Saturday, April 11, 2009

Water conservation - way of the future in Sonoma County

Today I am up in Sonoma County - and the weather is gorgeous. Just got back from a walk down Limerick Lane and returned to see the Japanese Maple is in full leaf in the front yard of the Vacation Rental we own in Sonoma County Wine Country

Somehow the Cilantro I planted a few weeks back and as of 2 weeks ago had sprouted, has disappeared. But the spring lettuces, mint, parsley, and oregano are in full force and some early tomato starts that I put in seem to be taking. The fruit trees are budding, I'm sure in May I will have to come back and thin the fruit. This year I'm going to try to grow some "pears in a bottle" to then fill with brandy. Yum.

Our property has a lot of landscaping, fruit, roses, and the veggies I am growing. It also has some big redwood trees that perhaps aren't so appropriate for the valley location we are in. Translation - a lot of water needed for plants, in addition to the water needed for people. This is a problem because Sonoma County, like the rest of Northern California, is in a bit of a drought.

For us, it's a real big issue because we are on a well. We don't get any benefit from storage at Lake Sonoma, or detriment from the lake being empty. We have to manage our own water supply. When we use too much, the well can empty and the pump shuts down. Generally speaking, the less we use, the better.

This weekend we took a first step for some innovative water conservation. We installed a hot water recirculating pump using the fine folks at Bragg Plumbing

It was pretty easy to sell my wife on the concept of spending the money on the system because it has the nice side effect that when you turn on the shower - bang - you get hot water right away. And I'm sure our customers will like that as well.

It works like this. Hot water runs from your hot water heater tank to the various outlets in your house, and comes out the spigots. When you turn the hot water off, the water currently in the hot water lines then starts to cool down since it is no longer in the tank. So when you come back much later to take a shower - brrr... the water is too cold. So you wait - in our case probably about 5 minutes during which 20 or so gallons of precious water goes down the drain.

The recirculation pump connects the cold water line to the hot water line via a t-valve at the furthest point in the house from the tank. Every 15 minutes or so, the pump kicks on and pushes new hot water into the lines. Since the spigot is not on, the t-valve opens and the hot water now goes into the cold water lines. Where does this water go? Back into the hot water tank, basically, because since the pump is pulling water from the tank, the tank now pulls more water in, coming from the same place the cold water comes from in the first place. Basically.

For water challenged Sonoma County this is a huge win, saving lots of water. In our case it's a bit of a bummer, because our water is coming from the water table itself - so there is no way we can keep the water we save from being pumped up by the grape growers down the street. But it still provides a buffer right now for the water in the well. Longer term should we put in a water tank, we'll be saving water that we've pulled from the well ahead of time. We also get an immediate benefit now in that we are on a septic system in addition to having a well. Less water down the drain means less water into our septic.

Water is pretty much our biggest concern right now so this is a big benefit, but there are costs in addition to money. The pump draws electricity of course.More importantly, we are now putting cold water back into the pump which will use more propane than if we weren't running water. This is mitigated a bit in that the pump has a timer and an on/off switch. When we are out of town we turn it off. When it's on, the timer allows us to not run the pump in the middle of the night for example.

Users of city water would benefit in ways that are far more measureable in the event that Sonoma County puts people on water restrictions.

Monday we are meeting with people from Bragg to discuss ways to further mitigate the tradeoffs that the pump brings, and use our water more efficiently. We are considering a solar hot water system that will mitigate the propane problem by using solar energy to heat the hot water. Our biggest propane usage right now is by far our hot water heater, and propane is expensive - it's more expensive than Natural Gas to start with and we have to pay for delivery (if any potential renters were wondering if our house was "away from it all" - it's far enough away from the city slickers that there is no city water, sewer, or natural gas. We do have electricity and the internet however - maybe that's not a good thing!). Anyway, if we can cut the propane usage with Solar Hot Water the system could pay for itself very quickly and insulate us from future issues with propane.

Additionally, we are looking at a gray water system where the shower and sink water form the bathroom will be drawn into a cistern and can be used for underground irrigation. This would allow us to keep those redwood trees without a lot of guilt. It will be a lot of backbreaking work for me to dig the irrigation lines, but hey - I'm not made of sugar you know.


BeWaterWise Rep said...

Water shortage is a growing problem in California. Therefore, we all should make a conscious effort to save water. Here are some tips on water conservation which might help:
Since you mentioned landscaping, try planting California friendly plants (native plants). These plants can easily thrive on less water!

Frank Irwin said...

It seems like the best way to wire this recirculation pump would be to stick a switch near the shower that, when pressed, turns the pump on for 30-60 seconds (or however long it takes to get the hot water to the shower), then shuts off. That way, it's only running (and your only injecting cold water into the water heater) when needed.

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