing one of those on a different house on Monroe Drive.

Greywater's benefits for a homeowner include reduced water bills and reduced load on septic tanks. The wider environmental benefits include reduced demand on the state's water supplies, reduced groundwater depletion and reduced energy use. Linebarger says California uses 25 percent of its consumed electricity pumping and treating water.

On Eldora Drive, PVC pipe was hooked to the back of the home's washing machine through a valve that must be built in to allow the option of running the water into the sewer (a good option to have when using bleach, which can kill plants). The pipe, which has to be marked a certain way to indicate that it isn't drinking water, was run under the house to the backyard's three trees. The water remains underground, flowing into an upside-down bucket buried in a trench filled with mulch, which filters the water before it reaches the trees.

As part of normal garden maintenance, the mulch is cleaned out and replaced periodically. The bucket also has a removable cap, which allows it to be cleaned out.

The water can also be pumped by the washing machine into an elevated container, such as a 55-gallon drum, which can be gravity-fed to a garden hose for watering plants.

"Lawns are the least likely place to use it," Linebarger said. "It's great for trees, bushes and gardens." He added that state law doesn't allow greywater to contact vegetables or other edibles. "It is better to do it on the perimeter landscaping of your house."

The water can also be used to flush toilets, but "I don't like to do it because once you get into pumping and storing you are adding so much to the cost," Linebarger said.


For text of the new greywater law, visit For generally helpful advice on greywater use, visit


Like this comment
Posted by USA
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 15, 2009 at 2:47 pm

USA is a registered user.

So, the state legislature passes "emergency" legislation to undo the excessive legislation that it created itself that had led to the creation of underground gorilla groups.

Lordy, where do I even begin with this one?

Like this comment
Posted by Sarah
a resident of another community
on Sep 17, 2009 at 9:56 pm

I wish residential construction sites wouldn't be allowed to pump out groundwater for months or years, as is typical in Palo Alto. Now that change would reduce groundwater depletion.

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