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Net Zero Water

by Wes on August 27, 2009 · 14 comments

in Design,Green Programs

You’ve probably heard the term Net Zero Energy before, but have you ever heard the term Net Zero Water?  This up-and-coming concept is considered one of the most stringent goals laid out in the Living Building Challenge (LBC).  Sure, the LBC requires a building to abide by Net Zero Energy rules, follow a strict materials list, have all goods and services produced locally, recycle all construction waste, maintain excellent indoor air quality, and more.  However, probably the most abstract prerequisite of this challenge to us is the water independence aspect.

In order to achieve water independence, a building must capture all precipitation, manage all storm water runoff, and re-use all household wastewater.  ”Wastewater” can either be considered greywater or blackwater, depending on the source and contact with organic matter.  Greywater is not riddled with pathogens, but is still not clean enough to be used for potable (drinking) purposes.  Greywater comes from places like the laundry machine, the bathroom sink, showers, and baths.  Blackwater has come into direct contact with organic matter and/or human waste.  Blackwater sources include the garbage disposal, toilets, and sometimes dishwashers.

It may sound a little disturbing at first, but you won’t be drinking your treated toilet waste or anything, that serves better to be treated and re-used to irrigate, flush toilets, or to cool HVAC systems.  Different types of water require different types of treatment.  For instance, rainwater can be captured, stored, and treated with a relatively insignificant amount of energy.  This is because rainwater is fairly clean – it just requires ultra-violet sterilization to be used for drinking purposes.

Greywater can be naturally filtered in a constructed wetlands system, or a “Living Machine.”  In order to treat this water, you simply let gravity carry it through each chamber in the Living Machine, where plants and animals naturally clean it as they would in nature.  Here’s a diagram from a past project of mine showing how this system works:

Although there have been attempts (2, 3) at achieving the LBC standard, so far none have completed the task.  Net Zero Water is an idea we’ve been kicking around at Postgreen, and it seems to be the main hurdle we’ll need to leap before achieving the stringent standard.

I’ve put a site up pertaining to net zero water, which aims to compile some of my thoughts and research on the topic, as well as provide a place for discussion and the sharing of information.  Please check out and feel free to subscribe to it for updates!

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 4 trackbacks }

Discussion at local Green Developer « Net Zero Water Project
August 31, 2009 at 10:13 am
Net Zero Water and Living Machines | Silentstorm
July 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm
2012 Green trends for home « criteriumlalancetteengineers
January 10, 2012 at 4:31 pm
2012 Green trends for home | Home Electric Repair
January 13, 2012 at 11:20 am

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 tom toolbag August 27, 2009 at 11:49 pm

Some great suggestions, but where are the details? Is the roof area large enough of the average home in proportion to the occupant’s water demand? What does this do to the water table levels? Is the land(lot) area large enough to adequately filter black/grey water? If not, what does this do to the waste/waste-water that goes to the sewage treatment facility? What about water storage installation costs, requirements, and problems?
Why not implement current technology that is available and/or proven? How about adding a pressure tank to a current system so faucets can be stepped down from 2.0-2.5 g.p.m. in the bath/shower to 1.5-1.0 g.p.m.? How about a shower valve(remember the show “MASH”) that can be pulled by hand(or foot) to conserve water ON TOP OF an extremely low-flow showerhead?
I’m not trying to be confrontatial , but be a stone roller instead of a rolling stone! This is the most progressive blog/web-site in relation to the construction industry, I’m just asking that you provide a realistic solution.

2 GreenBuildinginDenverdotcom August 28, 2009 at 11:08 pm

A waterless urinal for the boys in the house.

In some states it’s illegal for you to store and reuse the rainwater. Just another law that needs changing.

3 Wes August 31, 2009 at 9:40 am

Valid points, there are a lot of water metering issues we’ll have to work out. We’re trying to evaluate water usage in the current Postgreen homes, as they tend to be a good amount different from an average home.
Blackwater treatment is difficult to install because it is pretty expensive to put in membrane bioreactors. However, on a project with 6-10 homes, there could be a community treatment area that all the homes have in common. UV sterilizers are relatively inexpensive and can be hooked up to the faucet itself.
As with almost everything of high-efficiency these days, the water storage and installation costs may seem steep, but achieving water independence will pay for itself over time.
As I stated, there are metering issues and statistics to be collected, so at this stage it’d be tough to say exactly how much water the super-efficient Postgreen homes will be using.

Waterless urinals are great, but as you’ve stated there are pretty high-profile problems with them in terms of code. There are also several code issues with collecting, treating, and re-using grey and blackwater from your home. In Oregon, several laws have been changed, and even in Pittsburgh right now they are being reviewed.
There will have to be regulatory changes in order to achieve a new level of green building, but with enough backing I am optimistic that it can happen.

Aside from waterless urinals, we’ve also been looking into compost toilets. This would take a huge strain off the amount of blackwater to be treated.

4 Bruce Burnworth August 31, 2009 at 12:59 pm

I am interested in getting closer to net zero water. To be independent of water and wastewater utilities would be great. Keep up the good work. Santa Barbara will be tough with only 18 inches of rainfall in an average year. We have had some with only 7 inches and others with 40 inches.

5 morgan September 1, 2009 at 9:37 am

I may have mentioned this before, but in the late 70′s under the carter administration and all the subsidized evironmental programs, a book entitled “the Autonomous House” was published with the help of a governemtn grant. It is net zero everything. It has a similar system for water filtration, as well as passive and active solar, etc. etc.
This is 30 years old, before the term “Green” this is PreGreen.

6 GreenBuildinginDenverdotcom September 2, 2009 at 3:46 am

What’s the point of having an individual house with zero net water? The city or town you live in is net zero water, just on a larger scale. The municipality already handles all the water treatment issues more economically than anyone’s house ever could.

Reducing water usage as much as possible is a worthy goal, but I’m skeptical that processing all your water on your site within a city would ever make sense for safety reasons.

Rainwater collection is also a worthy goal, since gallons cost dollars.

7 Mike September 23, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Water Legacy is a Colorado manufacturer of of greywater reuse system that should be considered in the Net Zero Water Initiative. The Company is new and has a number of interesting projects. PLease check out the web site and ask questions.

8 Drew October 14, 2009 at 1:23 pm

In MN there is a company called Equaris and they do this now, I believe.

I met this guy several years ago. Very interesting background and technology. One piece of trivia that has stuck with me: He told me after he retrofitted his house he re-purposed the well from pulling up water he no longer needed to the piping necessary for a geothermal system.

9 Kris December 8, 2010 at 9:09 am

As always, you have such interesting posts. net zero water is an interesting concept but it is made so much more difficult by plumbing codes. We have companies in MN manufacturing greywater systems but getting approval to install them here is not possible. For urban construction many locales have rules against waterless urinals, composting toilets, blackwater storage, greywater use, etc. I would think the first house to accomplish this would need to be built with special permissions as a scientific experiment with government funding rather than as an average persons residence. Or if there are any states that have looser codes.

I especially don’t see individual blackwater treatment in urban or suburban settings as being likely, given the danger of it and the difficulty there would be in municipalities monitoring a bunch of individual systems that could have maintenance issues as they age. I also fail to see what we gain as a society by switching to individual blackwater treatment versus municipal sewage treatment. The only exception that seems reasonable to me would be allowing composting toilets.

Rainwater collection is a great concept and when we had a rental home in the Bahamian Cays, all our drinking water as well as washing and toilet flushing came from a rain water collection cistern.

10 Stephen Horvath October 6, 2012 at 11:50 pm

Kris: I’d like to address your question about what the benefit of individual blackwater treatment over municipal treatment is. Where I live in Pittsburgh, PA we’re currently having some serious issues with the scale of our municipal waste. For years now, whenever it rains here the sewer lines flood and mix with drinking water. The water authority has been unable to find a solution that the city can afford. Estimates are it is a multiple *billion* dollar infrastructure project, way more than any kind of project the city of Pittsburgh has ever embarked on. This year with financial help from the EPA the city may embark on this huge project. The proposed solution: install bigger pipes.

I don’t know what’s going on in other cities, but here in Pittsburgh it’s pretty clear that we may not be processing our waste in the most efficient manner. It’s completely possible to process it all onsite and from what I understand the cost to doing it onsite is cheaper than to ship it off to a remote site to process. In addition, I’ve seen some emerging technologies that provide additional creative uses for processing blackwater onsite, such as biogas capture, where methane gas is actually captured and stored from the waste decomposition and can be used for cooking and heating!

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