Systems for cold climates including wetlands

Year-round greywater reuse in cold climates can be a challenge. What to do with all that water when the garden's under snow? Will greywater freeze in the pipes? Many greywater users divert greywater to a sewer or septic system during the cold season, but it's possible to ecologically dispose of greywater even in the dead of winter.

Suggestions for cold climate greywater systems:
1. Run the extra water outside to your very own ice skating rink. (just kidding)
2. Include a diversion valve and run the greywater to the sewer when it would otherwise freeze outside.
3. Let bathtub water sit around and exchange heat with the room, leaving you toasty long after your hot bath. Use the standing water to bucket-flush your toilet.
4. Black equals insulation:
• Cover all pipes in black foam insulation.
• Paint all possible surfaces black.
• Surround wetlands with big black rocks (it works in Vermont).
5. More insulation schemes:
• Insulate any raised surfaces with hay bales.
6. Plant a mix of cattails (Typhus spp.), bulrushes (Scirpus spp), and sedges (Carex spp. in constructed wetlands--cattails provide the highest level of treatment at summer temperatures, while sedges provide some nutrient removal at 4 degrees Celsius.

Constructed wetland in buried stock tankConstructed wetland in buried stock tank

Frost-protected greywater systems

Missoula, MT

When you live over the aquifer that supplies your city’s drinking water, returning greywater to the water table creates an intimate link with the water system. This demonstration system at MUD in Missoula, MT models year-round reuse of bathroom greywater in a cold climate. Its most visible component is a large, gravel-filled stock trough beside the back steps-- filled with cattails and other beautiful wetland plants!

  • Goals: 1. To reuse greywater from a bathtub for fruit tree irrigation during the summer and aquifer recharge during the winter. 2. To demonstrate effective greywater treatment and disposal strategies for floodplains and high-groundwater areas. 3. To study coliform, nitrogen, and phosphate removal in constructed wetlands--the system contains sampling ports before and after the wetland.
  • Site description: This single-family house has a bathroom at the rear (south side) of the house, and little fall between the drain and grade. A vented 30-gallon barrel under the back steps functions as a surge tank. Greywater passes through a woodchip biofilter that traps grease and food particles, then enters a infiltrator inside a bathtub constructed wetland.
  • Cost: 1 1/2" 3-way valve $50, salvaged stock tank $0, salvaged pipe and fittings $25, filter fabric for frost-free sump $10, gravel $50. Total materials: $135.
  • Fixtures: Shower/ bath.

MUD's greywater system combines a number of elements to increase its flexibilty, cold-weather capability, and ease of water monitoring.

Sewer diversion valve: Directly after draining from the tub, the water encounters a 3-way valve; here, system users can choose whether to direct the water to the sewer, or outside. Diversion to sewer allows flexibility in case of a long freeze, or when using non-biocompatible body products (like hair dye or bleach).

Surge tank: Greywater destined for irrigation flows through a surge tank, a 30-gallon barrel located under the steps that regulates flow into the wetland. Greywater is not stored, but flows out the bottom of the tank.

Constructed gravel wetland: Water directed outside can enter the wetland, where it will be treated by gravel-colonizing microorganisms and by plants. Pathogens, dirt, and soap are taken out of the water, rendering it safe for release into a sump (winter) or for irrigation.

Direct greywater irrigation: In summer, almost all the water can be diverted to bypass the wetland (it just needs enough to keep the plants alive) and enter subsurface distribution pipes. The current plan allows for the watering of the apple tree and a small flower bed, but can easily be altered to meet future needs.

Inline sampling valves: Both inflow and outflow pipes are equipped with valves to allow the sampling of water before and after treatment by the wetland. This monitoring will provide important data toward the development of greywater treatment strategies in this climate.

MUD's system is designed to comply with the greywater best practices incorporated into Arizona and New Mexico's greywater codes--the codes that Montana's soon-to-be-implemented greywater law is modeled on. These best practices include the option to divert greywater to the sewer, and subsurface infiltration into the top 9" of soil, the "root zone" where most microorganisms that break down greywater reside. The system incorporates cold-climate strategies developed by John Todd in Vermont.

Providence, RI
Cold-climate kitchen sink system

  • Goals: To divert all kitchen sink water from the sewer, model ecological wastewater treatment, and irrigate wetland and upland medicinal plants. Resident plans to reuse bathroom greywater after bathroom remodel (pipes are inaccessible).
  • Site description: This single-family house has two bathrooms and a kitchen sink. Greywater passes through a woodchip biofilter that traps grease and food particles, then enters a infiltrator inside a bathtub constructed wetland.
  • Cost: 1 1/2" 3-way valve $50, salvaged bathtub and pipe $25, fittings $15, plastic biofilter container $10 Total materials: $100. Concrete saw rental: $55.
  • Fixtures: Because residents grow and process large quantities of food and medicinal plants, the kitchen sink produces an estimated 25 gal/day of greywater. A 3-way valve diverts greywater to either the sewer or wetland.

Cold climate greywater wetland, Providence, RICold climate greywater wetland, Providence, RI

This system uses kitchen sink water to irrigate wetland plants and demonstrate biological wastewater treatment. Treated effluent irrigates medicinal herbs, but little water exits the wetland during the summer. Because the wetland is buried and located against the south side of the house, the wetland has yet to freeze after 2 winters of use.

Building constructed wetland with biofilterBuilding constructed wetland with biofilterAn insulated woodchip biofilter removes grease and food particles. The biofilter's drain sleeves into a mesh-covered infiltrator for easy removal and maintenance.

Greywater system inside greenhouse

Diverting greywater to an attached greenhouse reduces the risk of frozen pipes, creates a heat sink (warm greywater) to heat the house all winter long, and provides water to winter gardens. Indoor and greenhouse systems should be well drained and ventilated to avoid mold-promoting damp conditions.

Greenhouse greywater systemGreenhouse greywater system Pumice wick (detail)Pumice wick (detail)

Cerrillos, NM

Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center has no sewer connection or septic system. All greywater enters the greenhouse, and can be diverted to an outside vegetable bed. The water flows out a perforated 1" PVC pipe onto a pumice wick. The pumice releases water slowly into the surrounding soil. Excess water drains into the ground under the bed. Filter fabric covers the perforated pipe to allow easy maintenance while reducing human-greywater contact.