Alex Merchant and Madeline Lagattuta walked through their recently purchased home in Polish Hill. Chalk marks covered the floors, indicating where new walls will be erected and bathrooms created.
Right now, the 100-year-old house has been stripped back to its bones. It’s a blank canvas for all kinds of design opportunities, right down to the plumbing.
“Our plan … is to recycle the water from the washing machine, the showers and the bathroom sinks because that water is mostly, perfectly like normal water,” Merchant said.
He was talking about gray water. It’s the wastewater that comes from just about everything in a home, except the toilet.
Some large buildings in the city already capture gray water, filter it and then use it for flushing toilets. Alex and Madeline just want to use the gray water to irrigate a few trees and planter boxes in their backyard.
Such systems are common in the west, where water is scarce, but it’s more uncommon in this region, especially in private homes. It’s so uncommon, in fact, that the plumbing codes regulating such systems in Allegheny County are vague at best.
“We sort of started calling around, trying to figure out, how do we do this?” Merchant said. “The Allegheny County Health Department has been very open minded … hopefully we can be an early adopter.”
Health Department Director Karen Hacker said the department is considering updating its plumbing codes to create clear standards for water recycling systems.
“The whole reason we’ve started talking about this is because we’ve heard from plumbers and from our advisory group that this is something that they are concerned about in the field,” she said. “It would just make life much easier.”
Without county regulations, most gray water recycling systems are do-it-yourself projects, according to Allegheny County Plumbing Program Manager Andy Grese. It’s a project that can have hazards, he said.
“The people don’t understand the dangers of this,” Grese said. “If we just let any homeowner design his own system and just collect this gray water and bring it back into his home, somebody is going to get sick and people are going to die from it.”
The risk could come from a system that allows the gray water to back flow into the municipal water system. Simple check vales could prevent that, Grese said. The best gray water systems use non-standard size pipes that are colored purple, but DIY systems might not employ any safe guards, Grese added.
“At some point, that home is going to get turned over to someone else and if these safe guards aren’t put in at the time when this is all installed, the new home owners aren’t going to know nothing about it,” Grese said.
It’s possible that a new homeowner could install a refrigerator with an ice maker and unknowingly tap into a gray water system installed by the previous owner.
The 2015 international plumbing code standardizes gray water systems, but the state and county are still using the 2009 code, which is mostly tacit on the issue.
The expectation is that the county will use the 2015 code with a few exceptions and clarifications. County officials said they want to make sure that rain barrels, which collect water only to be used outside, aren't made illegal.
Any new code would go before the Plumbing Advisory Board for a vote, then to the County Board of Health and finally to the County Council. At each step, there would be an opportunity for public input.
Ben Ledowitz with the Fourth River Workers Guild said he plans to be among those who will speak.
“Well, we want to make sure the code is (intelligible) and useful,” Ledowitz said. “And we want to make sure that it’s practical and it helps us make better decisions as we are designing and installing these systems.”
The guild often works with property owners who are interested in sustainable or environmentally-friendly projects. It has helped design some gray water systems, but Ledewitz didn’t specify if any are being used.
The positive impact from using an in-home gray water system could be substantial. Allegheny County Health Department Deputy Director of the environmental health bureau Jim Kelly said 20 to 30 percent of home water consumption could be recycled. That would lower water and sewage bills, reduce overall water consumption and help the region deal with its combined sewer overflow issues.
“Of course, the interesting result of this could be that more people would be aware of these systems and they could actually increase the proliferation,” Kelly said.
New training and testing for certified master plumbers would follow any new code. Kelly said it’s clear that more public education is needed.
“He’s like totally ready to rock and roll on this,” said Lagattuta of her husband’s plans to water the plants with gray water. “But I think I need to see it working really well with the plants before I drink the water from the shower. I’m going to let the plants take the first pass, see how that goes for them.”
The health department’s plumbing board is expected to take up the code changes at its meeting next week.