Some unhappy as gray-water rules take hold

But nonprofit finds an inexpensive way to make it happen
2010-05-30T00:00:00Z 2014-07-15T17:57:00Z Some unhappy as gray-water rules take holdTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 30, 2010 12:00 am  • 

A Tucson law requiring gray-water hookups in new homes takes effect Tuesday, and some home builders are concerned about it.

But a nonprofit builder for low-income home buyers is happy with an alternative gray-water system it's installing at a lower cost than the norm.

City officials say they're open to talking with builders about how to fix bugs in new gray-water systems.

The city law is one of two taking effect Tuesday. The other is a rain-harvesting requirement for businesses with outdoor landscaping. Details, Page D2.

Here are some questions and answers about the gray-water law:

Q. What's it's purpose?

A. To encourage water conservation, by making it easier to water landscaping with gray water from bathroom sinks, showers and washing machines.

Q: What's it require?

A: The system's first leg - a two-inch "stub-out" extending from indoor plumbing fixtures - is mandatory. The law's backers hope it will encourage homeowners to add outdoor gray-water plumbing at their expense. The city has been holding forums to educate homeowners how to install and use gray-water systems.

Q. How much will meeting the law cost?

A. When the law passed in 2008, the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association predicted it would cost builders $500 a home. Qualified Mechanical Contractors, a plumbing contractor, estimated the cost back then at $300 per bathroom. Tucson Plumbing, another plumbing contractor, put the cost at as low $200 for a 1,500-square-foot home.

Today, home builder Pepper Viner, which has built gray-water systems in south- and southeast-side homes, said the best guess is between $500 and $600. Anyone installing a gray-water system can get a $200 state income-tax credit.

Habitat for Humanity, which has installed an alternative design at a new north-side house, said its system will cost only a little over $500 for indoor and outdoor plumbing. A conventional outdoor system can cost $2,000 to $10,000, city officials say.

Q. Why is Habitat's system cheaper?

A. It designed the indoor plumbing fixtures at higher elevations than outdoor landscaping, so gray water can flow downhill to plants. Pumps and storage tanks aren't needed, unlike in most homes where plumbing is below or at the level of landscaping.

The Habitat home has 10 fruit trees, and Habitat officials predict that they'll get all their water from gray water and rainwater directed off the roof.

Q. Will other builders follow Habitat's design?

A. That's unlikely, said Richard Barna, green-building director for Pepper Viner Homes. The Habitat home is elevated, with a crawl space, while most homes in Tucson are built on slabs, he said, adding, "You kind of go with what's proven."

Q. SAHBA originally opposed this law but backed off in what it called a spirit of cooperation with groups that supported it. How do home builders feel today?

A. With the housing market so slow, "the law hasn't put us in a bind," beyond a little extra plumbing cost, said Tom Doucette, president of Doucette Homes. But practical issues such as keeping systems maintained are a concern, said Doucette, adding, "I'm not saying they can't be overcome."

Pulte Homes said through a spokeswoman that because the law has no incentives to invest in outdoor plumbing, it's very likely that the system home builders install will go unused by consumers.

Q: What does the city say about consumer incentives?

A: Tucson Water will ask the City Council on June 22 to approve such an incentive: an up to $200-per-home rebate for homeowners who install outdoor gray-water plumbing fixtures, said Eileen Grossman, the utility's conservation manager. The city's water-conservation fee, a surcharge on water bills, would raise enough money for such rebates for 200 homes, she said.

Q: What are some projects in the works that will use the system?

A. Doucette's company will install the systems in 25 to 30 new homes in the Civano project on the far southeast side.

Pepper Viner got $10,600 total in city grants for gray-water systems at Civano, where it will build 20 homes, and Sunnyside Pointe on the south side, where it is working with nonprofit La Frontera to build 271 homes.

Q: Are builders satisfied with the law's timing?

A: "It would be nice to see some kind of a break-in period to work out the bugs" before the law takes effect, said Barna, head of SAHBA's green-building council.

"We are still running into issues that haven't been anticipated every time we do a system - finding proper valving to separate the gray water from black water and turning on and off a gray-water system," Barna said. "But if we can work it out, it will be a good thing. Water is precious in the desert."

Q. What is the city's response?

A: Officials are trying to set up a meeting with Barna to try to work out his concerns, said Katie Bolger, chief of staff for City Councilman Paul Cunningham.

"If there are problems, let's fix them. It's really a simple technology and it's something we should be proud of," Bolger said. "It's an investment in the future."

Coming Monday

A supporter and an opponent face off over the new rainwater-harvesting law.

THE DETAILS

Two new city laws take effect Tuesday in Tucson, one to require gray-water hookups in new homes and the other to require businesses to use rainfall to water 50 percent of their outdoor landscaping.

Here's what the laws will require:

Gray water ordinance:

• Gray-water use allowed includes wastewater from bathtubs, washing machines, showers and bathroom sinks.

• Wastewater from kitchen sinks and toilets is considered "black water." It must be discharged to the sewer system instead of onto landscaping.

• New homes and duplexes must be built with stub-outs. That's piping extending about 2 inches from a home's exterior wall, to carry gray water from indoor plumbing outdoors to landscaping.

• All new single-family homes must include building drains for showers, bathtubs and bathroom sinks that are kept separate from other plumbing-fixture drains that can allow for future installation of outdoor pipes to distribute the gray water.

• Homeowners are responsible for installing outdoor gray-water distribution systems.

Rainwater-harvesting ordinance and development standards:

• At the time developers of new commercial, office or apartment projects submit development plans to the city, they must submit a plan showing the physical layout of their sites, containing technical details of how they will supply at least 50 percent of their landscape's water from rainfall.

• They must also submit a water budget, outlining how much water their projects' landscaping will need and how they expect to get half of that from rainfall.

• The 50 recent requirement kicks in three years after they get their final certificate of occupancy.

• The projects are exempt from the 50 percent rules in years when annual rainfall is less than 9 inches, which has happened five times in the last 10 years.

• Developers can use active harvesting devices such as cisterns or other tanks. Or, they can use passive methods, such as digging depressions in the ground to catch rainfall, or allowing water to flow by gravity to plants.

• Developers using passive harvesting must design projects so rainwater seeps into the soil within 24 hours.

• Sites must be designed to minimize ponding in areas that could create nuisances for pedestrians. Ponding isn't allowed on public sidewalks or pedestrian-circulation paths.

• Storage tanks may be made of metal, plastic, masonry, reinforced concrete or fiberglass.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.

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