Graywater Reuse Increasing in Low-Income Rental Housing
The impacts of California's unprecedented water crisis are trickling down and threatening the ability of nonprofit housing providers to continue providing affordable housing and water to their low-income residents. "Water rates are rising faster than the rate of inflation. This shock to our operating budget is causing us to assess what we can do to trim expenses, ensuring that rents stay low," said Kevin Leichner, Associate Director of Real Estate Development at Eden Housing.
As cost concerns grow, owners and operators of affordable housing are adopting new ways of reducing water use on their properties. One such innovation is onsite graywater reuse, which recycles wastewater from sinks, showers, baths, and laundry machines for other uses, such as irrigation or toilet flushing.
Three Owners Take the Graywater Plunge
Many affordable housing owners and operators are beginning to assess the benefits of graywater, once considered a fringe technology.
Eden is in the planning stages of several new construction and rehabilitation graywater projects that will use 300- to 400-gallon "laundry-to-landscape" systems. According to Leichner, lenders and investors have also started paying attention to climbing water rates, and have encouraged them to pursue water-saving opportunities. "Graywater has become a part of the solution to addressing the threat of rising water costs," said Leichner.
A Community of Friends (ACOF), the Los Angeles-based nonprofit developer, began construction on their first graywater system last month. The 36-unit garden-style new construction development will use water from bathroom sinks, laundry machines, and showers for irrigation of a large lot on the property. Tara Barauskas, Director of Housing at ACOF, cited the persistence of drought in California as one of many reasons to pursue graywater reuse. "Historically, water in Los Angeles has been relatively cheap, but current conditions suggest that this will change and we want to be prepared to prevent any financial shocks to our properties and our residents," said Barauskas.
While at BRIDGE Housing, Kevin Leichner also worked on a "laundry-to-landscape" graywater system that was successfully implemented in Pinole Grove, a 70-unit senior property that sits on a three-acre site with several large landscaped areas. "When we pursued a rehabilitation and refinancing of Pinole Grove, we wanted to ensure the long-term operational health of the property," said BRIDGE Executive Vice President Ann Silverberg. "So, we included graywater in the overall renovation scope." The Pinole Grove graywater system now provides water to over 15,000 square feet of landscaping.
Portion of landscaping irrigated with graywater at Pinole Grove.
Photo credit: Kevin Leichner
Greywater tank for laundry-to-landscape System at Pinole Grove.
Photo credit: Kevin Leichner
Silverberg emphasized that the successful installation of a graywater system at Pinole Grove was made more feasible by several site-specific conditions:
- Part of a Large Rehabilitation and Refinancing: The high upfront cost of installing a graywater system can be prohibitive unless those costs are wrapped into a larger rehabilitation and refinancing. Additionally, installation of a graywater system can be coordinated with the installation of a host of other energy and water efficiency improvements.
- Favorable Building Orientation: At Pinole Grove, the location of the laundry room immediately adjacent to a large landscaped area allowed contractors to install a tank, pump, and irrigation system with relative ease.
- Resident Buy-in: One of the initial concerns at Pinole Grove was ensuring that residents would buy into the concept of using graywater and accept the requirement of using "graywater-compatible" laundry products. Including a graywater system into the broader rehab provided can be used as an educational opportunity that helps residents feel it is part of a larger improvement project that is leading to a more comfortable as well as sustainable environment for them.
Weighing the Costs and Benefits of Graywater
The costs and benefits of graywater systems vary depending on the type being installed. The most commonly implemented systems include:
- Landscaped Irrigation System: This system takes graywater from showers, sinks, or laundry, directs it to a temporary holding tank, and then pumps water to the landscape through irrigation piping. Since this system alters existing plumbing, it requires a plumbing permit. If a pump is used, then an additional electrical permit may also be required. According to a representative from WaterSprout, the design firm that installed the graywater system at Pinole Grove, landscaped irrigation systems costs range from $30,000-$40,000 for 40 units or less, to $50,000-$60,000 for 40-100 units, to $60,000-$70,000 for developments of 100 units or more.
- Indoor Non-potable Use: This system provides graywater for toilet use by filtering, disinfecting, and pumping it back into residential buildings. However, this type of graywater use is subject to the California Building Code, the California Health and Safety Code, the California Water Code, and local codes governing recycled water that make installing indoor graywater systems burdensome. Costs of indoor systems range from $40,000-$50,000 for 40 units or less, to $65,000-$75,000 for 40-100 units, to $80,000-$90,000 for buildings with more than 100 units.
The main costs associated with graywater system installation include the capital cost of the system, ongoing operations and maintenance, and the cost and time for permitting and approvals. Nonprofit developers pursuing these systems typically work with a graywater system contractor to determine the payback periods for installing a system. According to Barauskas at ACOF, preliminary estimates indicated that that the costs of their system will be recouped within five years.
One cost-benefit study conducted by researchers at UCLA estimated that graywater recycling could feasibly cover water use for irrigation and toilet flushing, and reduce potable water demand by 38 percent in multifamily buildings. These researchers also found that from a cost-effectiveness standpoint, the most favorable conditions for installing graywater are new construction projects using graywater for irrigation.
Limited Incentives Available for Graywater Installation
Given the high costs associated with graywater installation, Leichner and Silverberg both noted that the opportune time to implement graywater is as part of new construction or substantial rehabilitation when these costs can be at least partially offset through the use of Low Income Housing Tax Credit financing. While Barauskas said that Los Angeles County awards financing program points and incentive dollars for plans to install graywater systems, the amount is small when compared to the overall cost of installing these systems. Leichner also spoke about the need for substantial state, local, or water district incentives to help lower these costs for the low-income housing sector where rent increases are strictly limited.
Overcoming Policy Hurdles
Although existing state code facilitates and encourages the adoption of graywater for indoor use, these state codes require extensive onsite water treatment and defer to requirements imposed by the local jurisdiction and its "enforcing agencies," which may include city and county governments and health departments. Barauskas indicated that remaining persistent with local jurisdictions is a key element of the process. "You'll find more success if you meet early on in the process. And be prepared to push back," said Barauskas.
Leichner cited the importance of providing local officials with case studies of the installation of graywater systems in other jurisdictions. "It's helpful to come to the table with solid examples of how graywater has worked in other places," he said.
GREEN Water Working Group
GREEN launched a Water Working Group in 2015, with the goal of developing ways to support owners interested in pursuing water conservation and reuse systems like graywater. A key activity of the group will continue to document the experience of owners who implement graywater systems. Additionally, CHPC will work to build relationships water utilities and water advocates as a means of increasing access to water conservation and reuse funding for the multifamily affordable housing sector.
To join the Water Working Group, please contact Caroline McCormack, Sustainable Housing Policy Associate, at email@example.com, or (415) 433-6804 x313.