Free Flushes?

Our development company has been a certified Built Green builder for several years, and we’re always trying to find economically feasible ways to add “green” features to our new construction.  “Economically feasible” to me means that while we’re willing to pay more to build in a more sustainable fashion, we’d like to be able to recover most of those extra costs in higher resale prices, or shorter market times.   

So when I read about a “greywater recycling” unit, I thought we should try it.  Here’s our first installation, in a stand-along townhome in Crown Hill — North Ballard:

This octopus-looking thing takes water from our two showers (the black pipe) and puts it into this 50 gallon tank.  There is a water supply that fills the tank if the level gets too low.  The city inspector scratched his head at this — first time he’d seen it — as did our plumber.  But now that we’ve gone through it once, hopefully the next ones will be easier to install. 

You can see the level of “grey” water in the picture, at about the 20 gallon level.  This water is pumped back into the toilets to use for flushing.  Flushing constitutes nearly 40% of domestic water usage, so in theory, this will reduce your water (and sewer) bills considerably.  And it’s just “light grey” shower water, which if you avoid shaving, toothbrushing, and any other debris-generating activities (not to get too graphic), should be 98% pure domestic water and a little bit of ivory soap and shampoo.  The feedback that I’ve seen from consumers is that they don’t notice that they’re flushing with anything different than normal “clean” water.  So when you do flush, it’s with water that would have gone down the drain after its first use, but you’re giving it a second life.

The cost, all in, is about $4500 (it would be much more expensive to plumb into an existing house).  This particular townhome is about 1750′, and is priced at $450,000 — not priced any higher than it would have been without this system, but our hope is that this is a feature that will set this unit apart from the competition.  We wouldn’t be able to justify this in a $300,000 townhome (not just b/c of the price point, but the $300k unit wouldn’t have enough physical garage space to fit the tank), but we’re putting them into about a dozen other units right now in Seattle. 

There are lots of green things that just can’t work in our spec houses — $40,000 solar arrays, for one.  But this system gives a lot of bang for the buck, and I think our buyers will really like it.


35 thoughts on “Free Flushes?

  1. Hi Gordon –
    What company is it that makes these? I have a small house with a simple bathroom and would be interested to know if I could retrofit one into the crawl space beneath it.

  2. I’ve thought for years about this, even taking down spout water to mix with shower water.

    A pump is an electric thing no bigger than a foot ball combined with a tank. It really makes sense.

    Thank you for bringing this up and dealing with the city.

  3. Does this system use any filter or some filtering mechanism to filter out debris, soap, etc.? Besides filter, anything else to maintain this “greywater recycling

  4. Veggie — would be hard to make it work in a retrofit as you have to plumb both drain lines (from shower) and supply lines (to toilet) to do it. But I’m sure where there’s a will, there’s a way. Our vendor is:

    Yang — There is a filter which needs to be maintained, depending on use, about quarterly. Other than that, there should be no maintenance. One other issue is that if you lose power, the pump won’t work, in which case you’ll have to manually switch your flush supply over to the clean domestic water source.

    Michael — this from the vendor’s website (not from me): “…can help you save 35% to 40% on your annual water bill, and while saving money, you will also help save the environment and provide a better future for our children and their children to come.”

  5. Reality check! My water bill is about $450 per year. If I save 1/3, or $150/year the payback is 30 years, ignoring interest, opportunity costs, etc. Calculated properly, the payback may never happen. I’d have to put this down as more of a marketing tool, not without value, but essentially a luxury in economic terms.

    Having lived with a pump-powered septic system, I can tell you that having the power go out can be a real challenge unless you’ve got access to a generator. Ideas such as this are interesting and fun to ponder, but their economic reality isn’t here yet.

  6. I was hoping for a dollar amount. some folks will buy Green no matter what the cost on idealogical or moral grounds. some will buy Green because its the right thing to do and the cost/benefit analysis is close to net zero. Some will be buy Green only if there is an economic or financial return on capital superior to the alternative.

    if we assume the alternative is to invest the $4500 at 7% then owning for
    3 years – the owner needs to save $139 a month on water to make financial economic sense.
    5 years – $89
    7 years – $67

    Of course, changing the assumptions on the savings rate or discount rate and ownership period influence the oppurtunity cost. the same Discounted Cash Flow analysis can be done to justify a higher resale price compared to similar properties without the Green feature.

  7. What if you shower at work, would that mean you can’t flush the toilet? What if you take really long showers, and then leave for work all day and don’t flush much? Where does all the extra water go?

  8. What happens when I dye my hair in the shower? I don’t think this would work for me. Wouldn’t it dye the toilets or the “see through” water tank?

  9. You can have a back up electric system of a Low Cycle Marine battery operating a pump.

    You can fit one toilet with an either battery or electric pump system, maybe two.

    Second, water doesn’t have to be used immediately, it can be stored and treated. A pool filter can get rid of the particles.

    We did this years ago to set up a one bathroom remodel. We collected the rain barrel water, along with shower. Both were seperate, rain for garden, shower for the toilet.

    The two holding tanks were seperate, but one could feed the other.

  10. Conrad, you’d save on water and sewer, and around here sewer is a lot more expensive.

    Everyone else, I’d assume it has a way to use real water (probably automatically) if there wasn’t recycled water available.

  11. Ok you buzz kills-

    Ardell, typical woman! Worried about beautification.

    And Michael, could you BE anymore analytical? Discounted cash flow? Way to adept on the HP for me.

    Yeah you caught me, this is my listing and I admit I love talking about the Brac. Sure it might not pencil perfectly at the time of purchase but water in the end is a commodity more precious than oil. I see no substitute and it’s price to the tap and the price to treat it, is only going up. People poo-pooed (heh) the 1.6 gallon flusher in its infancy too. But they got better. Imagine the water deficit if we were still using 5 gallons to clear the commode?

    So stop stealing my fun. Get on board. Like those early adopters who bought first generation Prius’, some Seatttlites will be able to say they been Braccin since 2008.

  12. Ardell — your technical questions are good ones. If you don’t shower at home, there is a domestic supply line into the tank that always provides fresh and clear flushing water. If you shower too much, once the tank is full, the overflow runs into the sewer line. As for dying your hair…don’t know. Haven’t had that reality yet. But aren’t you supposed to do that in the barber’s sink?

    $450/year water-sewer bill? Maybe it’s just more expensive in the city but that was my bill in a hot September last year after watering for two months!

  13. Gordon,

    It costs me $10 every 6 weeks or so to dye my hair…and it is almost black. I rinse the dye out in the shower (I know TMI). But that’s my reality. To go to the Hairdresser would cost me $75 every 6 weeks instead of $10. That’s an Extra $476 a year.

    I think it would look pretty weird to have purple/black water flushing my toilets 🙂

  14. P.S. ALL of my three girls dye their own hair also. So it’s not just a “cover the gray” thing. Lots of women use hair dye and rinse it out in their showers. I don’t think that’s a small factor.

  15. In solidarity with ARDELL for women’s beauty secrets revealed, I’m chiming in on the hair dye and rinsing it out in the shower too.

    Although mine is for a light reddish blond color… it’s still DYE and still stains! 🙂

  16. OK, I’m interested in the $4500 cost.

    The system can be plumbed any number of ways to accomodate anything, icluding diverting the water from those showers that might include dye, or giving the dog a flea bath.

    Water prices are going up. Nevada is the best example.

    It’s the cost factor that concerns me; $4500 seems like a lot of money for a tank, pump, and pool filter.

  17. Yes, the bronze looking valve in the upper left is a shutoff, which diverts flow from the system and into the main line. Ardell can turn it every six weeks if she doesn’t want to dye her toilets black.

    As for cost, I’m estimating. The unit itself is about $2,000 (varies depending on size), and there was maybe an additional $2500 in plumbing upticks and project management costs. If we did 10 in a row in a given project I’m sure the unit and install would be closer to $3,000 — once we got the hang of it.

    I don’t think this is something that could be easily jury-rigged. The city really wanted to see something designed for this purpose, and the manufacturer helped a bit in seeing it through the permitting process. There are backflow valves (to keep the greywater out of the domestic supply) and other bells and whistles too.

  18. Yes the system we put in back in the 1970s was removed at the city’s request and there is no code concerning this, so thank you for being the tester.

    The other thing that is bothering me today is the hot water heat issue. I want to install a seperate hot water tank to service about four bedroom radiators in our house.

    It’s just not done, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be, you should consider this that and the other, is all I ever hear. It’s a hot water tank, some pipe, and four radiators.

    The hot water tank radiator system, as opposed to an very expensive boiler, is another thing town homes have spear headed for us.

  19. Looking at the plumbing my first thought was amateur hour. There is a lot of unnecessary routing and the lines are far from a clean layout. If I was the buyer I would decline to purchase based upon this level of “craftsmanship

  20. with a sand filter and treatment you could store the water. you can treat it with enzyme, or do a variety of things.

    it would add to the cost.

    as a plumber you know that the piping is probably a code requirement. the city likes ugly.

  21. Speaking of code, shouldn’t that thing have an earthquake strap around it? If the backup supply line was disconnected by movement it would be just as messy as a hot water tank moving, and if it fell it probably would be more expensive to fix than your average hot water tank.

  22. I think the tank is opaque so you can see the water level and feel good about having the grey-reserve with which to flush. We could also close it into a closet so it’s not visible in the garage but what would be the fun of that? I’ve emailed the manufacturer and asked him to respond to some of these questions as I have no idea how the tank it will “look” after years of use. But I suspect that it will work just fine in practice.

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  24. I think it’s a great idea and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for my own home but retrofitting is expensive. So, I’ve stuck to rain barrels and used the water for organic garden use.

    A way to perhaps offset the cost is to see if the City of Seattle would provide a home purchaser of new construction a rebate on the hook up fee that they assess all new construction, the Metro Sewer Connection fee which right now costs a few thousand dollars over 15 years for a new home. Has anyone considered looking into such an option or asking the city to consider it? It would be a good thing to do if it hasn’t yet been done!

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  26. Dustin, Jeff and Linda on Free Flushes {seesmic_video:{“url_thumbnail”:{“value”:””}”title”:{“value”:”Dustin, Jeff and Linda on Free Flushes “}”videoUri”:{“value”:”″}}}

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