July 28, 2016

Of Soap, Detergent, & Greywater

It's been a tough summer for gardening. We've been in the upper 90s since the beginning of May, with a stretch of 8 weeks and no rain. Even with heavy mulch and rainwater irrigation, my poor garden shifted from production mode to survival mode.

I took my garden soil's temperature the other day - 94°F (34°C)!
 What can grow in that! No wonder my harvest has been so poor.

By the time we'd emptied the last of our rainwater tanks, I couldn't help but think of all the water we're wasting as it goes down the drain to the septic tank.

Now, before anyone rushes to hit the comments to tell me I can't put greywater on my garden, please read the rest of the post. Dan and I have Art Ludwig's book and I highly recommend both his book and web page on greywater errors. Actually, I'm thinking more along the lines of modifying one of our original ideas for greywater use.

sketch of ideas for utilizing greywater
Sketch from "Homestead Master Plan, 2012 Revision."

That is, to use the water from the wetland filtration bed for some areas of the garden, and save the rainwater for root veggies and things we eat fresh.

I did my initial research on greywater while I was working on chapter nine of 5 Acres & A Dream The Book - "Water Self-Sufficiency." From that I still had unanswered questions; not so much the how and why, but the what. What products could I use in a greywater system that would be safe for plants?

Some things make sense to avoid and are fairly easy to do so by reading labels: chlorine bleach, anti-bacterials, synthetic colors and fragrances, whiteners, softeners, enzymes, and artificial preservatives. Other ingredients are pretty ubiquitous in cleaning products and more difficult to avoid, especially borax (boron) and sodium. My other concern is pH, because soaps and detergents make greywater alkaline.

Boron. In cleaning products, borax is the source of boron. Found on the laundry aisle at the grocery store, borax (sodium borate) is 11% boron. As a laundry cleaning booster, it cleans and whitens by converting some of the water molecules to hydrogen peroxide. Borax is also used as a boron supplement for boron deficient soil. Boron is an essential nutrient for plants, however, it can be toxic to them if allowed to accumulate. My soil is boron deficient, and it shows up as a clicking sound in my goats' knees. So in some ways, borax is not a major concern. This link to the Agronomic Library can give you details on boron if you're interested.

Sodium. Look at any ingredient list for soap, detergent. and cleaning products, and you'll find many a sodium something or other. Excessive soil sodium interferes with plants' ability to take up water so that they dry up. Plants can also experience toxic effects by accumulating too much sodium. Some of my soil tests have indicated high levels of sodium. What's the answer? According to Neil Kinsey, "An open soil with plenty of calcium and plenty of water will not permit sodium to accumulate." [Hands-On Agronomy, page 23. He has an entire chapter on soil sodium which is informative reading.] So even though there's somewhat of an answer for sodium, it's still something I would rather avoid.

pH. Almost all the products we tend to use as cleaners: washing soda, baking soda, soap, borax, etc. are alkaline. This can kill acid loving plants. My soil is actually quite acidic, so slightly alkaline water would offer some benefit and is probably the least of my concerns.

Ways to manage these problems in greywater systems include periodic flushing. Even better is to use pH neutral products that are not high in boron and sodium. This was the motivation behind this round of research.

I had two research goals. The first was how greywater friendly my current products actually are. I believe that we humans are intended to be stewards of the earth, which means we are responsible for what we do and how it impacts the earth's health. Consequently, I try to make conscientious choices in the things I use, but since I hadn't aimed for products that are specifically greywater safe, I wanted to know if I needed to make changes. This points to my second goal, which was to research what I could buy locally that would fit the bill. Putting everything I learned into one post made it too long, I thought, so I divided my results into two posts. Next I'll share what I've learned about the products I currently use.

Happily, it started raining again so my garden is back in production mode. Unfortunately so are the weeds, but that's another story.

27 comments:

  1. Have read Gardening When It Counts by Steve Solomon? It's about dry-land gardening. Spacing your plants far enough apart that you don't have to water as often. And only watering plants that really need it.

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    1. Sounds like a good book Judy, I like the title. I'll have to look for it. My problem is that some years we can get too much rain. It's crazy. I'm really stumped about pasture. We lost most of it due to heat and no rain, so I've researched drought-tolerant forage, knowing it may die next year due to over-watering.

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  2. We have used grey water on our gardens for years and years. Most of the old time rural people we know do that, also. Our plants always thrive, even using detergents in the past. Don't over think this.

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    1. Thank you! I was preparing for the YOU CAN'T DO THAT crowd, LOL. I'm guessing detergents in the past were a whole lot simpler in terms of ingredients, considering all the razzle-dazzle additives that are being added these days. One good thing about the garden, is that the pipe/hose would have to be moved periodically, which would help avoid buildup.

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    2. I agree with Tewshooz, just do it . Not a problem. We have sent our greywater from our mountain cabin, all of it, out to a part of the property that has lots of shrubs, trees, and blueberry bushes for many years. Using all normal laundry detergents, dishwasher detergent, and bleach. Never been a problem and I wish it was just directed to the edge of the garden.

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    3. Lynda, but then what would I do with all this lovely research that I've been doing and the posts I've been writing? LOL And the folks who are curious about what I've found out. In the end, however, you do want ya gotta do, right? ;)

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  3. I have used grey water we used to have a tank set up that took the grey water from the shower and bathroom, never caused any problems although I didnt use it on the edibles.

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    1. Interesting. There are greywater filtration tanks out there, but some of them are complicated and we really want to keep this simple. Mostly because the garden side of the house already has so many rainwater collection tanks as it is. I'd also like to use kitchen water, so with food bits, some sort of natural filtration (like the wetland) would be beneficial I think.

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  4. Glad you got some rain! My garden often suffers like that through our summers. We use all our greywater (shower and washing machine) on our vege garden. I know its not recommended, but I hate to waste that water in our septic. If I didn't put it on the garden I would at least put it on some grass. I need to read that chapter of your book again...

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    1. I think people are overly afraid of some things. such as the possibility of catching some dread disease from used water. That's why greywater is outlawed in some places. It's interesting that even though Art Ludwig cautions against using greywater on gardens, he also notes that there are no cases of anybody getting sick from greywater.

      I'm thankful for the rain but it's still hot! I'm really, really ready for some cooler weather.

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  5. Great post, thanks.
    In my new (to be built) home I have included two waste systems, one for black water and another stand alone system for grey water. Just my opinion as a safe way to handle gray water and keep it out of my food crops.

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    1. Mike, that's great that you are tailoring your waste water systems. Do you have Art Ludwig's book? Greywater is generally considered safe if it doesn't sit and is used to water fruits and veggies that grow off the ground and aren't eaten fresh. Root crops and salad greens aren't considered acceptable for greywater but from the comments, it seems quite a few folks use greywater on their gardens and orchards.

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  6. Gosh Leigh, it sounds like you are having a summer like ours usually are. Glad you've gotten some rain. Interesting post!

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    1. It seems folks are either getting too much or not enough rain. Very thankful for ours. My garden is making a comeback, so here's hoping we can just keep it up.

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  7. I'm glad you finally have rain. I need to check again, but I believe that they have finally lifted our water restrictions. I know that I heard noise of the legislature lifting the bans on rain barrels here. We've had plenty of water this summer...so much that the mosquitoes are terrible (gotta remember the dog's heart worm meds)
    can't wait for part 2 to hear how the grey water project is going. :D

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    1. I always thought of Colorado as being progressive in environmental ideas, but they sure missed the boat on water recycling. I hope they're up to speed soon.

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    2. The reason they put the water bans was back in the frontier days. To homestead you had to prove up your land and if someone upstream was holding all the water you had no chance. Actually most didn't have a chance anyway because the proving up rules were based on what it took back east. But cattle ranchers fought for water rights and got them as they held all the offices. Now with all the progressives in congress they don't see how it hurts to keep the water. Of course I'm sure our lovely HOA will have plenty to say about them. :-/

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  8. I bought another 100 feet of hose yesterday because every day I've been carrying buckets to some of the farther-away beds, just to keep the plants alive. The dryness of this summer has been unbelievable. If I didn't water every night, there would be few if any plants alive.
    Looking forward to reading more of what you've learned. Oh, and how on earth did you make a connection between clicking goat knees and boron?

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    1. I've carried many a water bucket to the garden too!

      I learned about the knee clicking and boron connection from Pat Coleby's Natural Goat Care (1st edition page 211 under "Arthritis.") She lists several nutritional deficiencies that can cause it, and it was pretty easy to figure out what the problem was based on their diet and my soil deficiencies. She recommends 1 teaspoon once a week for 20 goats, so I just need a sprinkle to treat individuals if it occurs.

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  9. Very interesting. We are on a septic system, so we are putting everything that goes into our drains into our soil. I switched to vinegar and water with a squirt of eco-dish soap as our only cleaner years ago. Oxyclean for the whites if necessary. Tea Tree oil to freshen up linens and t-shirts that get smelly. My well serves my little garden and my pumpkin patch enjoys the water off of the spring after it passes through the sheep pen. The hardest soap to deal with is shampoo. We simply all must wash our hair and those naturals are a bleeding fortune. I will be interested to see what you come up with.

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    1. Barb, you bring up a very good point, that what goes into the septic tank is also leached into the soil. Folks often look for "septic safe" labels, but that doesn't mean the ingredients are good for plants. Thanks for passing on the tip for the tea tree oil. I wouldn't have thought of that and it sure beats soaking in borax.

      Shampoos are a tough one. I'm learning that "natural" doesn't mean the same thing to all manufacturers. For example, even though something like sodium lauryl sulfate is derived from coconuts (and included as a "natural" ingredient), the processing is far from natural and far from safe. I'm still working on that one. :)

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  10. Shampoo... dissolve 1 TBSP baking soda in 2 cups of water. Rinse with 1TBSP cider vinegar in 2 cups of water. I use two squeeze bottles. Have been doing this for over 2 years. My hair is more manageable then when it was stripped using commercial shampoos. It takes a month or so for your scalp to adjust. I won't ever go back to commercial shampoos.

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    1. Rosalea, I've been researching the No Poo methods and have found a lot of good information on several variations. I'm working on pulling together links for an upcoming post. I'm glad to hear it works well for you. Very true about what commercial shampoos do to hair.

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  11. Fantastic post Leigh, we too are very interested in a greywater system especially since Illinois says we can't have one. "There are no rules written for such, therefore it is illegal." But, that won't stop us, we apply for a "variance" and go from there. Can't wait to read Part two on this topic as I use lots of natural cleaners which may not be harmful to me, but sure can wreck my garden plants.

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    1. Donna, I almost forgot you're a political activist! (Or maybe the word I'm looking for is "rebel." ;) I'm surprised Illinois would say there are no rules for such - there are plenty of rules! Have you followed the link to Art Ludwig's site? He has a section where he dissects current greywater policy in several states, plus offers a model greywater ordinance for folks to use to get proper laws established. I doubt it would fly in most places however. He proposes simple rules with no inspections and no fees. State revenuers definitely would not like that.

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  12. Have you taken a look at soap nuts for your cleaning? They work surprising well!

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    1. Sarah, I've read good things about soap nuts for anything from laundry to shampoo. But so far haven't been able to find them locally.

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