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The San Francisco Chronicle

Homeowners Go Greener With Do-It-Yourself Jobs

Justin Berton

Andrea Lara shows workshop participants how to install piping that allows gray water from a washing machine to be used for irrigation. (Noah Berger / Special to The Chronicle)

SAN FRANCISCO - Like a lot of Bay Area homeowners, Alissa
Hauser and husband Steve Brown have already done the small things to
save on utility bills and pursue a green life: lower the thermostat,
install energy-efficient lightbulbs, use old T-shirts for rags instead
of paper towels.

But earlier this month, the East Bay couple took a longer stride
into the do-it-yourself green home improvement era by spending a
Saturday afternoon routing gray water pipes from their laundry machine
to their garden. Now, each time they run a load of dirty clothes, the
excess H{-2}O runs through a filtering system that waters their apple,
plum and lemon trees. "In many ways, environmentalism has become an
expensive, consumer-driven effort," Hauser, a director at a nonprofit,
said. "But this kind of project proves environmentalism can be a
money-saving lifestyle, too."

Hauser and Brown, who spent $250 on materials for a project from
which they'll potentially save thousands of dollars, are part of a new
generation of green-minded homeowners who are eagerly switching
lightbulb brands but can't afford the $15,000 to $25,000 required to
install rooftop solar panels. To cut water and energy bills - and to
help reduce their carbon footprints - these weekend tinkerers are
risking the chance of wrecking their homes and are rerouting gray water
lines, insulating walls with recycled materials and constructing rain
harvesters, to name a few DIY green home techniques.

"I'd like to think do-it-yourself is going mainstream," said Bob
Freeman, editor-in-chief of Smart HomeOwner, a magazine that covers
residential environmental efficiency. "But for many homeowners, taking
on a project to convert it to green makes them very, very nervous.
There's a big learning curve with a lot of the technology out there,
and there's also a lot of varying opinions and debates as to how to do
things correctly."

Cost versus code

For guidance about their gray water system, Hauser and Brown turned
to the Greywater Guerrillas, an Oakland-based group whose mission is
help build a "sustainable water culture."

Laura Allen, an Oakland elementary school teacher and group member,
estimated that hundreds of homeowners in the Bay Area have converted to
their systems in recent years, especially over the past year.

The Guerrillas organization once was considered semi-clandestine
because the group does not teach to build to code, but municipal
agencies don't seem to be going after Allen or homeowners who alter
water pipes themselves. In fact, Allen speaks frequently at green
building conferences and hosts hands-on workshops in the Bay Area every
other month.

"So many people are interested in gray water because they recognize
the way we, as a society, use water is unsustainable and there are many
easy ways to do better," Allen said. "Reusing gray water to grow fruit
trees makes sense, and people are eager to shift their lifestyles so
they can help create a better future."

While gray water systems that use recycled H{-2}O to irrigate
gardens and flush toilets are legal in California, building them to
meet code is pricey. Hauser said she received a $12,000 quote from one
company and chose instead to allow the Guerrillas to host a training
workshop at her home in exchange for having them do the elbow-work for

"A lot of these products or systems used to be considered fringe,"
editor Freeman said of gray water recycling and building solar thermal
panels. "But a rise in energy costs has people starting to look around
and saying, 'Hey, that's not such a bad idea.' "

In Berkeley, Allen Kanner and his wife, Mary Gomes, spent $400 on
pipes and materials in January to route gray water lines from their
shower and washing machine to a large L-shaped garden, earning them
nearly a 60 percent decrease in water usage and their monthly bill,
from about $275 to $116, Kanner said.

Kanner estimates he and his wife will recoup the initial $400
investment by the end of next year, and he has an idea about what to do
with the extra cash: "We've been holding off for solar panels," he

For many homeowners, the high cost of solar panels has been a
deterrent - installations can take 25 to 30 years to break even -
making the quest to develop affordable, easily installable panels a
holy grail among tinkerers.

Inexpensive solar

Michael Davis, a Florida inventor who owns property in the Arizona
desert, became a minor DIY Internet sensation on the environmental Web
site last month when he posted a step-by-step guide on building a homemade solar panel system for $105.

Davis said he needed the free electricity to power tools and
equipment on his property near Arizona's Painted Desert, where he
relies mostly on a generator. He bought used and blemished solar panels
off eBay for about $30 and strung together a bootleg unit that managed
to power 60 watts of free juice, enough to recharge his drill overnight
- a small but important step in the DIY quest to corral solar energy on
the cheap.

Davis' panels also received high attention on,
the San Francisco-based Web site that has become a popular destination
for do-it-yourselfers looking for detailed instructions. Since the site
added a green section last year, users worldwide have contributed more
than 120 blueprints on green home improvement projects, everything from
contraptions to convert attic heat into hot water to tinning a roof
with aluminum cans.

Still, sheeting a house with Budweiser empties is likely to remain an extreme project for most homeowners.

Jennifer Roberts, the San Francisco-based author of "Good Green
Homes," said the typical homeowner is still more focused on conserving
energy than on trying to generate it.

Roberts knows of only one San Francisco homeowner who has purchased
a wind turbine, a rarity because the machines are expensive and urban
building density tends to decrease the turbines' effectiveness.

Roberts, who spent part of a weekend last year insulating her
Victorian home in the Dogpatch neighborhood with an eco-friendly
product consisting of recycled denim jeans, said that when it comes to
green improvements, many homeowners are put off by researching products
with which they're mostly unfamiliar.

"Just adding that extra legwork can be a stumbling block," she said.

Hauser, who hopes to afford solar panels one day, said the couple's
next at-home project will take place in two weeks when they build a
rain harvester in their front yard. They'll have to tinker with the
gutter system to reroute runoff water, but it shouldn't take more than
a day or two.

"It'll take some work," she said, "but we can do it."

Online advice

Green home improvement resources:

Gray water: Tips and workshops: Greywater Guerrillas -

Do-it-yourself projects: Links to projects explained in detailed format: Instructables -

Classes: For links to workshops and training seminars in California: Build It Green -


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