Growing our Grey Water System
The Experiment Continues
We have often considered this homestead an experiment. On this little inexpensive plot of land in this tiny ruggedly built straw bale home, we get to try out different off-grid techniques to see what works. The compost toilet, for example, the most ecologically sustainable solution to humanure, was an experiment which included a lot of trial and error. I've written about that more extensively in an earlier post. It is still questionable whether or not we would choose a compost toilet again in our next house.
Mistakes are an important part of experimenting and that is what I kept telling myself this autumn as we dug up our backyard all over again. It turns out we did our gray water system all wrong. I won't deny that even as we were building the very minimal system comprised of PVC pipes and plastic buckets with holes in them, I had serious doubts it would work. I assumed that it would get clogged with hair and food and other detritus because we didn't have much of a filtration system other than some pebbles at the bottom of the buckets. But that was not the problem.
We noticed the system backing up in June every time we ran a load of laundry. The dirt came up into our bathtub. It was gross and our tub filled with soil and scum. There is generally a period of contemplation after something starts to go wrong where we wait to see if it will go away on its own. Wishfully hoping it's all a silly fluke. Mentally, we are collecting data to see which actions create which results. A couple of weeks later, noticing that the problem persisted, we started to take action.
Eric began by snaking the drain. If we've learned anything, it’s to start with the most simple solution. In this case, we tried a variety of snakes and biological drain decloggers before considering the next steps. The next step required more vigorous labor. We needed to dig up the exit point for the water. Here we discovered the pipes congested with a hard white substance almost like calcification, but the substance easily broke apart in our fingers. This was a complete mystery. What the heck was this stuff?! It took me a while before the answer suddenly came to me.
Damn that powered laundry detergent that never seemed to dissolve in cold water. If I wasn't so thrifty, I would have rid myself of it from the start. But I had already bought it so I had to finish the box, of course. I bought it in the first place because I was trying to reduce the amount of plastic packaging we purchase. Dry detergents come in cardboard boxes. But I would never make that mistake again. We used a hose to clear the pipes of that wretched debris.
However, it was not that simple. We noticed that the water around the exit pipe still was not draining but was puddling up around the hole we dug. With further digging, we discovered that the water pooled everywhere we dug. The clay and caliche ground beneath us was not absorbing any of our water. Instead the hard clay acted as a vase or bowl for water to be held and contained in for many hours until finally and seemingly reluctantly absorbed. Crazy desert life.
The 12 foot pipes leading to rock filled buckets under the apple tree, pear tree and raspberry bush were clearly not enough for all of our grey water. We needed to expand the gray water system. We also discovered with more research that we needed to fill the dug up canals with mulch before laying the pipe so excess water had a place to go. The truth is we never did much research on gray water systems in the first place. We were too busy getting all the plumbing and electric in as well as the heating, cooking, refrigerating, etc. Note to self: next house, do some research on effective grey water systems.
If you recall, last summer we created a fenced in gravel yard for our dog, which I call the moat because it protects us from thorny tumbleweeds and mud. It took us months to spread that gravel under a tight deadline to get it done before our daughter's pandemic bat mitzvah ceremony in our backyard. Nearly a year later, I watched gravely as we raked it back up, pulled back the plastic and dug up our yard.
The most logical solution to our grey water problem was the biggest chore, run the grey water under my garden beds, which would now be embedded in the ground. This summer I had four raised garden beds that I had moved from our old rental in town. I considered how many hours I spent rebuilding and shoveling topsoil into them, as I spent many more hours deconstructing them, taking them apart and laying the soil on tarps.
Eric was excited to get a new tool to make the task easier, a hammer drill with a clay spade attachment. New tools are the upside to all new tasks. There were weeks of drilling, shoveling, wheelbarrowing, spreading mulch and laying pipe. Anytime anyone asked me how I was doing in the months of September and October, I sighed wearily and told them we were still digging up our entire grey water system.
We replaced the soil and then the dreary cold sunk in and we halted everything. I’m not going to be growing anything for a few months anyway. I am dreaming of next summer, the luscious yard and beautiful garden that will make it all worth it. But of course, there is still a lot more work to do to prepare the beds.
Because our grey water will be going to our vegetable garden, we will have to be even more cautious about the ingredients we use. Not only biodegradable, but I’ll have to find detergents without sodium in them, as salt will ruin the soil. I can already see how difficult it will be, but doable. We use vinegar, baking soda and castile soap for most things already. I will be on the look out for sodium free dish soap, shampoo and laundry detergent (but not the powder stuff!)
In the early months of my garden, I will have to water it as usual until the roots deepen and I can let the grey water take over. This will be a great water saver for us and worth it in the long run.
Back in August, I had one of those many sublime moments of peace and joy that I get living out in the desert off-grid. It was full moon night and to celebrate, I took a long hot bath with essential oils and Epsom salt. After, instead of draining the tub, I did what I usually do after a bath and watered my plants with the bath water. Epsom salt is a great fertilizer in moderation. I had more water so I went outside and watered my garden under the light of the full bright moon. I thought to myself, I am truly living my best life right now, using my full moon bath water to water my garden under the full moon. A full circle.
Part of living sustainably is creating circular systems that give back to each other instead of linear systems that create waste. Hopefully, by next summer, our grey water system will add another layer of sustainability to our circular system when we are eating food from our garden nourished with water from our shower and laundry.
Plumbing, the quiet close toilet seat and the back scratcher are great human advancements.