THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I HAVE EVER HEARD OF THIS CONCEPT BUT WHEN I DID, I WAS SOLD immediately. You can guess right away what this blog is about. I first caught wind of this from an article about a 22-story apartment tower in Portland, OR (pictured left) with a roof garden that funnels rainwater into its toilets.1 Now, the green roof alone would be enough for me to choice this apartment over others without it because of the numerous benefits they offer. Not only do green roofs offer stormwater management benefits, moderate the urban heat island effect, reduce energy costs to regulating building temperature, but they also improve air quality and provide great aesthetic improvements for open spaces, community gardens, recreation spaces and so much more; such as the added element of water collection for toilet water.
There is of course a public health element to consider. Obviously un-purified water is unsafe to drink, so apartments that utilize collected rainwater for flushing must be marked with “Do Not Drink” warning signs, per state Health Department laws.
Rainwater harvesting (RWH); as its more commonly known as, is the process of collecting rainwater that falls and storing it for later purposes. For us around the Puget Sound our water services are currently provided by private water companies, non-profits or municipalities, and they draw water from a variety of sources such as wells and river watersheds. This water goes through an expensive process of purification to make it safe humans consumption. But we predominately use the same water for all of our household needs, and utilizing purified water for purposes like irrigation, watering our lawns, washing our cars and flushing our toilets is a waste of valuable resources.
Rainwater harvesting can take on various facets and commonly used for private residence in the form of rain barrels. These are a very simple method of collecting rain water and great for watering lawns and washing cars, especially during dry seasons. A dedicated barrel can often be purchased at local gardening stores, but any large bucket or trash can will work. The rainwater washes down the normal gutter system, but instead of going straight to the ground, the gutter is connected to an opening through the barrel lid. There’s a standard outdoor faucet attached to the bottom of the barrel and an overflow drain connection at the top. Rainwater harvesting also makes sense for many cities in drier climates where water is a scarce resources.
In addition to rain harvesting for private homes and apartments. Our supply of water is delivered to us through an intricate pipeline supply. A system that for most cities is outdated. A system that we take for granted and rarely think of the infrastructure cost of maintaining it. In the United States, it takes a least $29 billion a year just to keep up with the deteriorating water pipes and aging water treatment plants and typically needs $260 per family, per year, in capital spending.2 But most families don’t even spend ¼ that amount on their water bills. The replacement of these pipe systems should be completed with smart water management in mind. This means creating a secondary pipeline and lesser filtration system for water used other than our primary drinking water. After potable water we drink, bathe or wash our dishes and clothes goes down the drain, it then goes through a less extensive and less expensive filtration process, its then piped through a secondary system for use in our toilets and outdoor faucets. This type of system is commonly known as recycled gray water, which has no interaction with human/organic waste or toxic chemicals. In my opinion, this should be a standard process in the future.
What I love about ideas such as these is that it diversifies our options. Much like my opinion of a diversity in transportation choices and energy sources. This is a simple way to diversify our water sources, as well as lessen the strain on natural resources and infrastructure costs.
Now you might think this sounds great, but just wont work because the surface water codes in Washington State make it illegal to collect the rainwater that falls from your roof tops. While this may be true for some states, thankfully ours practically encourages it. There are some parts of Washington where it is highly regulated or illegal to collect rainwater because it’s a scarcer resource, but that isn’t the case West of the Cascades and here in the Puget Sound Region.3 Two great resource on Rainwater Harvesting is the Municipal Research and Service Center of Washington (MRSC) and King County’s Northwest Yard and Garden website. This site gave just about everything you need to know about RWH in Washington State.
With as many details as I can include in a short blog post, it is clear that a RWH system for flushing toilets or even just watering your lawn such as an outdoor rain barrel provides some nice benefits like lower water bills. But what’s most interesting is the innovative forward movement thinking this type of design exemplifies. It comes from a collaboration of local government policies and market driven developers who understand the growing demand for an environmentally sustainable lifestyle that encompasses all the same advance technological amenities of an urban or suburban lifestyle. Our population is growing in both and the time to mitigate our water uses and infrastructure cost by providing simple and effective methods of distributing our water needs is now. The question is, would an apartment, condo or house with an RWH system affect your buying decision if price wasn’t a factor? What if price was a factor and the home with the RWH system was more expensive?
1 Boomberg, 2012. Rainwater toilets in Apartments Add Value for Developers. [online] Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-21/rainwater-toilets-in-apartments-add-premium-for-u-s-developers.html [Accessed 24 March 2012].
2 Fishman, C., 2011. The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. New York, NY: Free Press.
3 Municipal Research and Service Center of Washington, 2012. Low Impact Development – Runoff Reduction Best Management Practices. [online] Available at: http://www.mrsc.org/subjects/environment/water/sw-lid.aspx [Accessed 24 March 2012].