Rainwater harvesting: Catchment comes with a catch
In a town where rebates are being handed out to folks who buy rain barrels, one might think a local laundromat owner's plan to harvest rainwater off his roof would be welcomed with open arms. But according to Hydraulic Wash owner Charlie Smith, the County greeted his green plan with their arms folded.
"We wanted to put in the rainwater system up front when we renovated last year, but we got so much resistance from the plumbing inspector," says Smith.
Smith says the inspector "ran him through the ringer" by making him "follow every little inch of the law" during the renovation process. Eventually, Smith says he had to put construction plans for the collection system on hold.
According to Smith, his laundromat– or "mat" as he shorthands it–- uses a whopping quarter million gallons a month, and with County water rates going up, he figured he could save a little money while lessening the strain on local water supply. The rainwater collection system he chose, designed by Roanoke-based Rainwater Management Solutions, would provide 10,000 gallons a month, the equivalent of two households worth of water, and save him $62 a month.
Of course, Smith also thought it made good marketing sense. Rainwater, because of its natural softness (lack of metals), requires less soap and detergent than tap water, and is thought to leave clothes smelling fresher. One major detergent maker claims its product "gets your laundry as fresh as a gentle spring rain."
According to County building official Jay Schlothauer, Smith's frustrations were not unfounded.
"The inspector on that job was uncomfortable with the concept," admits Schlothauer.
The dilemma, Schlothauer points out, is that the project had to meet the strict requirements of the International Plumbing Code, which says only potable, i.e. drinkable, water can be supplied to plumbing fixtures, even if the water is for laundry use.
And while the code recognizes water from public water supplies, wells, streams, and springs as potable sources, it says nothing about the use of rainwater. Essentially, plumbing inspectors, charged with making sure water is safe, haven't yet received any guidelines to follow when it comes to the use of harvested rainwater.
In a letter to Smith last Fall, Schlothauer said the County was "willing to entertain" Smith's proposal for a rainwater collection system, but only if the system provided potable water as defined by the Virginia Department of Health.
However, given the existing standards for water quality, the County's decision to hand off Smith's plan to the Health Department for approval may just be another way of saying no.
"What I've seen so far doesn't meet potable water standards," says Jeff McDaniel, the Department's local representative, who recently conducted a preliminary review of Smith's plan.
Ironically, if Smith's mat were in the supposedly green City of Charlottesville, he might have encountered even more resistance. New guidelines for rainwater harvesting issued in February simply prohibit the use of rainwater for laundry use, pending the release of new standards from the Health Department.
"Our laws are behind the curve," says Martin Johnson, an urban conservation specialist with the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District. " And it's creating a real log jam as more people are getting interested in harvesting rainwater."
Johnson says his organization has been promoting rainwater harvesting in the area for six years, but the state codes and guidelines needed to make it more wide spread, especially for commercial use, have been lagging behind the times.
"It's not rocket science," says Johnson, referring to projects like Smith's, "but the state has been dragging their feet coming up with guidelines."
"It has been a far more involved than I thought it was going to be," says Smith. "We didn't realize this was going to be a groundbreaking process."
As the city guideline says, there is "little or no guidance available" on approving systems to meet existing standards for water quality. Indeed, according to McDaniel, it's the first time he's ever had to review a request like this. He says the Health Department has no specific guidelines or standards for the installation of rainwater collection systems, particularly for laundry use. "But they're working on it," he says.
According to David Crawford, president of Rainwater Management Solutions, it's a familiar scenario.
Crawford, widely recognized as a national expert on rainwater "catchment systems," says his company has installed hundreds of systems across the country, and all of them have involved navigating around fragmented state, local, and federal regulations, educating local officials, and slowly pushing forward on approvals. He says it's not uncommon for officials to defer to their local and state health authorities. He's also confident that Smith's system will eventually get approved, even if it requires potable water–- because, he claims, his systems can purify water to that standard.
"Everything gets interpreted differently depending on who's looking at it," he says. For instance, in some states rainwater harvesting is illegal, while in others it is a requirement for new construction, he says.
Crawford even wryly recalls one plumbing inspector questioning the use of non-potable rainwater for flushing toilets because he worried that someone might drink from the toilet. Of course, he hopes that one day there will be a single, national set of standards for installing rainwater collection system, but until then he appears to welcome the kind of scrutiny Smith received.
"Inspectors are doing the right thing," he says. "It's a new thing, and they're just being cautious...enforcing federal water quality standards. And this is even more important because it's a commercial business."
At this point, the Health Department's McDaniel says he's asked Smith to present a more formal proposal, at which point he'll consult his superiors in Richmond.
"This is providing water to the public," he explains. "And so we'll have to determine if there are any risks to the public."
"If it takes a little longer to get approved, that's okay," says Crawford. "...take the time and do it right. I have no patience for the people who have done it wrong."
Meanwhile, Smith watches the rain fall on his roof and sighs.
"Every time it rains, I think about all that water I could use going down the tubes," he says. "It seemed like a simple business decision at the time."