Greening Up Your Plumbing

As technological breakthroughs and a surge in "green" building techniques change the way we live at home, there's no reason anymore to watch precious resources like water and materials go right down the drain. Plumbers, policymakers and homeowners are bonding together to create a new industry standard when it comes to resourcing efficient plumbing solutions.

Based on four technologies that are easy to install, result in efficient and speedy delivery of hot and cold water and allow for future, simplified retrofit of a graywater reuse system, the system delivers major long-term savings — to both pocketbook and planet.

finding new sources of water

Recycling a home's "graywater"—water that comes out of a faucet but never out of a toilet — and harvesting rainwater can be two of the most efficient plumbing decisions a home-owner makes.

Problem is, many states' building codes don't yet allow these methods. Oregon, however, is at the front of the pack, especially when it comes to harvesting rainwater.

The new 2008 Oregon Plumbing Specialty Code (adopted by the Oregon State Building Codes Division and administered by 132 local jurisdictions statewide), is the first in the nation to include a rainwater harvesting provision. This means homeowners can collect rainwater then use it for any potable water needs, including drinking and plumbing.

"There are several installations in the state right now," says Terry Swisher, OSBCD's chief plumbing specialist in Salem. "In urban Portland, a homeowner has been able to harvest rainwater to supply seven months of water a year for his 1,200-square-foot home."

Although few studies have been done on economic and resource savings, investing in a rainwater harvesting system would be most cost-effective in districts with high water prices, Swisher says. Rural environments that are well-dependent would see smaller savings.

Link to the OSBCD plumbing code and information about Oregon State Plumbing Board:


Link to the Rainwater Harvesting Manual, which Swisher says is the best guide available:


First is going tankless. Gas-fueled, tankless water heaters are gaining in both energy efficiency and popularity. Instead of a tank-type water heater, which is always full of hot water (resulting in stand-by heat loss), the tankless unit consists of a coil that is heated by a gas flame only when the hot water is being used.

Though the actual heating of hot water is more efficient and economical with a tankless heater, initial costs are high, warns Mike Davis, owner of SOS Plumbing, Inc. in Medford.

"The tank costs more — about $1300 for the unit itself that most houses would use, then you've got gas piping, stainless venting so it doesn't corrode and you normally have to re-size the gas lines," Davis says. "Depending on where it's placed and how long the runs are, you're looking at $2500 to $4000."

State- and Avista-sponsored incentives to go tankless total around $540.

Recyclability is perhaps the biggest "green" factor with piping materials and manifolds. Although commonly used PEX piping isn't a "green" product, it is self-insulating and very durable over time, making it a popular choice with plumbers.

"Copper, as well as steel pipe, can be used for both water lines and waste lines and is recyclable, although material and labor costs will probably at least triple," says Brent Potter, owner of 1st Choice Plumbing Solutions, LLC in Medford. But copper's longevity is shorter and can be substantially affected by water quality.

Polypropylene piping is an even better choice for hot and cold distribution systems, says the Oregon State Building Codes Division, which has written into their 2008 code that all new construction is required to use this material.

"This is 100 percent recyclable," explains Terry Swisher, OSBCD's chief plumbing specialist in Salem. "It can be used anywhere in a building, taken out, ground up and reused."

Low-flow plumbing fixtures are the next step. Readily available and required in all new residential construction, low-flow toilets and showers are now just about as efficient as they can get. And there's really no cost difference between these and conventional fixtures, Davis says.

"Dual-flush toilets, where you have one option for liquids and one for solids, are an easy change-out," says Davis. "If you can only replace one thing, do this."

An "air admittance valve" will further the efficiency of a plumbing system. This small device is connected to each drain, letting air directly into the plumbing vent, avoiding the manufacture and use of additional pipe that would otherwise be extended through the roof.

Reusing graywater (from faucets, never toilets) and harvesting rainwater for indoor plumbing is another stellar way to conserve money and resources.

Although the State of Oregon does have provisions for rainwater harvesting, graywater policy is still in the making. Because of this, do not install a graywater reuse system without consulting a local building department about special uses. Systems can be installed that will allow for an efficient retrofit for these conservation methods, including the use of colored, dedicated pipes.

Finally, to avoid expensive repairs or replacements caused by using off-brand or trendy materials that can become quickly outdated, do choose brand-name products and have them professionally installed.

"This is the future and plumbers are definitely on-board," Davis says. "We're Oregonians; everybody's environmentally sensitive and we want our products to be as green as they can be."

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