Greywater – turning waste into a resource
With the right technology, water used to wash yourself and your clothes can be reused on the garden or for flushing toilets. This wastewater is called 'greywater'.
- Reduces the need for and reliance on the mains water supply system.
- Reduces the wastewater peak flows discharging to council’s wastewater system.
- Allows gardens to be watered during drought periods.
However, it's important that any system you use for collecting and reusing greywater is properly installed and maintained. Greywater also needs to be kept away from human contact as there are possible detrimental effects on health – see is greywater safe to reuse?
You'll need to check with your local council before installing a system to collect and reuse greywater.
What is greywater?
All household wastewater from kitchen sinks, dishwashers, laundry tubs, washing machines, showers, baths and basins is called greywater. Greywater cannot be used for cooking, bathing, brushing teeth, swimming or drinking.
A building consent is required to collect greywater from baths, showers, washing machines and laundry tubs, and reuse on your garden or for toilet flushing. Kitchen wastewater is unsuitable for reuse.
What is blackwater?
The wastewater containing human waste is known as blackwater. You can't reuse it. It has to go into the mains sewage system or, if you have no connection to a mains sewage system, into an on-site sewage system.
Is greywater safe to reuse?
Yes, if a system is properly installed and maintained – seek expert advice. It is possible that greywater can contain substances, dissolved metals, faecal matter and microbes which are harmful to human health. There may be detrimental health effects if drinking water becomes contaminated with greywater or there is direct contact with collected greywater that has become septic.
If you do want to have a greywater recycling system at home:
- it needs to be properly installed and maintained
- the greywater needs to be kept away from direct human contact if you're using it in the garden
- it should be discharged under the soil (not on top) and it should not be discharged in areas where food plants grow
- it should not be used to wash clothes
- untreated greywater should be used within 24 hours. Your system should be set up so that any greywater not used in that time goes to the sewer
- overflows should drain to the wastewater system.
It's vital that no one can unwittingly drink from a greywater storage tank. Put locks on taps and put up signage.
How do you collect and reuse greywater?
There are several options for collecting and using greywater, depending on the source of the greywater and where you intend to use it.
Using greywater on your garden
In general, a garden greywater system will divert water from your washing machine, shower, bath or basin so that solids such as lint and fats are filtered out. Care needs to be taken when cleaning and maintaining systems (eg avoiding contact with solids that can be composted or disposed of). After filtering, the water then flows to a storage tank or directly through an irrigation system to your garden.
With some simple systems, the greywater flows directly to a storage tank with a filter inside. These systems require a high level of maintenance (eg emptying the filter every time the washing machine runs).
Whatever type of system you use:
- the greywater should be discharged below ground, not directly onto the surface of the soil to avoid the risk of people being exposed to bacteria in the greywater. There's also a risk of the greywater pooling on the ground
- try not to over-water with greywater as this may damage plants and soil structure.
- ensure you wash your hands thoroughly after coming into contact with greywater and use gloves if possible.
- it's worth having a switch to allow you to bypass the greywater system and have your greywater go straight into the sewer. This is handy if you're putting something down the drain that you wouldn't want in the garden.
Flushing the toilet
If you want to reuse your greywater, you'll need a building consent and a plumber to install a greywater recycling system that connects to your toilet. It may be difficult to fit one of these systems to an existing home with a concrete floor.
Looking after a greywater system
If you install a greywater system:
- make sure faecal matter – for example, from children's baths or from washing nappies – is diverted to the sewer or on-site sewage system
- use appropriate soaps and detergents – avoid washing powders that whiten or have enzymes, and avoid detergents or cleaners containing boron
- don't use too much greywater on your garden – if water ponds, harmful microbes can multiply, creating a potential health hazard
- you may want to divert the first flush of water from your washing machine into the sewer to reduce the amount of chemicals you are putting on your garden
- don’t use greywater on the vegetable or herb garden
- take advice about planting – some plants do not thrive in alkaline conditions and greywater tends to be alkaline. You may need to change plants or avoid watering certain plants with greywater.
Testing by Environmental Science and Research (ESR) on greywater systems in New Zealand found the presence of bacteria which can harm your health, even in treated greywater.
Important: Water from kitchen sinks was found to be unsafe for reuse because of the risk of contamination from organic matter such as bacteria from meat. Therefore kitchen greywater must be discharged to a sewer or on-site sewage system. ESR findings also suggest that bathroom and laundry wastewater can contain levels of bacteria similar to that of kitchen wastewater. It's important for your health to maintain the system to the manufacturers' recommended guidelines.
What are the legal issues?
Before you install a greywater system, contact your local and/or regional council for advice. You will require a building consent for any plumbing work and possibly a resource consent for any discharges of greywater.
Some local authorities restrict the reuse of greywater for household applications. Under the Resource Management, Health and Building Acts, you'll be responsible for any greywater that runs on to neighbouring properties or into waterways.
Many local councils are doing their bit to improve our homes and reduce our impact on the environment, so check with yours – see the Local Councils website for council contact details