V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Going grey water

If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down.

And if it's grey let it stay and wash your water woes away.

Poet laureate I am not. But the latter ad lib to the popular cottage-dweller saying is to illustrate a fast-growing recycling system that uses grey water -- shower, sink and laundry water -- to flush toilets and conserve water.

According to Environment Canada, toilets consume one-third of a household's total water consumption.

Trish Matheson of Kelowna, B.C., has been using a grey water system for the past two years in her three-level home. After learning about the water-saving project from Brac Systems, a Montreal-based company, Matheson and her husband volunteered to test-run the unit and have since become distributors. The grey water is filtered and disinfected with chlorine before hitting the bowls. Expect to see the toilet water take on the colour of laundry loads -- darks turn the water a light blue -- and the faint smell of chlorine, she said.

"I've always been concerned about water usage," said Matheson, 31. "It just didn't make sense to me to use water treated for drinking consumption to flush the toilets."

According to the United Nations, five billion people will be living in water-stressed areas of the world by 2025.

If four million people recycled their grey water, in one year we could fill a two-metre wide, one-metre high aquarium and wrap it around the world, said Dennis Yasar, president of Brac Systems.

"Where I grew up in Germany, all I ever learned was to save, save, save," Yasar said. "In the school system, everything was about saving. I just couldn't believe how people wasted here and it bothered me."

But officials have been slow to adopt the system, which requires a special permit from the city and a plumbing inspection.

"We've been trying to overcome legislative barriers," said Duncan Ellison of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association. "It's terribly bureaucratic ... it's difficult to persuade local plumbing inspectors and public health agencies that grey water is safe."

Health Canada is currently developing guidelines on grey water standards amid safety concerns. What about cross contamination? And dogs and curious tots who muck about in the toilets and lap up the water, for example?

Matheson, mother of a three-year-old, said it hasn't posed a concern.

"Even if you put potable water in the toilet and flush once, it's no longer potable," Ellison points out.

Cost can also be prohibitive, as the unit and installation can total about $3,000. Yasar concedes the payback time could be as long as eight years, but points out that in Nunavut and Alberta, where water rates are high, the return would be shorter. The system also requires installing a separate water pipeline.

Though it will be a while before grey water irrigation will see widespread approval here, other drought-plagued countries have made it mandatory. In Australia, for example, homeowners caught using potable water on their lawns or to wash their cars can expect to have their water pressure turned low for up to three days, Ellison said.

-- 2007
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