San Angelo to get first graywater development

San Angelo Standard Times, San Angelo

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SAN ANGELO, Texas - Michael Biggerstaff smiled as he and a group of local builders, officials and business people chipped away with shovels at the brittle ground of what will soon be the first home in San Angelo to have subsurface graywater irrigation.

It certainly will not be the last.

"We're making history today," Biggerstaff said, as the group stood looking toward largely undeveloped land in southwest San Angelo on a blustery Wednesday. "This is the first subdivision in the United States to mandate subsurface irrigation with graywater."

Together, Biggerstaff and four other local builders — Kevin Bond, Adrian Balderas, Chad Decker and Eric von Rosenberg — plan to build 328 homes with underground graywater irrigation systems, known as IrriGray.

Graywater is the water captured from bathtubs, washing machines and air conditioner condensate.

Just the first set of 40 homes, in Saddle Club III just off Twin Mountain Drive, could save 6.4 million gallons of water per year, Biggerstaff said. The total 328 homes could save an estimated 52.4 million gallons of water per year for San Angelo.

"You can't have growth if you don't have resources," Biggerstaff said in an interview earlier this week. "This program will enable us to continue to grow and give us an environment where we're able to be good stewards of this resource."

AN AUDACIOUS PLAN

About 14 months ago Biggerstaff started looking into methods for local builders to incorporate green systems into their products — particularly pertaining to water supply.

Oppressive drought conditions the past few years have left San Angeloans worried about whether there will be enough water to support the rapidly growing region. But green building is expensive and San Angelo developers have mostly shied away from the hefty initial costs.

The long term water savings are worth the extra cost, however, Biggerstaff said.

"I think the five of us will set a precedent," he said. "The buyer will let us know that."

These will be high-end homes, Biggerstaff said, looking at plans for a Tuscan-style house.

"These are going to be some of the finest homes built in San Angelo," Biggerstaff said.

The underground system costs about 25 to 30 percent more than a typical landscape irrigation system, Biggerstaff said.

But the technology has advanced "to a point where the system is paying for itself (through water savings) in the hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Paul James, vice president of research and project development for Water ReNu, LLC, the international company that manufactures IrriGray.

Water ReNu has about 15 years' experience making and implementing these systems in the U.S. and Australia.

The overall cost to install an IrriGray system, according to a flyer, is $4,150.

At the new home site Wednesday, developers and officials chatted excitedly about the new program. Nearby, residents came in and out of the handful of houses already built in the subdivision.

"We're excited with being in on this," said John Childers, president of the Bank of San Angelo, which is helping the builders finance the development.

HOW IT WORKS

The IrriGray system captures water from bathtubs, washing machines, dishwashers and air conditioner condensate.

Water from kitchen sinks, bathroom sinks and commodes will not be collected and will go down a sewer line, James said.

The captured graywater is filtered through a screen, which is typically checked once a year, before it is used for irrigation.

"Soap assists in the uptake of water," James said.

Backflow preventers stop the graywater from mixing with sewer water.

IrriGray does not store water. As soon as 5 gallons of graywater is available, a pumping basin distributes the water through a dripperline irrigation system to different "zones" throughout the property. The system can be monitored or adjusted using a computerlike controller.

The average size for a home at Saddle Club III will be about 7,500 square feet. With three residents, one of these homes could save about 160,000 gallons of water per year and still have a lush, healthy landscape, James said.

If a household does not produce enough graywater for the needs of a yard, the IrriGray system has a connection to supplement the yard with potable water.

SETTING AN EXAMPLE

San Angelo isn't in an emergency drought situation now, but it could be a matter of time before it is in the same predicament as it was a year ago — preparing to cease all outdoor watering.

"If we can't slow that water-drain down, we're going to be in the same boat we were in," said Bond, one of the builders involved in the graywater project. "The graywater system is going to allow people to maintain their lawns (even in a drought)."

Biggerstaff said he hopes this new development — and the investment these five builders are making toward conservation — will put the pressure on other San Angelo builders to do likewise.

"I see in this community that every new home built will have graywater reuse rather than sending that down the drain," he said.

Biggerstaff spoke enthusiastically of the help received from the city's planning and development services department on the project.

"We tried to stay within the spirit of the code," said Patrick Howard, director of the department.

The city's building code does not heavily address green building, Howard said, but city staff hopes to incorporate that when they review the code this year.

"We're looking to encourage this kind of activity," Howard said.

Although the city of San Angelo may not be able to offer reduced rates for green building activities like some larger cities do, he hopes to explore ways to promote them among local developers, businesses and individuals.

"It's better for everyone in the long term," Howard said. "And there are more cost savings."

Economic growth and conservation often are portrayed as conflicting goals, Biggerstaff said, but he believes this new development will be a way for the two values to converge.

"The builder and developer in today's world needs to understand: We need to be proactive," he said.