If you’re tuned into the ongoing conversation about recycling and water use reduction in the United States, you may be familiar with the term greywater. But even if you’ve heard it before, you may still be wondering, “What is greywater?” In short, greywater is used water from your home’s sinks, bathtubs, showers, and washing machine. Wastewater from toilets is considered raw sewage and cannot be reused, and water from the dishwasher contains harsh soaps and detergents, so it doesn’t qualify as greywater, either.

Why Is Greywater Important?

Although many Americans aren’t aware of the nation’s decreasing supply of clean water until summer droughts and their accompanying water usage restrictions come along, the EPA reports that water use in the US is increasing every year even though the planet’s clean water supply is dwindling. Greywater saves water, energy, and money by reusing water that would otherwise end up in a city sewer system. If greywater enters a body of water, it is considered a pollutant, so diverting it for irrigation keeps it out of sewer and septic systems that could leak into lakes, rivers, and streams.

Uses for Greywater

The trace amounts of dirt, food, grease, and biological matter contained in greywater make it excellent for the irrigation of plants but unfit for human consumption. Greywater is not safe to use directly on the edible parts of plants or for the irrigation of root vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, and radishes, but it is perfect for watering ornamental plants, fruit trees, and the roots of edible plants. If you choose to use a greywater system, it is important to remember that watering your plants will need to be an active process. The nature of greywater requires that it not be allowed to pool or puddle on the ground, and it cannot be used in a portable sprinkler or sprinkler system. Instead, use a hose or drip irrigation system to water plants directly, and make sure that the water soaks into the soil.

Setting Up a Greywater System

There are many different ways to set up a greywater system, and its size and complexity depend largely on the intended use. For a single-family system, most sources recommend a system that is as simple as possible. Unless your yard is uphill from your home, you probably won’t even need a pump for your greywater system—gravity will do the work for you. If, however, your yard slopes uphill, you may need a slightly more complicated system that includes a pump.

Diverting greywater from a washing machine is one of the easiest ways to start a small, simple greywater system. The hose leaving the washing machine can be easily equipped with a diverter valve to send the used water to a large drum outside the home. A hose attached to the bottom of the drum can then be used to water plants—no need for a pump. You can also set up systems to divert greywater from a shower or a kitchen sink, but be sure to check your local ordinances. Some areas prohibit greywater from kitchen sinks because of the higher level of biological material that passes through the drain.

Greywater Treatment

One of the advantages of using greywater for the irrigation of plants is that it doesn’t really need to be treated. Many of the so-called contaminants in greywater provide beneficial nutrients for plants, but there are some guidelines to follow to keep truly harmful substances out of your greywater supply. Home greywater systems typically don’t treat or sanitize the water to remove any chemicals or toxic substances, so you’ll need to be mindful of what you send down the drain. Don’t use bleach or boron, and stay away from artificial dyes and colorants. Because excess sodium can inhibit plant growth, avoid using soaps that contain salts. Avoid synthetic fragrances and preservatives such as phenoxyethanol and polyethylene glycol. These chemicals are found in many soaps and cosmetics, so it’s a good idea to start reading labels and finding alternatives before putting your greywater system into action. Use greywater within a day of collecting it to avoid encountering a vat of stinky water, and make sure that people and animals can’t come into contact with it.

Setting up a greywater system may seem like a daunting proposition, but it can be as simple or as complex as you choose. There are plenty of resources online with detailed plans and directions to help you get started, and the simpler systems usually require very little ongoing maintenance. Conserving water by reusing it for irrigation is a smart response to the world’s growing water shortage, and as a bonus, you’ll end up with beautiful, healthy plants.

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Sources: Greywater Action; How Stuff Works; New Mexico State University; Oasis Design.