The Greywater Diaries

00 IntroThere are a lot of ways to study an environmental crisis. In 2014 and 2015, I did so by spending time among people who rearrange pipes for a living: Los Angeles-based home greywater system installers. In California, greywater is defined as the “lightly used” effluent from washing machines, showers, bathtubs, and bathroom sinks. It’s legal to use this water for outdoor landscape irrigation, and a growing group of trained system installers now ply their trade as greywater professionals, rerouting those flows from the sewer to the garden. What follows is an account of stepping into this community at the height of California’s recent drought, a long moment of widespread water anxiety. Strict new conservation rules made home water consumption a popular topic of discussion during this period, sparking an unprecedented interest in greywater reuse across the region. The vignettes presented here are culled from my field journals and presented episodically, offering a glimpse into the rhythms, relationships, values, and anxieties that shape daily life at this sustainability frontier. Pseudonyms are used throughout, in compliance with my research protocol.


October 27, 2014

01 installing a L2LHank and I are standing outside a modest family home in Venice, not far from the sand and the neon-clad rollerbladers of the eponymous beach. Some weeks ago, the homeowners called Hank’s company to request a site assessment – that is, for someone to come examine their pipes and landscape to see what kind of greywater system (if any) could be built there. Because almost none of California’s buildings were designed with greywater reuse in mind, each of Hank’s company’s jobs begins with an in-person analysis of a site’s potential for recycling.

Before long, a middle-aged white woman emerges, greets us, and ushers us through the house. She lives here with her husband and her adult daughter, who both join us in the garden to chat before Hank investigates the site’s layout and limitations. The family moved here in 1994, before the neighborhood’s real estate boom “got crazy.” The wife explains that she’s always been eco-conscious and interested in New Age spirituality, and that when they moved in, she found herself surrounded by like-minded people. She had spent time in ashram, and quickly bonded with a neighbor who had lived on a kibbutz. These days, as the state’s drought drags on, she often finds herself in conversation with neighbors about how best to save water. We’re entering the Age of Aquarius, she tells me earnestly, explaining that she sees all of the attention given to living more lightly on the land as a sign of society’s drift towards enlightenment.

She leads us through the house and the yard, pointing out the water fixtures and the plants she’d like to irrigate with greywater. She’s done some homework, and knows that public health regulations prevent spraying untreated greywater, and that her patch of turf is a poor candidate for the greywater. This is fine, she tells us. She’s thinking of taking out the small lawn, anyway.

Hank examines the washing machine, and pronounces it the family’s best bet for a greywater source. Their house is built on a concrete slab, so the pipes from the shower and the sink are inaccessible. But the laundry machine sits next to an external wall, through which he could drill and pipe the effluent to the garden, relying on the washer’s internal pump to move the water to the plants. They’d have to use salt-free, greywater friendly detergents, but those are everywhere – even at Trader Joe’s – these days, so it shouldn’t be too tough of an adjustment. The family likes this idea. Hank promises to draw up and a proposal with a price tag (likely around $2000) and to send it over within a few days.


March 7, 2015

02 greywater workshop

It’s a sunny Saturday morning and twenty-or-so people are milling around in the backyard of a Highland Park bungalow, slicing bagels and pouring coffee and talking about the drought. The house we’re standing behind boasts a number of eco-conscious tweaks, including an array of solar panels on the roof, 55-gallon rain barrels (to capture roof runoff), and a yard carpeted with mulch rather than grass. Members of the crowd note these details approvingly between sips of kombucha and sunscreen touch ups.

The group has gathered for a greywater system installation workshop, hosted by Greywater Company, Hank’s business. The company holds these events periodically to spread the word about the technology. This one was a hot ticket – Hank tells me that all of the slots (priced on a sliding scale, from $20-$60) filled within one day of him posting the event on the company’s website. A few minutes after 9 AM, he gathers the crowd for introductions and a short lecture about water infrastructure. The greetings reveal a solidly middle class crowd, dominated by homeowners excited about the idea of recycling their home wastewater, many of whom aspire to build simple systems of their own after participating in the workshop. Hank, who frequently describes himself as a “totally half-assed capitalist,” expresses enthusiasm at the group’s do-it-yourself aspirations.

He then tells the crowd his own coming-to-greywater story. Back in 2008, he was laid off from his old job as an architect. So he had a lot of time on his hands to read the news and notice things and just think. A drought was desiccating California at the time, and at a certain point, he started worrying about his own water consumption. Some evenings he’d read about depleted reservoirs and climate change, then take a break to give his young son a bath. And when that was done, he’d watch the bathwater swirl down the drain towards the sewer. And then he’d walk outside and water the front yard fruit trees. What a waste! He began to think, annoyed at the irrationality of this arrangement. Those trees would’ve been perfectly happy with the bathwater. No need to dump that and then use pristine drinking water for irrigation. This frustration finally led to action, first in the form of scattershot Googling, which led to jerry-rigging a greywater system in his own home and ultimately enrolling in an installers’ certification course and founding his own greywater system installation company.

Hank moves on from his own narrative to the bigger California water story. With images of drought-parched fields and the massive California Aqueduct as his backdrop, he situates his guilt at “throwing away” bathwater within this sprawling waterscape. Here in Los Angeles, he tells the crowd, our drinking water is pumped over mountains and through deserts to get to our taps. We use an insane amount of energy moving water in this state. Something like 19% of California’s energy goes to just moving and treating our water! And then – here, he flips to an image of L.A.’s sprawling Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Facility – we use that water to wash our hands, send it down the drain, and use MORE energy to put chemicals into it and dump it in the ocean. Crazy! We need to do better!

Glancing around, I notice that many of my fellow attendees are nodding with approval. Some are taking notes. In the hours that follow, under the supervision of Hank’s workers, we dig trenches and lay irrigation tubing and set up a valve that can direct the laundry water to either the sewer or the plants. By 4 PM, the system is ready to test. Hank turns on the washer and we gather around the system’s outlets. Seconds later, water flows out and everyone cheers.


April 16, 2015


One unseasonably warm Thursday morning, Hank calls to see if I want to carpool to a fancy lecture and reception at an art museum on L.A.’s Westside. The speakers are a wife-and-husband team of landscape architecture professors who study “water smart” design. A local public radio personality involved with planning the event asked the professors to invite some folks doing “interesting work with water” to the event to promote good mingling. The couple had hired Hank to install a greywater system in their home, and so they suggested that he come as a representative of interesting-water-working L.A.

Hank circulates without difficulty at the reception. The crowd is heavy on well-dressed architects (landscape and regular-type), and, thanks in part to his previous career, he speaks their language fluently. Though the conversations cover a lot of ground – L.A. zoning politics, gentrification laments, developer gossip – they always seem to circle back to the drought. Two weeks earlier, California Governor Jerry Brown instituted the state’s first-ever mandatory urban water conservation measures. Brown went in for a bit of Hollywood-ish staging to make the announcement, addressing the press from a crispy, snowless field high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. That site, he told the assembled onlookers, is typically covered in five feet of snow at this time of year. That snow normally melts slowly over the course of the summer, dripping down the mountainsides and into the aqueducts of the State Water Project. This year: no snow, so no water in the canal, and so historic consumption restrictions. The New York Times covered the announcement aggressively. The Internet followed suit. California water, it seemed, was suddenly on everyone’s radar.

The assembled architects proved no exception. Is the greywater business booming? Everyone asks Hank. My phone is ringing off the hook! He replies. But he quickly admits that it’s tough for a small company like his to convert those inquiries into profits. He can only field so many calls and go on so many site consultations and design so many systems in a given week. Plus, it turns out that lots of callers have properties where installing a greywater system just isn’t feasible. And also, he really only has enough workers to build one complex or two simple systems at a time. If I were an MBA-y person, I would be getting so rich on greywater right now, he muses to me after one of these state-of-your-business chats concludes.


May 7, 2015

04 pool for scale

“Steve Carell lives right over there,” the contractor says as she gestures to the left. “He’s been having tree issues.”

Hank is doing a site assessment on an under-construction property that’s apparently within spitting distance of the home of the celebrity and his “tree issues.” But instead of the homeowner, a pair of contractors greet us upon our arrival at the house. They assure us that considering greywater was the owner’s idea, but that he just hadn’t been able to take the time off work (he’s a screenwriter) to meet with us today.

The contractors leave us to explore the property, so Hank and I walk slowly through the wooden skeleton of the house, across the expanse of grassy lawn, and around the empty swimming pool. He realizes quickly that it would be a tough site to retrofit for a greywater recycling system. The home’s plumbing was recently completed, and the pipes have been laid in a greywater-unfriendly manner. The shower, sink, and toilet in each bathroom are combined into a single thick pipe, rather than snaking down to the basement in separate conduits. This means that Hank’s crew would have to make a number of tricky cuts into the pipes – fussy, awkward, expensive work – to avoid including the toilet water.

Yeah… doing greywater here would kind of suck, but I think there’s room to put in a big cistern underground in the backyard, Hank tells me. Though they’ve been drowning in greywater demand all spring, Greywater Company is also trying to broaden their range and to dip a toe into the rain tank installation market. Whenever it rains, people decide they don’t need greywater, he’s told me many times. This makes L.A.’s months-long rainy season financially stressful for a greywater installer, even during a hot, dry winter like 2014-15. Hank drinks whiskey with a local rain tank installer, and spent the beginning of the year watching the opposite pattern emerge for his friend’s company. Business boomed whenever it got cloudy. This was appealing. So, on site consultations, Greywater Company now assesses a site’s potential for rainwater capture, too.

I ask Hank how much storage we could fit here. He frowns, ponders. Maybe 10,000 gallons? I whistle. He shrugs. That’s less than half the size of the pool and only enough to water the lawn for a few weeks, he tells me. And it just doesn’t rain here between April and September. By the beginning of the summer, they’d have to switch back to tap water.

Over lunch, Hank admits that he doesn’t really want this job. It would be long and complicated and a pain. Plus, he grimaces, even with a greywater system and cistern, they’d still be using a ton of potable water if they want to keep that grass green.


October 1, 2015

05 crawlspace hell

Seth and Evan and I are digging trenches in the front yard of a suburban bungalow. The morning’s work is easy and kind of fun, because the guys are chatty and seem pleased to have an audience for their antics. At one point, Seth stops working to play a recording of a song he made, which is basically a loop of him imitating Barack Obama over a halting beat. The impression is pretty good, and I tell him so.

Seth and Evan are both relatively new additions to the Greywater Company crew, joining the fold this year in the midst of the drought-time rush. Seth is in his early 40s. He’s lived in L.A. for a while, and has worked for a number of eco-friendly home contractors. Evan is actually newer to the scene than I am – he only moved to L.A. this summer. He’s in his mid 20s, and he’s already great at the job. After just a few weeks on the crew, he grasps the details of how to build a greywater system far better than I do after months of observation. He also controls the music on the job site, streaming ‘90s music on his phone and piping it through a small pair of speakers.

We’re building a branched drain system today, which relies on gravity to distribute water from a building’s sinks and showers. Unlike laundry-to-landscape systems, there’s no pump to push the water through a branched drain set up. This means that building the system requires fastidious digging, measuring, and gluing-into-place. The greywater pipe must descend a quarter inch over each foot it travels to move the water through the landscape. Evan leads our efforts, wielding the level like an extension of his hand and talking a blue streak as he measures, cuts, and glues the black ABS pipe into the landscape.

Meanwhile, Nathan is wedged in the crawlspace under the house. Around here, most houses are designed with a few feet of space below the home and above the earth, unseen areas crisscrossed by pipes and wires. No one expects these crawlspaces to be pleasant places to pass an afternoon, but working with Greywater Company has taught me to appreciate just how toxic they can be. Workers often encounter asbestos or exotic mold. Hank keeps a stock of dust masks in the company van to minimize the nasty particles his workers breathe in while doing subsurface work, but everyone still dreads the time they spend under the houses.

Shortly before I leave the site that day, Nathan lets out a groan audible from aboveground. He’s just broken the part he spent all morning installing. An Alanis Morissette song blares over Evan’s speakers but it doesn’t quite drown out the string of curses that follow.


November 10, 2015

06 dudes at work

When I arrive at the job site this breezy November morning, I’m met by a tall, pink, adobe wall, which circles the property and prohibits easy entry. Today’s client is a producer for a successful Netflix show, a career that can apparently fund quite the palatial estate. After a quick phone call, Hank appears at a gate and ushers me into the backyard.

Today we’re installing a double laundry-to-landscape system – that is, we’re redirecting the used water from both of the household’s two washing machines to the garden area. We got lucky with the setup of the house: both washers are located in the same room, close to the part of the yard the homeowners want to irrigate. Even better, the crawlspace through which we’re to route the pipes carrying the wastewater requires no commando-style belly crawling. This is going to be a pretty easy job, and the crew is in a good mood. Everyone in L.A. is talking about El Nino instead of the drought these days, and the company’s torrent of incoming calls (and subsequent jobs) has slowed to a trickle. The guys are grateful for a manageable, straightforward, two-day install gig, and mention that fact repeatedly.

In the middle of the afternoon a landscape designer, the company’s main point person for communication to the homeowners, appears on the job site. Ethan, the company’s second-most senior employee, greets her. Their conversation moves quickly to an unsettled issue: how to label the diverter valve controlling the greywater system? Every laundry-to-landscape system features such a valve, which allows the homeowner to redirect the laundry water back to the sewer when he or she is using a noxious cleaning agent (such as bleach) or washing a load of particularly foul garments (like soiled cloth diapers).

In every case I’ve ever observed before, the valve, controlled by a simple handle, was placed above the washing machine with labels reading “sewer” and “landscape” affixed to indicate the different possible destinations for the water, based on the valve’s position. But this lever won’t get such a label. The designer explains to Ethan that she thinks of the laundry room as a clean space, not a place where you want to contemplate a sewer. The homeowners apparently agreed with the reasoning, and spent the previous evening batting around potential alternatives. For instance, “his/hers” – the husband was more interested in the technology than the wife, who wasn’t entirely keen on abandoning her mainstream detergent – had been tossed out as a possibility. Ethan offers another idea: “ocean/garden” (as the Santa Monica Bay is the ultimate destination of most of LA’s wastewater flows), which receives a relatively tepid response. Hank’s suggestion that morning, of a pair of images – one of the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant, and one of a fruit-heavy lemon tree – in lieu of words hadn’t gone over much better.

When the landscape designer leaves, Ethan wonders aloud: is it really so horrifying to imagine a sewer when you’re washing your clothes? He likes the idea of educating people about the region’s water provision and disposal networks. He likes the way Hank does it in the workshop lectures, and he thinks that encountering a low-key reminder of wastewater’s usual destination next to your washer isn’t a bad thing. But, he shrugs, the client asks, so the client receives.


December 18, 2015


Hank and I are eating ramen between site consults, which is nice because it’s December and finally kind of chilly. I’m leaving L.A. in eight days, and this is my last afternoon hanging around with Greywater Company. Between mouthfuls of noodles, Hank offers a greywater status update: it’s still not really raining, but the media’s El Nino obsession hasn’t waned. Business is super slow. Evan and Ethan and Nathan are all taking weeks-long Christmas breaks because there’s just no work.

This afternoon we’re going to visit a guy with no interest in greywater at all. He just wants big, big rain tanks. He’s just bought a decent-sized Westside home and seems to think that installing a rainwater harvesting system is a sensible long-term investment. When we arrive at his house, the client talks a lot about earthquakes and being prepared for any contingency and doesn’t blink an eye when Hank tells him that the 20,000-gallons of rainwater storage he has in mind would cost somewhere around $80,000. He’s a white guy in his 30s wearing a t-shirt with a ponytail and he doesn’t say he works in tech, but certainly talks like someone who does.

It isn’t a long consult. There’s no need to investigate the crawl space or the plumbing, and the client doesn’t seem particularly interested in hearing about the sources or destination of the non-rainwater flowing through his home. Hank promises to draw up a couple of proposals – each sketching out a different scale of tanks – for the site before the holidays. The guy thanks us, and I wonder what it would feel like to have $80,000 stacked up in my bank account, ready to be converted into a swimming pool-sized rainwater cistern under my lawn.

As we inch homeward along the freeway, Hank and I talk about the difference between being prepared for emergencies and being a hardcore survivalist “prepper” type and about how his life will change if El Nino really comes through and it’s soggy all winter. Maybe you’ll get lots of guys like that one calling, I suggest. Silicon Beach rain tank takeover! Hank sighs, shrugs. We’ll see, he says. I just wish the phone would ring more.

Later that winter, Hank posts pictures of a rain tank installation on Instagram. Examining the images, I conclude that the crew is working in the ponytailed guy’s yard, setting up a few thousand gallons or rainwater storage. By that point, El Nino is looking like a big bust in Southern California, and pundits are predicting that California will remain in a drought through 2016 and perhaps even beyond. Good for the greywater hustle, at least, I murmur to myself as I click “like.”

Sayd Randle

Sayd Randle writes on the cultural politics of water, landscape, and infrastructure in the American West. She is a doctoral candidate in environmental anthropology at Yale University and a huge Octavia Butler fan.

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