Brian Moore once watered his backyard cottonwood tree with a garden hose. Now he waters the tree with his shower — while he’s bathing.
Conserving water by watering his garden with a homemade backyard shower and simple "gray water" plumbing.
"We think of the countryside as (the place to live) off the grid, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. I’d like to demonstrate that it is possible to leave a small footprint in the city."
In a 1940s-era neighborhood about four miles from downtown Phoenix, Moore has retrofitted his home so that most of the water he uses is used again. The "gray water" from his washing machine and bathroom sink flows into his garden. His seedlings also get a drenching from the outdoor sink where he washes vegetables from his garden — as well as from the shower he built in his backyard.
Shielded from his neighbors by a cloth partition, Moore bathes on a platform he made out of a pallet salvaged from an alley. A hose with a spray nozzle, slung over a nearby tree branch, delivers a steady stream of water warmed by the desert sun. Temperatures in Phoenix allow Moore to bathe this way from May through October, but he’s considered installing tubing that would collect enough solar heat to extend his outdoor showering season by a month.
Moore estimates that he spent less than $50 and about 40 hours to replumb the house, which he has lived in for four years. With a little help from friends, he simply rerouted a few pipes, following state and county regulations that prohibit the "re-allocation" of bacteria-filled water from the toilet and the kitchen sink. He has been experimenting with his do-it-yourself gray water system for more than a year.
"We’re using the earth’s resources faster than they’re being replenished," says the elementary school music teacher and director. Moore grew up with good examples of thriftiness: When he was a child in New Jersey, his grandmother mopped the floor with used dishwater, and his dad, a sheet metal mechanic, built his own set of four makeshift solar panels to warm water in a homemade stainless-steel tank.
Moore trained to be a Benedictine monk in New Mexico, although he never took final vows. He says some of his friends call him a minimalist, while others wonder about his quality of life. Moore, however, says he’s very comfortable. "Some things I do take more time," he says — erecting and refolding his shower partition, for example — "but I don’t feel deprived."
Though Moore has yet to see a decline in his water bill, he says his solar set-up saves money on natural gas for heating the water. Pointing to Phoenix’s projected growth — some 4.15 million people total by 2010 — and the city’s dependence on the overused Colorado River, Moore hopes to encourage his neighbors to adopt similar water- and money-saving strategies. He spreads the word about sustainable water and energy use among his co-workers at St. Gregory’s Church and Elementary School, and through fellow members of the Phoenix Permaculture Guild. Living more sustainably makes sense, he says, because "drinkable water isn’t as abundant as we think."