Graywater is lightly used water from clothes washers, showers, bathtubs, and bathroom sinks. It contains some soap and detergents but it’s a safe and effective water supply for most landscapes.
Water from toilets or wash water from diapers is never considered graywater. Kitchen sink water is not considered graywater in California. Graywater is not the same as recycled water. Graywater should never be stored longer than 24 hours, unlike rainwater.
Learn what you need to know about starting a graywater project in the information and links below. Or get started by watching our four-part virtual graywater workshop. Valley Water offers a rebate for Laundry-to-Landscape systems up to $400!
Graywater system benefits and cost
With a graywater system, you can save water, time and money every time you wash a load of laundry or take a shower. It’s a reliable, local and drought-resilient water source to protect your landscape of hotter summers and drier winters.
Other benefits of include:
- Graywater can decrease water and wastewater utility bills, and extend the life of the septic system leach fields.
- It connects us to our water supply, helping us understand where our water comes from and where it goes. Becoming conscious of our water supply encourages healthier product choices and engagement with our landscapes.
- In concert with water conservation, climate-appropriate landscaping, and rainwater harvesting, using graywater helps reduce dependency on imported water and protects the urban watershed.
How much water graywater saves
On average, Laundry-to-Landscape systems can save approximately 17 gallons per person per day or 14,565 gallons per household a year! (2012 report by Greywater Action in collaboration with the City of Santa Rosa and Ecology Action of Santa Cruz) This is enough water to irrigate 800 square feet of trees, shrubs, and vines in most climates. The actual amount of water you may end up saving from using graywater depends on:
- How much graywater you actually produce
- How much water you use in your landscape that can be replaced with graywater
Up to 60% of a home’s indoor water use may become graywater and about 50% of all water is used in the landscape--that is a lot of potential savings by sending graywater into your yard!
Graywater system cost and available rebates
The amount really depends on site-specific conditions, but in general, a laundry-to-landscape system installed by a contractor will cost between $1,500-$3,000 (the material cost is typically covered by the rebate amount). All other graywater systems increase in complexity, cost, and regulatory hurdles: a whole-house graywater system may cost upwards of $15,000 excluding permitting costs and backflow-protection requirements.
Valley Water offers a rebate or direct installation for a Graywater Laundry-to-Landscape System. Learn more about the rebate and how to apply.
Types of graywater systems
A graywater system can be as simple as a bucket collecting shower water or as complicated as a whole-house system with pumps, filters, and treatment. The simpler the system, the lower the cost and easier the maintenance. All graywater must be applied subsurface and stay within your property boundaries (no runoff).
As you begin learning about graywater, some resources may be found with alternate spellings like “greywater”, “grey water” and “gray water.” Read detailed overviews of graywater systems in Santa Barbara County’s Greywater Handbook [PDF] (also available in Spanish) and San Francisco PUC’s Graywater Design Manual [PDF].
For finding professionals to install graywater systems, this list of companies have experience working on Valley Water landscape or graywater projects. For professionals experienced with may types of graywater systems, check out Greywater Action and Central Coast Greywater Alliance.
A Laundry-to-Landscape System is a simpler type of graywater system that qualifies for a Valley Water rebate.
They are sustainable, cost-effective and drought-resilient graywater systems that redirect water from your clothes washer to your landscape without additional pumps or filters or permits in most situations. Graywater Laundry-to-Landscape systems are sometimes abbreviated as just “graywater L2L systems,” “Laundry-to-Landscape systems,” “laundry graywater systems” or “clothes washer graywater systems.”
Due to its relative simplicity and the assistance Valley Water provides to install them, this is the best system to start considering.
Learn more more about how to start using a laundry-to-landscape system today.
Graywater from showers, baths, or bathroom sinks
A bucket to collect shower warm-up water is the most cost-effective option unless you’re building a new home or remodeling your bathroom. Branched Drain systems are similar to Laundry-to-Landscape systems, but they’re effectively gravity-powered graywater systems. More complicated systems are available with pumps and filters, yet those add additional costs, rules, permit requirements and maintenance considerations.
Whole-House Graywater Systems
The Alliance for Water Efficiency offers an overview of whole-house graywater systems, general information on codes and costs, system maintenance considerations, and more.
For information on equipment for these non-rebate graywater systems that will require a permit, visit the following Greywater Action links:
Toilet-flushing Graywater Systems
In general, it’s more cost-effective and sustainable to replace your toilets with the most-efficient toilets on the market. Toilets that reuse graywater from a sink directly above it are on the market as well. Rainwater to flush toilets [PDF] is a more cost-effective and long-term option to consider.
The California Plumbing Code allows graywater to be used for flushing toilets but the graywater must be treated to meet certain water quality requirements. These systems require a permit, inspection, backflow protections, and cross-connection control. Check with your local city planning or building department for more information.
Since even relatively clean graywater (like from your clothes washer) has particles, lint, hair, etc. it’s essential to not only filter but regularly maintain them. Graywater for toilet flushing is more appropriate in commercial or other high-density properties where dedicated staff can maintain it over time.
In general, toilet-flushing greywater systems usually require frequent maintenance, manual cleaning of filters, and chemical disinfectant to prevent odors in the bathroom. They also tend to be relatively complicated, and it’s critical that they be designed and installed properly.
If you are considering such a system try to find people to talk to who’ve had the systems installed in their homes for at least a year, and be sure to find out the maintenance requirements of the system. Consider maintenance contact with the installer (if you can afford it) for any system that requires more than annual maintenance.
Read more about Manufactured Graywater Systems (whole-house and toilet-flushing graywater systems) and specifications at greywateraction.org.
Is a graywater system right for you?
Maintaining a healthy soil, choosing the correct detergents, and using best practices for designing, installing, and maintaining your system is key to keeping your landscape healthy.
Knowing the signs of stress from sodium- and boron-accumulation can help resolve symptoms before a problem becomes pervasive. The following questions can help you understand whether or not you should invest in a graywater system.
Is your property in an appropriate location?
Graywater systems should be at least 100 feet away from streams, lakes, or other water bodies, and should not be installed in areas where depth-to-groundwater is less than 5-feet (Valley Water will help you confirm this when you apply for a rebate).
Do you have a reverse-osmosis (RO) system or use water softener?
Reverse osmosis systems
Free of minerals and salts, a reverse osmosis (RO) system's water is graywater-friendly (just send the RO concentrate to the sewer).
If you have a water softener, consider using a potassium-based water softener instead of sodium-based, bypassing the clothes washer from the softened water, adding a reverse-osmosis system, or trying alternatives to conventional ion-exchange water softeners [PDF and study evaluating water-softener alternatives].
Difference between sodium chloride and potassium chloride water softeners
- Salt, or sodium chloride, is commonly used in water softeners to remove the hardness from water in homes and businesses.
- Potassium chloride works exactly the same way that sodium does in the water-softening process. However, there has been a slow but steady growth in the use of potassium chloride (KCl), which is chemically related to salt and has the same water-softening characteristics.
- Most water softeners remove hardness (calcium and magnesium) and iron from water through an ion-exchange process. The harder the water, the more sodium or potassium respectively is added to effect softening.
How potassium chloride benefit the environment
- Potassium chloride is a naturally occurring mineral, and it is often marketed as agricultural plant food.
- Sodium can be harmful to plants, whereas potassium is an essential mineral for plant growth.
- By switching from sodium chloride to potassium chloride, it will reduce sodium and chloride being discharged into municipal wastewater treatment facilities, thus enhancing the quality of recycled water and soil conditions.
How to change regenerants
- If you switch from using salt to potassium chloride, you may just add the potassium chloride pellets into the tank where salts are added.
- No equipment changes or adjustments are required for most household water softeners; however, please refer to your owner’s manual or contact manufacturers for compatibility.
- Also, please consult your physician if you have any health-related questions about consuming potassium chloride-treated soft water.
Do you have a septic system?
Every septic system is different, but you may need less frequent leach field replacement [PDF] by sending more of your laundry rinse water to the landscape with a graywater system. Graywater systems should be at least 5-feet away from a septic system’s leach field.
What kind of soaps and detergents are graywater-safe?
In general, detergents containing Boron, bleach, antibacterial compounds, and fabric softeners can degrade the health of your landscape's soil over time.
- View Greywater Action's graywater-safe soap and detergent list, which is based on their experience and expertise working with graywater-irrigated landscapes but not a specific recommendation.
- When product labels aren't sufficient, use these general tips and these additional graywater resources to find graywater-compatible or garden-friendly detergents.
Food-safe soaps and detergents
Since soaps and detergents contain a variety of chemicals to aid in cleaning, inquire with the following for additional information if you choose to use graywater on food you may eat and you are unsure of the soaps or detergents in your graywater:
- County’s Department of Environmental Health
- California Department of Food and Agriculture
- University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
To minimize potential health and safety concerns, look for “graywater-compatible,” “garden-friendly,” and “dioxane-free” detergent labels.
What kind of plants can I irrigate with graywater?
Graywater is better for certain plants compared to others: Decorative trees, fruit trees, shrubs, vines, California-native riparian plants and hardier native plants perform well. Very advanced and expensive subsurface drip systems can irrigate lawns with graywater when properly permitted and designed. Keep it simple before considering more advanced options.
Never use graywater to irrigate fruits or vegetables that come in direct contact with graywater or the soil surface, such as root vegetables like potatoes or carrots.
Maintaining your graywater system
Maintaining a Laundry-to-Landscape System is considerably easier than other types of graywater system since there are no filters or tanks to clean-out. Most maintenance tasks should be done at least annually or if you notice water in unusual places. It is best to direct graywater to the sewer/septic system during the rainy season to ensure graywater never pools or ponds on the soil surface.
This section describes steps you can take to ensure your graywater system will continue running smoothly for years to come. This video from Greywater Action provides an effective, quick summary of how key maintenance steps look in action.
Check for leaks at washer hose, and make sure label is in place.
There should never be moisture at the 3-way valve. If leaking, tighten the hose clamp.
Relabel if needed. Labels should clearly show which direction the graywater is flowing for how the valve's handle is oriented.
Check for leaks from the auto vent. If leaking, replace the auto vent.
Piping and Tubing
Annual, or if you notice water in unusual places
Check for leaks. If piping or tubing is leaking, cut out the damaged section and reconnect with couplers or barbed couplers. The coupler size will depend on your pipe size (either 1/2-inch, 3/4-inch, or most likely 1-inch).
Relabel if needed. Exposed piping should be labeled, "Caution: Nonpotable graywater. Do not drink.".
Annual, or if you notice water in unusual places
Check for even distribution.
Unclog particles that have built up in the outlets.
Open all ball valves, and if needed flush the system by running rinse cycles. Another option is to temporarily separate the PVC union to access the piping by temporarily disconnecting it from the clothes washer.
Remove decomposed mulch and add new mulch.
If water is pooling or ponding, dig out the mulch basin so it has a larger surface area and add new mulch.
If the plant has grown past the outlet, dig up the mulch and soil surrounding the outlet and piping up to the plant's current drip line. Cut the piping and place the mulch shield/valve box at the new location under the drip line. Ensure the pipe outlet is 2-inches below the soil surface. If you cut the pipe too far, use a barbed coupler and some hot water to join the two pipe pieces back together (either 1/2-inch, 3/4-inch, or 1-inch depending on the pipe size).
Plumbing code requirements
California Plumbing Code: Chapter 15 describes graywater system requirements [PDF] will open to an overview of clothes washer (Laundry to Landscape) graywater systems that don't require a construction permit (Section 1502.1.1 on pages 353 and 354 of the linked PDF, or pages 310 and 311 of the printed version.). Summarized below. Check with your local building or permitting department for additional rules to consider when planning your project.
Please note, some of the requirements below are already reflected in the rebate program's Rebate Requirements. This list is provided for your reference:
- If required, notification has been provided to the enforcing agency (relevant Building or Planning Department) regarding the proposed location and installation of a graywater irrigation or disposal system. Building Department Contact Information (subject to change) municipalities in Santa Clara County.
- The design shall allow the user to direct the flow to the irrigation or disposal field or the building sewer. The direction control of the gray water shall be clearly labeled and readily accessible to the user.
- The installation, change, alteration, or repair of the system does not include a potable water connection or a pump and does not affect other building, plumbing, electrical, or mechanical components including structural features, egress, fire-life safety, sanitation, potable water supply piping, or accessibility. Note: The pump in a clothes washer shall not be considered part of the gray water system.
- The gray water shall be contained on the site where it is generated.
- Gray water shall be directed to and contained within an irrigation or disposal field.
- Ponding or runoff is prohibited and shall be considered a nuisance.
- Gray water may be released above the ground surface provided at least two (2) inches (51 mm) of mulch, rock, or soil, or a solid shield covers the release point. Other methods which provide equivalent separation are also acceptable.
- Gray water systems shall be designed to minimize contact with humans and domestic pets.
- Water used to wash diapers or similarly soiled or infectious garments shall not be used and shall be diverted to the building sewer.
- Gray water shall not contain hazardous chemicals derived from activities such as cleaning car parts, washing greasy or oily rags, or disposing of waste solutions from home photo labs or similar hobbyist or home occupational activities.
- Exemption from construction permit requirements of this code shall not be deemed to grant authorization for any gray water system to be installed in a manner that violates other provisions of this code or any other laws or ordinances of the enforcing agency.
- An operation and maintenance manual shall be provided to the owner. Directions shall indicate that the manual is to remain with the building throughout the life of the system and upon change of ownership or occupancy.
- Gray water discharge from a clothes washer system through a standpipe shall be properly trapped.
Find landscape professionals
Whether you’re starting a new landscape project or maintaining your existing landscape, this information will help you quickly and easily find landscape professionals in your area. Receive advice and resources on home horticulture, pest management, and sustainable landscape practices from Santa Clara County's UC Master Gardeners.
Landscape professionals with rebate experience
The lists below are intended to help you find companies familiar with Valley Water’s rebate programs with experience in landscape design, construction, and maintenance. This information is not intended to be an endorsement of any one company.
Landscape professionals: If you wish to be added to or removed from this list or have general questions, contact Ashley Shannon at (408) 630-2951. Be prepared to verify that you have had three or more clients participate in the Landscape Rebate Program to be eligible to be added to the list.
These videos provide tips on how to safely use graywater and provide overviews of different types of graywater systems.
Can I install a Graywater System? by Valley Water
This video details how a basic graywater system works, and how you can get a rebate for installing a system in your yard. Full graywater workshops are available in our Water Saving Videos page.
Additional recommended videos
How to Install a Graywater Irrigation System by This Old House provides a quick overview of how to install the system.
Sustainable Gardening with Graywater by California Water Efficiency Partnership. This is not a local resource and should be used for general information only.
Graywater Laundry to Landscape Systems Overview by California Water Efficiency Partnership; San Diego County Water Authority.
Overview of Graywater System Options for Residential Use by City of Tucson. This is not a local resource and should be used for general information only.