The trouble with water

Here in Wales we’re having a bit of a drought… it’s hardly rained for weeks and the water butts Chez Snail are sadly depleted. This is a bit of an issue because we try to avoid flushing the toilet with mains water – instead using rainwater that we have collected from the roof of the house and shed. As the water butts have gradually emptied, we have started using ‘grey’ water: saving the water when we shower for use in the toilet, for example. We’ve also been tipping water from washing up and washing onto the plants in the garden (in both pots and the ground) and trying to make use of any other collected water, like when the  hot water tank started overflowing because the arm of the ballcock had warped (now mended).

So, when I get home from swimming, I put my swimming costume and my goggles into a bucket of cold water to rinse away the chlorine, and then I use the water in the garden (assuming that it’s so dilute by then that it will do no harm). And this is where the ‘trouble’ originated.

This morning I simply could not find my swimming goggles. I usually leave them on the table in the kitchen to dry and then put them back in my swimming bag ready for my next session. But this morning they were nowhere to be seen. Where had I put them? Had I left them at the pool? Now, I know that you can see exactly where this is going, but at 6:30 this morning I was completely bewildered. I hunted around the house to no avail, and I asked at the pool, where they have a box of abandoned goggles… none of which turned out to be mine. The lovely staff offered to lend me some, but I had my old ones and so although my swim was a bit blurry (unlike the new ones, my old ones do not have prescription lenses), I was fine. As I swam up and down I mulled over what I could possibly have done with my goggles… and the light started to dawn.

On returning home, I checked the garden, and there they were in a pot with a courgette plant. Apart from a little compost and needing a rinse, they were unharmed. Needless to say this is going to cause great amusement with my fellow swimmers when I tell them on Monday. Ah well, it’s just one of the hazards of a green lifestyle.


The offending goggles with my eco-friendly swimming costume (made from recycled fibres)



The world’s most impressive recycling system

National Recycle Week – Day 2

Today, on this dry and sunny day, I’m thinking about water.

The Water Cycle (from NOAA – The US National Weather Service)

Water is one resource that gets naturally recycled: clouds drop rain on the earth, which gets soaked up by the soil, used by plants or flows into lakes or the ocean, before some of it evaporates to form clouds again. Round and round it goes, sometimes being stored, sometimes being created (all living things make water when they respire, and it’s released during combustion) and sometimes being used as a building block (plants use water along with carbon dioxide in photosynthesis to create carbohydrates). This global cycle carries on unnoticed for the most part, although humans do interfere with it, for example by extracting water stored underground or by channelling it so that it flows quickly through the landscape and doesn’t soak into the earth.

Humans also, however, pollute it. We use it to wash away waste, thus requiring some sort of treatment before it can safely be returned to the environment. So, we need sewage treatment plants and  tailings pools and filters and all sorts of other ways of cleaning up the water we have used. Sometimes we also make it warm and then discharge it directly into the environment, thus upsetting the natural systems in the area (this is known as ‘thermal pollution’ and is a particular problem with power plants and industries that use water for cooling)), at least in part because warmer water contains lower levels of dissolved oxygen.

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back (the are awaiting new positions with the limery construction under-way)

On a more personal scale, it’s interesting to consider the water we use in our own homes. In most cases, there’s not a lot of cycling goes on in this context, but we can be much more efficient with our water use and make sure that we contaminate as little of it as possible. Generally in domestic situations, our biggest source of contamination is sewage – every time you flush the toilet, you send 5-10 litres of polluted water down the drain, and that water will have to be processed (thus using energy) before it is safe to release back into our rivers and seas.

The best thing we can do as individuals is to reduce our water use, using our water as many times as possible before sending it out of our homes. Grey water – such as what comes out of the washing machine – can be used again to water plants or wash the car, thus doubling up on use and reducing the amount that needs to come out of the mains (which will save you money too if your water is metered). Chez Snail, we collect lots of rainwater for use around the house and garden and this means that, wherever possible, we are not using the processed water that comes out of the taps for jobs that don’t require it. For example, all the concrete that has been mixed during our building work has used rainwater… after all, it made no difference if it was a bit gritty or contained some algae.

From the Guide to Sustainable City Living

From the Toolbox for Sustainable City Living

It’s even possible to build your own little gray water treatment plant at home if you wish. I have a book entitled Toolbox for Sustainable City Living that provides detailed instructions on building a wetland out of three recycled bathtubs to filter washing machine waste water… it’s not the answer for all of us, but if you live in a city and want to process your water for re-use there are options. Chez Snail we will continue to water the plants with our used washing-up water and flush the toilet with rain water and grey water and in these ways we will help mother nature in her grand recycling operation.

Oh, poo!

Over the past few days, a link to an article on the Guardian website has been doing the rounds on Facebook (at least in the circles I mix in, which are mainly related to sustainability). It’s entitled Why the modern bathroom is a wasteful, unhealthy design and explains why we might not want to keep our toothbrush next to our toilet and why it’s such an environmental issue to mix the water we wash our hands in with the waste we flush down the toilet.

Basically, the issue with water disposal is that grey water (from washing) can safely be used to irrigate the land, whilst black water (from the toilet) needs to be processed to make it safe. By mixing the two together, we end up with a lot more highly contaminated water that has to be processed in some way. According to the Guardian:

Over 10bn litres of sewage are produced every day in England and Wales. It takes approximately 6.34 GW hours of energy to treat this volume of sewage, almost 1% of the average daily electricity consumption of England and Wales.

I don’t know what the figures would be if we separated the two sorts of water, but I know they would be significantly lower. The real issue in my mind, however, is that we see everything that goes down the drain as a problem – all waste water is pollution in the current paradigm. What we need to do is realise that, in fact, all waste water is a resource… faeces and urine contain valuable nutrients, and water itself is an increasingly rare commodity globally.

And if we are thinking about fertility, The nitrogen fertiliser industry is big business, closely tied in with fossil fuels… according to the International Plant Nutrition Index:

All N fertilizer begins with a source of hydrogen gas and atmospheric N that are reacted to form ammonia. The most-used source of hydrogen is natural gas (methane). Other sources of hydrogen, such as coal, are used in some regions. After hydrogen and N are combined under conditions of high temperature and pressure to form ammonia, many other important N-containing fertilizers can then be made. Urea is the most common N fertilizer, but there are many excellent N fertilizers that can be made from ammonia. For example, some ammonia is oxidized to make nitrate fertilizer. This same conversion of ammonia to nitrate takes place in agricultural soils through the microbial process of nitrification.

Because the production of hydrogen gas required for the synthesis of ammonia largely comes from natural gas, the price of this primary feedstock is the major factor in the cost of ammonia production. Ammonia factories sometimes close or open in various parts of the world in response to fluctuating gas prices. Higher energy costs always translate into higher prices for all N fertilizers. (IPNI)

The classic image of a compost toilet

The classic image of a compost toilet

So, we flush great fertiliser away down the toilet (remember a key function of urine is to expel excess nitrogen from our bodies), pay for that to be treated to make it safe and then pay even more to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere to apply to the land to grow crops. Somehow, this just doesn’t seem sensible. Why not turn the waste into a useful resource and avoid a whole bunch of pollution?

I know that most people are squeamish about composting toilets and they are currently not readily available for use in ‘normal’ houses, but technology is changing. Soon, you won’t have to deal with the waste yourself if you want to avoid the standard flush toilet, and you wont have to have a compost loo in the garden either. Take a look at Toilet Revolution if you want to see a whole range of options suitable for real homes.


Tomato troubles

I am generally hopeless at growing tomatoes. I thought that it was just me, but my neighbours have given up even trying, so at least I have some company.

The problem is that, over recent years, we have suffered from very wet summers and it has been impossible to control the spread of grey mould (Botrytis) in the greenhouse. The tomato plants have grown well to begin with, but then the grey mould arrives and attacks the stems and leaves and any tomatoes that do set are doomed to rot before they can grow and ripen and after a relatively short time the plant collapses. The problem also affects peppers and chillies, but seems to be less severe with them.

Baby tomatoes and the flowers that will turn into even more

Baby tomatoes and the flowers that will turn into even more

This year, however, is different. It has not been a wet summer; in fact, the last time it rained here was 23 days ago, and over the past two weeks, aside from a little sea fog, we have had sunshine. This means that the greenhouse needs constant ventilation and the plants therein require regular watering, but the grey mould does not stand a chance. So, for the first time in ages, here is abundant tomato set, (I’m growing Gardener’s delight this year) and I have high hopes for a good crop.

A length of rigid pipe and a large container were all that was required to collect water from the washing machine.

A length of rigid pipe and a large container were all that were required to collect water from the washing machine

Of course all this sunshine and dry weather means that we have nearly used up all of the rain water from our stores, but this has encouraged us to set up a simple system for collecting the water from the washing machine. Collecting the water this way means that it can be used to fill watering cans or bottles and be transferred to where it is needed in the garden or to the toilet cistern without any difficulty… and the tomatoes, courgettes, beans and potatoes are certainly welcoming it and I’m pleased to have discovered how easy it is to collect this additional source of grey water.


All the April showers recently here in the land of snails have been making me think a lot about water…

Nearly half of all UK water use is domestic, so I try to be thoughtful about what I do with the stuff. In particular I think it’s wrong to use drinking-quality water for things like watering plants and flushing the toilet, especially considering how much energy is needed for water treatment. It’s easy enough to install a water-butt or two if you have a garden and downspouts, but next to impossible if you don’t. We have three collecting water off the roof of the house, one on the greenhouse and an IBC (which holds a cubic metre of water) collecting from the shed roof. This may seem excessive for a relatively small garden in a wet area, but much of the saved water is used to flush the toilet… we fill the cistern manually from 5 litre bottles of rainwater. We have a hose pipe from a raised water-butt (on a wooden stand constructed by Mr S-o-h) that siphons into the bottles stored in the bathroom (we live in a bungalow, so no pumping is needed). Sounds like a fiddle, but it’s a low-tech solution and saves us some money since we are on a water meter. If we are running low on rainwater in the summer, when the priority is growing food, we save grey water from the shower and use this for flushing.

We have a low water-use washing machine, although it’s about 12 years old, so I’m sure a more efficient one would be available. Of course this raises the issue of when to replace our possessions. Currently we try not to get rid of anything unless its broken and cannot be repaired, so the washing machine stays. Actually, the embodied energy and water in any product is usually so high that this generally seems like a sensible option.

So, I try to think not only about the water that I use directly, but also that used indirectly… am I taking water from a region or country that can ill afford it because of my purchases? The answer has to be yes, so I try to be mindful of this, for example buying my coffee from Ethical Addictions, who support coffee growing projects aimed at reducing water use and supporting communities.

I’m always looking for ways to save more water, both directly and indirectly… any ideas?

%d bloggers like this: