The ways of water

Reuse of 'greywater' is being pioneered at the Garcia Doyle house

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

As their first-year numbers rolled in, Ana Garcia Doyle, and her spouse Jim Doyle, say they are starting to enjoy the energy savings related to the "greening up" of their 94-year-old American Four Square home in Oak Park. 

Since completing the extensive renovation, which added an addition to the back of their stucco structure, the now 3,000-square-foot green-built space is designated a LEED-registered building (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), and is being considered as an IL GreenStar pilot home, certification pending.

Both designations, Garcia Doyle says, are enabling them to provide more community — and parental — teaching moments, because it directly relates to the intentional lightening of their carbon footprint, which was the focal point of doing it all.

Between November 2012 and now, Ana Garcia Doyle says they:

installed new energy-efficient insulation, windows and lighting; 

switched to mostly energy-efficient appliances, including an electric stove and dryer; and 

installed a geothermal heating and cooling system (at a cost of $9,000, after tax credits). 

As a result, their household's energy usage has declined 47 to 60 percent, and they have seen a reduction in energy costs between 9 and 24 percent.

Because it's not just one factor, the cost and usage benefits are difficult to isolate. In addition to geothermal, Garcia Doyle says, they also invested in good insulation and better windows. 

"It's a whole house thing," she says, "but the geothermal is big because we are starting at a base of 55 degrees and bringing it up to 68 degrees, whereas before we were going from 0 to 68 degrees to heat our home."

The energy-efficient appliances also help.  

"It's a whole package. The overall savings are based on everything we have done in the house to accrue energy savings." The initial outlay for geothermal, she says, sounds high, but "it was $9,000 to go off of gas and get on to that renewable energy. It was worth it because we are here for the long term and we wanted to move to an all-electric model. At some point, that will allow us to install solar to generate our own energy, which we could never do if we were still in a combination of electricity and gas."

Garcia Doyle says the return on their petition to the state of Illinois for a variance to the existing plumbing code — which currently does not allow for greywater use in Illinois — is paying off, as well. They were chosen to be one of three sites in the state given "permission" to pilot the use of a greywater reuse system.

"Greywater generally only comes from inside the house," explains Josh Ellis of the Metropolitan Planning Council. "It has to be water that doesn't include any food or fecal matter, so it can't be from your kitchen sink. It can't be from your toilet, but it could be from your washing machine or shower, or the bathroom sink, those sorts of things. It is stored in smaller volumes, cleaned, and usually there is some chlorine added to disinfect it. It is only used for toilet flushing, right now."

Rain water, on the other hand, is collected in a cistern, which is often connected to a plumbing system to filter out leaves, sticks and so on, and sometimes a few drops of chlorine are added to disinfect it, Ellis says. 

A year later, the household is seeing a water usage reduction of 22 percent, with an initial investment of $2,000, including purchase and installation, says Garcia Doyle, a digital consultant/trainer/speaker and local green advocate.

What now sits in a closet in their basement is a 66-gallon tank that moves water back and forth through a separate PVC pipe (purple, to distinguish it from the white pipe that carries drinking water. It uses a filter and chlorine tablets to produce recycled greywater from the bathtub and showers that is suitable for use in flushing their toilets.

"I don't see any reason to be taking potable water and putting it in the toilet," she says. "There is nothing wrong with that water. Really, it is marginally chlorinated — I don't love that we have to use the chlorine, in that it is not environmentally friendly, of course — but it is sort of like you have to weigh and measure these things, and for this, the benefit is stronger than the drawback." 

Early on, though, there was a small learning curve.

"The filter got gunked up, and the contractor had to come in and help us understand more about the tank that was there, and its ongoing maintenance," she recalls. "My children have named the system Nerbert, so other kids come and visit Nerbert, and come and flush our toilets. They are 13, 11 and 4 years old and are the biggest champions of all because they are an active piece of this."

Pioneering new technologies

Several years ago at a GreenTown presentation in Oak Park, Garcia Doyle first decided to take the plunge, so to speak, into greywater.

"Josh [Ellis] showed us that in many countries, for ever and ever, people have been utilizing greywater, so I thought, 'This is absurd that we are not doing this.' I'm thinking, 'My construction project is now. Legislation would be great, but I can't stall my project,' so that is really what pushed us to become assertive about doing it," Garcia Doyle recalls. "There are many ways to shift your thinking, and then hopefully shift your living. We are willing to be a resource for anybody, and we are hoping that people will be doing cooler, lighter things than we have because the goal here is for all of us to keep marching forward." 

In a recent phone interview, Ellis pointed out that the potential passage of HB 4496 (a house bill that would revise the plumbing code) is still probably several months off, as the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules (JCAR) is still going through the lengthy legislative process, which at this writing was very close to entering its final phase.

"The code changes (which do not include greywater) I reviewed in the first round, are actually for reusing harvested and recycled rainwater outdoors on irrigation on non-agricultural plants," Ellis notes. "Rose bushes, but not on your tomatoes, and possibly using a separate hose to wash a car, things like that. The new code language … will be pretty straightforward."

 Once these anticipated changes are incorporated into the new plumbing code in Illinois, Ellis says, "it will be pretty easy for people to almost immediately contract with one of the few firms that exist who are building rainwater reuse systems.

"I think the rules that are moving forward," says K.C. Doyle, sustainability manager for the village of Oak Park, "are a major area of interest, especially since homeowners will be able to recycle rainwater to use on their property. It is a wonderful way to address local flooding … and we are certainly in support of that."

Meanwhile, Ellis says that what is nearing a vote in Springfield, whatever direction it finally takes, won't impact the Garcia Doyles, or the other two individuals in Illinois who received variances to the existing plumbing code. 

"There is more rain around than there is greywater, so that is what I think you will see the market develop around first," Ellis says. "If you want to take a drive into Chicago and use the bathroom at Ping Tom Memorial Park's field house in Chicago, at 18th and the Chicago River, there is a sign that says, 'flushed with harvested rain water.'"

While the widespread reuse of greywater in Illinois is still a ways down the pipe, Ellis says everybody and anybody can undergo the process with the Illinois Department of Public Health to get a variance to do it in their homes, as the Garcia Doyles did. 

"The more of those [requests] the Department of Health sees, the faster we will get something regarding the indoor use of greywater on the books, and the faster we will get past all this," Ellis says. "But we are talking about baby steps." 

Reader Comments

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Tom B-D from Oak Park  

Posted: February 18th, 2014 9:37 AM

Thanks Deb and Ana for sharing, and great work, Ana and Jim! The reuse strategies and pioneering graywater work are inspiring.

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