Beyond the Rain Barrel

Exploring Water Conservation Options for Capitol Hill Homes

Rain barrels: One way to conserve water. Credit C. Plume

This summer, the California drought and the resulting water conservation efforts are peppering newspapers and airwaves. This ongoing and alarming story has some DC residents thinking about our local water supply and water conservation efforts. Byron Buck is a 15-year Hill resident, the owner of National Capital Kitchens, and a native southern Californian. Through his remodeling work, he’s regularly privy to a “behind the drywall and backsplash” perspective of Capitol Hill houses. This experience has made him ponder how Hill residents can incorporate water conservation measures into their homes.

What is Greywater?

“The use of greywater (wastewater from bathroom sinks and washing machines that does not contain body or food wastes) is becoming an issue that is generating more interest every year. As a kitchen remodeler, I’m aIways looking at ideas that could improve life inside the home. Utilizing greywater is an interesting area for exploration,” says Byron.

“Creating a secondary plumbing path for greywater as a part of a kitchen or home remodel is a viable investment. Opening up walls is the largest and most expensive part of such an undertaking, so creating a greywater system as a part of a renovation makes practical and economic sense. The plumbing itself is relatively simple and inexpensive in comparison to the cost of creating the path through already finished walls or ceilings. At National Capital Kitchens, we recommend that a greywater path be created at the same time,” he continues.

Byron estimates that the total cost of creating a greywater system in a typical Capitol Hill house would range between $3,000 and $3,500. As roughly one-third of most household water consumption goes towards landscaping (where the vast bulk of any greywater would be used) a greywater system can reduce the water costs of a monthly bill by approximately one-third. (Note that there are water related fees included in any DC Water bill that would not necessarily be reduced.). You can use this figure to roughly estimate how long it would take any system to pay for itself.

DC law regulates the capture and use of greywater. In addition to the secondary indoor plumbing system, greywater systems require a storage tank and must be equipped with a filter and a pump. Kitchen sinks are not allowed since food, which is considered a waste product, is washed there. Dishwashers are usually not a good source of greywater because detergents are typically high in salt which is harmful to plants and soils.

As greywater is most commonly used for irrigation outside the home, it’s important to use “plant friendly” cleaning products that don’t contain salts, boron, chlorine bleach or other harmful chemicals. Greywater should not be stored for any longer than a day to avoid the breakdown of nutrients that can create foul odors.

Rain Barrels, a Simpler Conservation Measure

If you’re not ready to install a greywater system in your home, consider taking a first step in water conservation by installing a rain barrel or other feature to reduce storm water runoff. As rainwater runs off impermeable surfaces such as roofs, patios, driveways, roads, and sidewalks, it picks up pollutants - oil, grease, nutrients from fertilizers, and bacteria from pet waste. Here in DC, this polluted storm water eventually drains into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

Storm water pollution can be reduced by capturing the water in rain barrels to irrigate your yard and in rain gardens. More permeable surface area can be created by planting trees and installing pervious pavers that will absorb rainwater runoff before it picks up pollutants.

As most DC homes have no storm water controls, DC’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) RiverSmart Homes program ( provides rebates of up to $1,200 to homeowners who install any of these storm water reduction features. To qualify for the rebates, a DC homeowner can sign up for a RiverSmart home audit at, and an auditor will schedule a visit to help you determine what features to install.

RiverSmart Homes also has a list of contractors and nonprofit organizations that can help with any installation. DOEE also offers a Rain Barrel Rebate Program of $50 to $500 for homeowners who do not want to wait for the storm water audit or want a different rain barrel other than those offered through the RiverSmart Homes program.

Grey Water Reclamation in Its Infancy

On the West Coast, with the current drought, greywater systems make economic and environmental sense as any increase in the amount of available water is significant. But Byron recognizes that it’s early days for greywater systems on the East Coast.

“At the present time, the conversion to greywater (by East Coast residents) will probably be among people who are concerned about the environment rather than among people who are economically motivated to find alternative sources of water. There is an economic benefit, but right now, admittedly, that benefit is low,” says Byron.

Still, many Capitol Hill homeowners rightly see themselves as one of many temporary stewards of a home that has housed families for over a hundred years - and one that will hopefully continue to do so for many years to come. Over the life of any older Capitol Hill home, previous owners have installed a wide array of systems – electricity, heating and cooling systems, indoor plumbing, and indoor kitchens - to perpetuate the life of the house.

As world population increases and droughts become more frequent, potable water will become an ever important commodity. The technology already exists to convert greywater into potable water. Installing a greywater system in your home is a forward thinking investment that may one day represent a very attractive amenity that some future owner of your home may be very grateful for.

Byron Buck, Owner of National Capital Kitchens and a greywater system proponent.

Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and blogger for the DC Recycler:; Twitter @DC_Recycler

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