ALN logo; link to Arid Lands Newsletter home page No.56, November-December 2004
Water efficiency I: Cities

Reflections on an urban greywater system

by Tom Brightman

"... I gradually learned the importance of each and every one of us using water mindfully in our daily lives and actions. And now, I have to; my living situation demands it."

Thinking about water, then...

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When I sat down to write this paper I thought it would be straightforward, a brief discussion of an urban greywater system that I've developed here in Tucson, Arizona; so I was annoyed when it turned out that my thoughts were taking me anywhere but forward. For several days I fumbled around with the topic and got nowhere I had expected to go. Maybe it's because it's winter and I can see snow on the Catalina Mountains just north of the city. Maybe it's the nostalgic thoughts of Christmas in New England where I grew up: I keep ending up on Wheatland's Hill, just outside the town of Topsfield, Massachusetts, about 20 miles north of Boston.

I was young when I lived there but it is details that I remember--along with the winters. My folks used to tell me we lived in the "snowbelt." I thought it meant we were very special; after all, the belts I wore were fairly narrow so if we lived in a snowbelt that meant some unfortunate kids, maybe in just the next town, were missing out completely on the snow. Snow never seemed to miss us. And we had Wheatland's Hill: 10 or 15 acres of pitched farmland sweeping up from behind a crumbling stone wall, the best sledding in 30 miles or more. Hardwood trees grew tall behind the wall at the bottom, their crowns touching over a narrow road. After a storm of any consequence, cars lined that road bumper-to-bumper as people arrived with sleds of all kinds.

My friends and I all had Flexible Flyer sleds, easily recognizable by their red painted rails and wooden decks. Mine was a two-person model that my dad gave me. He had used it in the streets of Providence, Rhode Island, when he was a kid and told one story about sliding directly under a moving oil truck as he whipped through a traffic intersection, somehow escaping serious injury or worse. This story gave him almost mythical stature in my eyes.

All those winter memories of Wheatland's Hill have by now blended together in my mind, all the fantastic rides blurred into one incredible day of sledding. Now, it is the more subtle connections to the past that I harvest. I cherish the discovery of a connection to my father through a hand-me-down sled, but I also notice a beginning connection to the environment and especially to water. Since then I've done some analysis of water in my physical environment, but until now I had never thought of it as equally integral to my psychological landscape. Yet there is Wheatland's Hill providing the headwater, if you will, the start of a deep and enduring connection.

...and now

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Thirty years later, I have a family and live in downtown Tucson. Here, moisture more typically arrives as rain, either dramatic summer thunderstorms or gentle basin-wide winter rains. Along the way my relationship to water has grown through a fledgling understanding of the problems associated with use and abuse of a freshwater resource, to experience of problems with acid rain and with local fish catches too polluted to eat. All of these problems stem from the interactions of humans and water. From all this I gradually learned the importance of each and every one of us using water mindfully in our daily lives and actions. And now, I have to; my living situation demands it.

For 10 of the past 12 years I've lived in an intentional community. Please cast aside any notion of a 60s-70s "hippie-style" arrangement. Our community consists of 19 people inhabiting a collection of owned and rented households clustered on and abutting a shared lot. The extent of our structure is to have meetings every few weeks and a dinner every Friday night; all members are invited to this and most attend regularly. No one is required to have any specific set of beliefs. About all anyone is required to do is negotiate with their neighbors about what the community does share: most notably, a T.V. room and yard space. It is the latter which brings me back full circle to water.

In the yard we have developed a central "pod" where many activities take place. Pooling our financial resources, we've been able to establish what has become, in effect, the community well. It comprises several physical elements where members interact with the environment, the water in it, and each other.

The backyard "pod"

Thumbnail link to Figure 1
Link to Figure 1, ~21K

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Each household in the community generates kitchen scraps, so a series of compost bins was established right along the main walkway, for the simple fact that they work best when they get proper attention. Believe me, there's nothing like an imbalanced compost pile to get your attention on a 110 degrees F (~43 degrees C) day.

Across the back of two of the bins lies a solar water heater created out of a recycled water tank in an insulated wooden box. For much of the year it provides enough hot water for folks to enjoy the outdoor shower which stands hidden behind a swelling cluster of cat claw. It also provides heated water to the horizontal-axis, front-loading washing machine a few feet away. Expensive for an individual, the machine became very affordable when split among so many. The walls of the shed that houses it are open near the top so that people can interact while they fold their clothes after these dry on the clothesline; its roof is made with a non-polluting metal and is designed to direct rainwater next to a small tangerine tree. Mulch from the compost bins reduces the evaporation around the tree so it requires less supplemental water, a requirement that will be further reduced when the roots reach the underground greywater system, the highlight of our backyard system.

thumbnail link to Figure 2
Link to Figure 2, ~7K

The greywater system functions so well it's hardly noticeable except in its effect on our vegetation. Constructed with the readily available labor of our members, it comprises almost 100 feet (~30.5 m) of trenches lined with root-blocking fabric, filled with gravel and fitted with sections of perforated 4-inch (~10-cm) pipe. The system is broken into thirds, each with its own feed pipe so we can rotate the flow coming from the shower and washing machine. The underground lines have prevented mosquito problems and are placed to benefit other young trees and a grapevine that blocks the clothes line from our neighbors' view in the summer.

I designed and placed all these components to utilize and enhance the flow of both greywater and humans in our yard. The benefits have been many and are compounding. The horizontal-axis washer saves us money in several ways. It uses less water than top-loading washers and because of that less soap and less energy to heat the water. It is gentler to clothes, making them last longer, and gets them much drier before they are hung out to dry. This is important because, though we have many feet of clothesline, there would be serious traffic jams if things didn't dry quickly.

The solar water heater was built mostly from recycled materials. Coupled with the outdoor shower, it encourages people to give up gas-heated bathing in their own houses. The greywater from the washer and the shower has been a boon to the plants in the yard, creating shade and beauty while cutting our water bills in the process.

On the human side, the lifeblood of our community has been the personal interactions, the communication and cooperation we need to get along in such close proximity to each other. The "well" is situated to in the middle of the shared yard to create easy access for the most people and to encourage interaction. It may seem counterintuitive that in a crowded living arrangement seeing more of your neighbors would be a good thing but it works.

Perhaps the most significant component of our backyard "pod" is a four-stage reverse osmosis system that we purchased from a local company and installed ourselves. It brings us up to 100 gallons of clean water every day from a central, communal source, embodying for us the true sense of a community well. So in a number of ways the use of water in our urban landscape has created a gathering spot, a place where we share our concerns and compliments, our jokes and jibes. It is a place where we not only take care of many water-using household tasks, saving energy and money in the process, but also meet many of our needs for a sense of community. It has been effective in our physical and mental landscapes; as for me, I can no longer say in which landscape it's more noticeable; and for 19 of us to get along, that seems about right.


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Author information

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Mr. Tom Brightman is a building consultant in Tucson who is particularly interested in "green" building techniques. He has worked with a number of greywater systems in urban settings. He can be reached for comment by email at

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