By Daisy Yau
With Earth Day this month, the San Mateo Parent’s Club has been thinking about what we can do for the environment. Earlier, we published Michelle Hudson’s article, What I Did to Tackle My Kids’ (and My Own) “Climate Anxiety”. Meanwhile, I also had the privilege of speaking with Jay Beard about water conservation, a serious issue for the drought we’ve been experiencing in California. Jay is the owner of Heavywood Construction & Design, specializing in residential repairs and remodeling. He is an expert in water conservation (and power conservation too!).
Daisy: Why do you think water conservation is important?
Jay: Personally, what intensified my water conservation efforts were my Japanese maple trees. I saw that they were becoming dry, even while my water bill was going up. And I’m glad I have taken on these water conservation efforts. Water is simply a very limited resource for the whole world. In some parts of the world, bottled water is more expensive than Coca-Cola. Of the things that the earth provides us, water is one of the scarcest resources we have as human beings. If we aren’t stewards of it, it’s going to become our master.
D: I understand there are a variety of things you can do inside and outside of the home to conserve water. What are some things you can do inside the home?
J: There are two main directions: limiting water that comes out of faucets, and collecting the water that does come out but would otherwise be wasted.
As for limiting the water that comes out, make sure all of your faucets have working aerators. An aerator adds a screen to the end of a faucet, thereby adding air to the water, shaping the water stream, and restricting water flow. Be careful to restrict by the right amount, or else you’ll be frustrated with water usage. Typically, you can use 1.5 GPM (gallons per minute) for the kitchen, 1.5 GPM or 1.25 GPM in the bathrooms, and as low as 0.75 GPM for a utility or laundry sink. Shower heads are a standard 3.5 GPM. But many local water companies offer their customers free kits to lower shower heads to 2 GPM (see California Water Services, for example).
Along the same lines, while I realize it is not always easy to do, newer appliances typically have more efficient water usage. Upgrade when you can! You may be able to find a city or county or utility rebate.
D: What about collecting water inside the house?
J: I put a pasta pot or salad bowl in the kitchen sink to collect water from rinsing dishes. When it becomes full, or at the end of the day, I toss it onto the lawn or the plants in the yard.
We have a 5 gallon bucket in each bathroom to collect the water that comes out while waiting for water to heat up for use. I move this into a 45-50 gallon container in the backyard.
I admit, it’s hard for me to get others in my household to do it. Five gallons of water is about 45 pounds. I tell them that everyone can participate by keeping showers to 3-5 minutes.
D: I admire the effort you are putting into this. Conserving water is a good reason to move around the house. Now, what are some things you can do outside the home?
J: First simple thing to do: Make sure all spigots close tightly, and the seals work. Visually inspect hoses and drip lines as often as possible. Monthly or at least quarterly, check your water meter when you know there is no water running.
A larger project is to change your landscaping. Ground covers help maintain soil moisture. You can use wood chips, decorative rocks, and drought-resistant plants. In particular, PAMI pebbles are red, brown, bluish stones that are great for this purpose. They look nice when dry, but become especially pretty when wet after the rain.
D: Speaking of rain, I know that you collect a massive amount of rainwater. How do you do that?
J: You just need a downspout diverter and a rain barrel. A downspout typically goes straight down, carrying rainwater to the drainage system. A downspout diverter diverts the rainwater from the downspout into a rain barrel. There are many types of diverters, but I use galvanized steel fold-out diverters. Anytime I think there might be rain or dew, I open the diverters up to collect.
A diverter is installed into a downspout. I measure about 42” above the surface (whether that be ground, or a patio, or whatever the surface is). I make a cut in the downspout using a metal saw. I slide the diverter in, connecting to the downspout. I then put a 45-50 gallon barrel right under the diverter, so that water flows directly in. You can also add a hose to guide the water from the diverter to the barrel.
D: What if the 50 gallon barrel gets full?
J: For a normal household, collecting 100-200 gallons of rainwater per year is a good realistic goal. So if the barrel gets full, you can close the downspout diverter, and let the water flow directly down the downspout like it did without the diverter there.
As for me, I collect 4,000-5,000 gallons per year. It’s time consuming, but here’s how I do it. I have three rainwater collection sites on my property. I have about six 50 gallon barrels at each collection site. Additionally I have four 550 gallon cisterns at the back of my property. I never move any of these barrels (they would be extremely heavy when full). When the barrel underneath the diverter gets full, I transfer the water to another container.
For transferring water from a 50 gallon barrel within the yard to the 550 gallon barrel in the back, I use a half-horsepower sump pump. I just let the sump pump run when I’m out gardening.
But when there’s a major rainstorm, I go out during the rain, and manually bail water from the 50 gallon barrel underneath the diverter to an adjacent 50 gallon barrel. Yes, I’m working in the rain. During a major storm in October last year, I collected 1,150 gallons on a single day!
D: Wow, that is a lot of hard work. Now that you’ve collected the water, how do you maintain the water and the collection system?
J: When a 50 gallon barrel is full, I add a quarter to a half cup of bleach. When I get a full 550 gallon cistern, I add a half gallon of bleach every 4 months. This would provide for chlorine levels comparable to that provided by Cal Water. The main reason is to keep mosquitoes away. I also close the lids tightly to avoid bugs and prevent water from being evaporated.
The barrels will always have algae, which is not a problem. Algae floats. Since the sump pump is unable to pump the last inch of water, the pump will not get clogged with the algae. I clean the barrel by swishing it around with a broom, and then pouring the leftover water onto the lawn or plants.
Note that I collect rainwater for non-potable purposes only. I use the water for watering the yard. So that the stored water would effectively oxygenate plantings, I circulate the water to keep it aerated every 60-90 days. Possibly, if absolutely necessary in an emergency situation, we could contemplate drinking the water. We keep water filters (like this) in our earthquake kits for this reason.
D: How do you use the collected water for watering?
J: I use watering cans to pour the collected water on my vegetables, maples, and bonsai. I use a half-horsepower submersible pump to spray water onto the lawn and citrus. And yes I do use some water from my local utility for my Japanese garden, which is on a sprinkler/drip system.
D: Any estimate of how much savings you get in water bills per year from your water collection?
J: In sum, I have about four 550 gallon containers, forty 50 gallon containers, ten 5 gallon pails, for a total capacity of about 4,500 gallons. I’m reducing water usage by a third or more, so it’s roughly a $250 annual savings on the water bills.
I also have solar panels, which powers the pumps that transfer water and keeps my electricity bill down overall. My average annual electricity is $375.
Water conservation is a time commitment. You need to be transferring water on a regular basis, whether it’s taking out water collected from the shower or moving water from rain barrel to lawn. That’s in contrast to a solar system, which is typically an upfront financial investment that subsequently runs itself. I recognize that the amount of water collection I do is not for everybody. It’s a personal commitment. But my overall message is to be mindful. Water is a scarce resource, and very hard to collect. Be very mindful with what you do with your water.
Daisy Yau is an SPMC Board Member, an attorney, and the children ministry director at New Life Community Church, Burlingame.