Rain barrels and landscaping can efficiently dispose of it

rain barrelsMETRO DETROIT — While people have been told for years that they can help conserve water by turning off running sinks and taking shorter showers, new technology is combining with old techniques to provide residents with additional measures they can take around the home.

Water shortages and restrictions are not the issue here that they are in the American Southwest, but some of the things developed there can be — and have been — exported to other parts of the country.

One of those adaptations is the use of rain barrels to collect water during storms. That collected water can then be used for lawns, gardens, washing cars and other outdoor activities, though it is inadvisable to drink it.

“Rain barrels and that sort of thing help capture stormwater and prevent it from going into our (runoff systems),” said Shawn McElmurry, associate professor at Wayne State University’s College of Engineering. “They have their own limitations, like not capturing (a lot from) major storm events.”

According to Greywater Action — an organization dedicated to sustainable water practices — in arid climates, rainwater is collected from rooftops and drained into collection barrels. The group’s website said an average of 600 gallons of water can be collected out of 1 inch of rain through that system.

Edmund Yuen, Lawrence Technological University’s Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering chairman, said this is an adaptation that should be practiced everywhere, along with other techniques that can reduce the amount of stormwater runoff that gets into the sewer system.

These techniques can range from rain gardens — sunken planting beds designed to reduce runoff — to bioswales along public sidewalks that help move some runoff into green spaces, in addition to the sewer system.

“All those concepts have one main focus, and that is to encourage infiltration — you reduce stormwater runoff quantity, and at the same time you improve the water quality of the water in your storm sewer,” Yuen said. “What is happening now is, the traditional design is to capture, collect all our stormwater runoff into storm sewers.”

Because that runoff is traveling over solid structures and picking up pollutants — instead of sinking into the ground and entering the water table — it is having an adverse impact on streams, rivers and even the Great Lakes, Yuen said. Those surges into waterways can also lead to more flooding if water systems become overwhelmed.

Some cities, like Chicago and Boston, have started implementing “low-impact development,” designing areas to encourage infiltration of water into the ground, Yuen said.

There are also efforts underway to refine what can be done with wastewater and “grey water,” or water left over from doing laundry or in sinks and tubs. While grey water may be dirty to look at, Yuen said it can be filtered with basic sediments — and potentially disinfectants, if needed — and used immediately to irrigate plants and gardens, and such systems already exist for personal homes in water-stressed regions.

Wastewater — which can include grey water, as well as water that has seen human waste — goes to water treatment plants where it gets cleaned, and Yuen said the cleaning process has improved to the point where it can even be made directly potable again.

“However, the problem is convincing the public that it is drinkable,” Yuen said. “What has been done in states like California — after they have treated that water to a quality that is acceptable, they’ll discharge it into a huge reservoir and then take that water from the reservoir back into a water treatment plant. If you do it that way, the public has no issue on that as drinking water.”

On a smaller, home-sized scale, he said an inventor named Dean Kamen has created the “Slingshot” device that takes water of any quality, boils it into water vapor, and then condenses it back into pure drinking water. Yuen said it runs on the same amount of power as a toaster oven and is currently being test-marketed in the developing world.

The Slingshot also uses a fine membrane as a filter that is currently too expensive to use on large scales, but can be used to remove contaminants and bacteria from drinking water, Yuen added. He said the U.S. Army already uses similar technology for troops on deployment.

In the here and now, Roseville Home Depot associate Cindy Card said there are several things people can get to help with water efficiency around the house, from purchasing smaller water aerators — which help filter the water coming into the home — and replacing old, rusted galvanized pipes, to adding an in-line water pump to increase water pressure coming in. She added that wrapping pipes with insulation can help save money and energy, too.

“Wrapping the pipes to keep them warm (makes it) so it doesn’t take your hot water tank much more to keep the water warm,” Card said.

There are different types of insulation for different pipe sizes and locations; she said some are used if the pipe is in the wall, and others if the pipe is exposed.

Card said kits are available for people who want to save money and water usage with their toilets. Aside from one that converts a toilet to a low-flow system, there are also ones that allow handy residents to convert their existing toilet to a two-flush system.

“One (kind of flush) uses less water for when you do No. 1,” she said. “You use the second one for the solids, and it uses a little more water, but either way you’re saving water with the two-flush system.”

Card added that while rainwater barrels are available for purchase, in a pinch someone could use an old garbage can.

For more information on grey water reuse and rainwater collection, visit www.greywateraction.org.