Miscellaneous Questions about Water Conservation

Graham Bell has lived in Scotland since 1988, having previously spent ten years in London.  His work has taken him around Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the USA. He has a Master's Degree in Old English & Linguistics from Oxford University.  It took him many years to actually make the connection that most of what he does is dependant on the use of language, and to revalue that educational start point. Graham teaches sustainable design, and has written two books on the subject The Permaculture Way and The Permaculture Garden.  He frequently contributes articles to local, national and international media. He is actively involved in the cultural scene of Scotland, including Scottish Traditional music, song, art and woodwork.  He enjoys his garden, which supports a historic collection of Scottish apple cultivars and a wonderful range of bird life.   "Family is the most sustaining thing in my life.  After that comes the valuable network of people that I draw on for creative progress, both for myself and the people I work with.  Home is where the heart is." For more about Graham and his work visit www.grahambell.org.

Questions and Answers

Q: I was curious if you might know how much of our water usage goes to fighting fires as compared to total usage of all of our water.

A:(Penny Livingston-Stark) Interesting Question. I would say the majority of water goes into agriculture/cattle/landscaping/lawns etc. I don’t know this for a fact, but from repeatedly calculating water use, those volumes are high. I don’t know what the water use for firefighting is, but If you consider how much land is devoted to irrigation it seems like a lot more than acreage of fires. These fires in AZ and COLO have probably used a lot more than normal.

Q: Will it be possible for us to reuse the waters coming from the canals, dumpsites, ect.?

A: (Penny Livingston-Stark) It’s would be a good idea to get it tested. Your local government should fund it. Canals and dumpsites are sometimes unfortunately very similar in their pollutant loads, but not always. If your canal is coming from a dumpsite the likely hood of there being serious pollutants (poly aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, pcbs, battery acid, diesel fuel, paint residue etc) is very high. This could be treated in various ways to reclaim heavy metals using plants, breakdown pesticide residues using bacteria and fungus and process excess nutrients like manure and sewage with plants and bacteria.

Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti has had some breakthrough discoveries using mushrooms to clean up some of these pernicious contaminants.

Re: Canal water it really depends on what is in it, and that depends on what is upstream from you in the watershed. Not just directly but what could wash into the canal during a storm. It is possible that there is sewage (fecal coliform and ecoli) if you have septic tanks or cesspools upstream as well as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and agricultural runoff. There is a lot of pollution that comes from “Non-Point Source” which means it accumulates and concentrates in waterways. If any of your neighbors are changing their oil of cleaning paint brushes, fertilizing their lawn, cleaning pesticide sprayer cans etc. and dumping it on the ground, it is surprising how much that accumulates in a watershed.

It IS possible to clean such water and render it safe to but I highly recommend testing it extensively if you think there are harmful pollutants. Until then I wouldn’t put it on anything edible or use in any edible aquaculture system until you know it is clean water. Running it through a reconstructed marsh system using gravel, pumice or carbon (woodchips) and taking up some of the excess “nutrients” using marsh plants helps. The marshes and wetlands are the livers and kidneys of the earth. That is why it is so important not to remove them.

Q: We live in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Our homes here are subject to basement flooding. Are there ecological ways to keep the water out? We are thinking of putting crushed limestone as a barrier to water, around our foundation. Is this something you would recommend?

A: (Penny Livingston-Stark) The solution lies in finding out where the water is coming from and addressing it there. Crushed limestone is not a barrier to water. It may keep expansive clay from heaving around your foundation when there is a lot of moisture there. If the water is coming from the roof, you may consider moving the water from your eaves through to where you want the water to flow. If it is coming from surface runoff you may want to dig some transfer ditches to move that water away from your house to your garden or someplace that can use the water.

Q: I will be moving to Paros island in the Cyclades island complex in Greece. I would like to build a home that will be totally self sustained, from power and water. Also I don't want to spent more then $150,000. Where do you recommend I start from?

A: (Maya Madrigal) Beginning the process of building a home that is "off the grid", meaning providing it's energy, water and other utilities independently, is a wonderful goal. If you already own the property you wish to develop, you should begin to research the building codes, property restrictions, and other factors which may determine if you can legally build off the grid, and if so what methods of construction are acceptable in your local area. Other priorities to research are what local building materials are available, the relative cost of building materials and labor, and what types of products on the market to help you provide for your energy and water needs.

Another important part of the planning stage is envisioning what you dream of including in your building plans, and seeing how to arrange such parts to efficiently work in your unique climatic and geographical conditions. In Permaculture Design we use the processes of observation and analysis, create overlay maps and flow diagrams, and use techniques such as random assembly and zone/sector analysis, to create designs. You will want to additionally research the regional adaptations to climate and geography for homes and gardens. For example, my understanding of Paros Island, Greece is that it is a rocky, semi-arid island with very fertile plains and some higher elevations. Traditional homes are terraced, thick walled, lime plastered, and used trellis vines to help with evaporative cooling. These traits are not accidental, terraced levels provide additional living spaces, thick white walls provide heat and light reflection and are cooling, indirect lighting with small windows and interior courtyards also provide shade.

I suggest including Chapter 11 Dryland Strategies in the Permaculture Designers Manual by Bill Mollison as part of your research into the many creative design strategies that can help you design your home and property to be passively efficient, in turn lowering your utility needs. Lastly, when building on a budget remember the benefits of a smaller scaled floorplan, local and traditional building materials, and passive design can cut costs and allow for more of your goals.

Q: Maya, I am the Director of Sales for a local landscaping company in St. Louis, MO. We just met with a "green" home builder and he is requesting us to design and install the landscaping for two "green" house projects that he is currently building that will be completed in the Spring of 2007. He talks about "water barrels" and other water conserving methods, also, what types of plants that are recommended etc. Would you be able to pass on any information to me at your convenience, I would appreciate it.

A: (Maya Madrigal) There are many new and appealing garden accessories on the market for the "green" consumer's ecological home and garden. You mentioned water catchment barrels, which attach to the roof gutters through a down spout. The best I've seen for serious homeowners have multiple barrel attachments(so for example three grouped barrels could be attached at one corner downspout, very attractive with container plantings), a cover to keep water clean of debris or growth, and a front spout or hose attachment. 

Other key landscape additions for the "green" landscape might include compost systems, ranging from inexpensive wire framed and plastic modular systems or tumblers to the more finely crafted and handsome cedar wood units. Home composting is one of the single most effective and simple ways for the average home gardener to gain greater efficiency in the recycling of household waste, as is worm farming in similar smaller sized units.

There are, additionally, a wide range of solar products varying from garden accent lighting and fountains to sculpture and greenhouse power. The "green" gardener will of course be interested in the more practical and consistently necessary resources of heirloom, open-pollinated, organic seeds and plants, organic soil amendments, non-toxic pest control, highly crafted tools to reduce cost over lifetime.

Also, more people are desiring to increase the wildlife value of their gardens, tools that help are bird feeders and baths, bee/bat/bird/toad houses, and plants specific to your own local native ecology or climate. In looking at the sustainability of good home scale design, more and more people even in the most urban areas are looking for attractive, high quality products for hobby mini-farming and animal husbandry. I've seen some very fine high quality animal houses for doves, chickens, rabbits etc. that suit some "green" home owners.

Q: I read somewhere about a small stationary bicycle water pump setup in someone's home, instead of needing to use an electric water pump to bring the water into the house to fill up the water tanks for daily use. Supposedly, cycling 10 minutes a day fills up the tanks in the house for use. I am interested in implementing a system like that in a small cabin that uses a spring fed well system. Do you know how to design these types of systems, or know where I can get more info on how to create one based on other's successes?

A: Having run a weird and wonderful bike business for eight years not so long ago, I have lots of contacts and understanding of the issue. I have also seen many interesting demonstrations of static bike power (German Army used them in WW2 to power radios!).

Try this link: http://en.howtopedia.org/wiki/How_to_Build_Human-Powered_Water-Lifters

Practical Action (formerly Intermediate Technology Group - an offshoot of Fritz Schmacher's thinking) are great for this kind of stuff (which was the first link I mentioned. A google on 'human powered pumps brought up the others and several dozen more. Happy constructing!

Q: I would like to restore an old brick water well that has been filled with dirt. What would be the best way to remove the dirt?

A: Depends on the depth at which the water level is to be found. You can start out by digging with a shovel if it's full to the top. The average well is not, however very wide, so that quickly becomes difficult. Probably the easiest method is to use a slurry pump. These are petrol engined or electrical and can be hired from appropriate stockists. The dirt in the well has to be flooded with a continuous stream of water and the pump will gradually remove the admixture of water and dirt. The outflow needs to be pointed in a direction it can do no harm, or better still, be useful!

The low tech solution otherwise is a bucket on a rope and a long tedious process, which gets more dangerous the lower down the well you get.... So you need to do this with two folks to hand not on your own. You also need to check the stability of the well walls as you go down. In some cases it may be a good idea to screed the walls as they are exposed.

When the water level is reached it's as well to have the quality of the water analyzed for health and safety...

It would be a good idea to find out about the history of the well from other locals if they don't know it already. e.g. why was the well filled in (had it run dry? if the water table has fallen, what happens if you empty the well to the base of the linings and still don't reach water?) That local knowledge might save some fruitless effort.

The well is at least 100 years old.  My home was built in 1910...My neighbor has the same type of well, which is used today, it is brick lined, and approx. 24 ft. to the water depth.  It has an old wind mill that pumps the water in to an old barrel type holding tank up above, on a platform...the water from this well waters his entire property, and he uses it for the toilet water. We live on a body of water where ships pass, which is basically water front property, and we have enough industrial activity that I don't think it would be a good drinking source unless it was filtered. I have been told by the neighbor that my well was filled in approx. 30 years ago because the woman that owned the place had tenants renting the place, and was concerned about accidents. Looks like there were bricks thrown in, and whatever else she could find to fill it up. The dirt has receded about 6 feet down. I was also told that small Chinese men dug the well in the early 1900's, going down and digging out the dirt, placing bricks around the sides, until they reached water...amazing...

A slurry pump won't remove rubble - only mud. Might be that'd work with any rubble receding as the mud comes out. Perhaps what you need is some small Chinese men? I'm really back to putting any rubble in a bucket on a rope, and yes it looks like someone will have to go down. But this is a high risk process! I'd want that person on a safety line with an attendant topside who can pull them out in a hurry. Perhaps its not a DIY job, as the accident risk seems high to me from your description. Seems like a good resource though. Do you have any local contractors who can advise... It might be achieved by sinking a bore hole and extracting by pump through a pipe. Old fashioned wind pumps (if you can find one) are great! Either way I think you're looking at something laborious and slow.

Q: Ii am competing in the state science fair called Imagine Tomorrow. The fair is all about global warming and being green friendly. Tthis year's theme is Power the Energy Revolution. My team's project is a water wheel connected to the side of the building making energy from rain water coming through a gutter system. The system of gutters are angled so all the water comes to one outlet which runs that water over the wheel. In the seasons that don't permit much rain (hard to believe coming from the Pacific Northwest) we constructed a perpetual motion machine. Each seem to work extremely well, and we are confident in our chance at making a difference. The only problem we are facing is that we don't know what to do with the extra water. We thought of rain barrels or some sort of collection underneath the building but after it gets there we are at a lose.

A: Traditionally horizontal axis waterwheels (which it sounds like yours will be) work off stored water, even when they are derived from flowing streams, this was achieved by constructing a mill lade (a mini canal) alongside the flowing source and feeding into a mill pond so that there was a reserve in times of low rainfall. Such systems were used periodically (millers only working during the day!), and were designed to use the natural flow that comes with water flowing down an incline. Typically the lade allowed a sudden drop to actually power the wheel.

It sounds as if your system is designed to flow only when it rains. If you can add storage above the height of the wheel then, yes you can extend its running time. Header tanks (as they are called) need to be watertight and light enough to install. Yes barrels would work, and because water is self leveling volume can be increased by connecting pipework into multiple barrels at the same height if you wish to extend capacity. There needs to be an overflow mechanism in case the storage gets full.

Of course the wheel doesn’t actually make energy – it harvests it from the power of the water. No doubt you know about Einstein and E=MC2. This is commonly explained as matter can neither be created nor destroyed. It also means that Energy can neither be created nor destroyed – it just changes form. So the wheel can be a turbine driving an electrical generator, or it can work mechanical devices (grinding wheel, potters wheel etc). If you have spare power you can construct an afterflow storage and use the power to pump the water back up the system to flow through it again. (Is that what you mean by perpetual motion?)

More modern materials for water storage would be galvanised steel tanks, glass fibre tanks or concrete troughs. You may be able to find recyclable materials in your community. The advantage of the first two may be that they are lighter and can therefore more easily be installed at height.

Q: I have a good chance that I am going to be inheriting some money and land. I am thinking of going green at the house but it is in MA so solar might be problematic but there is an old granite quarry out back that hit the water table and filled. It seems there must be some way to take advantage of this and I was wondering if anyone has done work in this area already or am I on my own in trying my own ideas in small scale before giving up.

A: (Kelly) It seems to me that there are many ways that you could take advantage of a natural pond on the property. Of course the obvious thing would be to grow fish in it or do some sort of aqua culture. Beyond that, it is possible to take advantage of stable water temperatures to assist in heating and cooling, utilizing a water sourced heat pump. You might do some research into that possibility.


Home       Site Map       STORE

For Email contact go to About Us

See this page to read our Privacy Policy

Established in 2001, GreenHomeBuilding.com is primarily a labor of love. Kelly, and the GreenHomeBuilding team of experts, have answered thousands of questions for readers over the years, and we continue to publish up-to-date information about increasingly important sustainable architecture. If you feel moved to assist us in this work, your kind donation would be much appreciated; this can be easily done through our PayPal account:
Custom Search


  [Natural Building Blog]      [Earthbag Building]     [Dream Green Homes]

Disclaimer Of Liability And Warranty
I specifically disclaim any warranty, either expressed or implied, concerning the information on these pages. Neither I nor any of the advisor/consultants associated with this site will have liability for loss, damage, or injury, resulting from the use of any information found on this, or any other page at this site. Kelly Hart, Hartworks LLC.