In encouraging Americans to realize we can meet any challenge, John F. Kennedy often told his audience that in the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.
While some Chinese language experts say this interpretation may be a stretch, often in life we find that this it is true: problems, challenges, and setbacks invariably become opportunities in disguise. We are seeing this played out today in California when it comes to water. In June, a builder of upscale homes in the San Diego area started including something that few other developers have even thought of: gray water recycling systems. And guess what? It is becoming a major selling point for these homes.
The way these systems work is actually quite simple. Water from bathroom sinks, showers and bathtubs is filtered and repurposed to irrigate lawns and outdoor vegetation. It is treated and stored in underground tanks connected to a home’s exterior water connections or drip irrigation systems. While the water is not recommended and likely not safe for drinking, it is perfectly fine for irrigation.
Some California homeowners first installed these systems as far back as 2006 and in some cases, report being able to recycle and use an estimated 100,000 gallons of water annually for irrigation purposes. Interestingly, in some parts of the state, self-imposed “water police” have turned in neighbors because their lawns are just “too green” or they see the sprinklers running, unaware that they are using recycled water from one of these systems.
The costs of household gray water systems can vary with some basic models selling for a few hundred dollars, and others, which have a number of added features along with “bells and whistles,” selling for several thousands of dollars. While this developer is probably the first to include these in new home developments, homeowners have also jumped on the gray water recycling bandwagon. According to an Aug. 14, 2015, report in The Wall Street Journal, at least one company is reporting a 200 percent increase in sales, and other firms manufacturing or installing these systems have also noted sales increases along with much greater interest in their products.
As many of us know, most everyone in California has been asked to scale back water consumption by at least 25 percent, and in some areas as much as 35 percent. These water reductions also apply to businesses. So this is one reason, and probably the most time sensitive reason, for the increased interest and installation of gray water recycling systems.
But the other, which is a growing problem — and one reason why many large facilities often install no-water urinal systems — is cost. In California today, they have a tiered pricing system for water. Each customer is allocated so much water based on past use, comparative use (if a home, what others homes in the area are using) and other factors. Those rates have all been going up for years, but the clincher is that once the customer, residential or commercial, exceeds their limit, significantly higher rates can kick in.
Pricing systems like this are likely to spread to other parts of the country. What these systems reflect is not water conservation. That’s a concept that essentially no longer exists to describe the water crisis in California as well as to define water curtailments around the country. What tiered pricing systems represent is the fact that we are now focused on improving water efficiency and eliminating water waste.
These concepts are long-term water reduction commitments, not temporary cutbacks as water conservation implies. In the future, according to The Wall Street Journal article mentioned earlier, “experts envision gray-water recycling systems will be commonplace, even standard, in homes.” In essence, California is now leading the way, turning a crisis into an opportunity for us all to better protect our most precious resource, water.
A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. in Vista, California, makers of waterless urinals and other restroom products. He founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.