Putting the blue into green living

2012-08-27 00:00

SIX months with no water bill. That’s what installing a comprehensive water saving and recycling system has meant to a Hilton family.

Environmental consultants Kevan and Karen Zunckel, who have set up a system that allows them to harvest rainwater and recycle their grey water, have found that over the rainy period their water bill had a zero balance for six months.

While many people have turned to solar energy as a way to cut down on their electricity consumption, they often fail to consider how they might save water.

International Water Week (August 26 to August 31) puts the spotlight on this essential resource and asks us to examine how we use water in our daily lives and how we can cut our consumption.

The Zunckels have converted their domestic water system over the past two years, believing that as their job is about advising people on the environment, they should “walk the talk”.

Kevan said he had two 400-litre water-storage tanks partially submerged beneath the ground. The tanks are so well-camouflaged by the garden they are not at all obvious. He said the tanks must be at exactly the same level to allow for the water to flow from one to the other via a pipe. The tanks are fed from pipes that collect water from the roof, and the family were able to survive on rainwater from the tanks for six months without using any from the municipality. “It was quite an accomplishment to see a zero balance on our account,” he said with a smile.

The recent rain and snowfall filled a single tank to the brim, and it will last weeks. Their garden is almost completely indigenous and the water they use from the grey-water tank is used to irrigate the vegetable garden. In their kitchen, they have a commercial filtration unit that filters the rainwater which they use for drinking and cooking.

“It is costly, initially, to set up the whole system, but at the end of the day you are making your home sustainable and you are using what nature is giving you. The municipality cannot keep up with the demands on the water supply and it is already building more dams at incredible cost to the taxpayer,” said Kevan.

Graham Mallen of Go Green Plumbing, who installed their system for them, has found that more clients are looking for ways to save rainwater which they can use to meet their household needs. He said it has become an international trend for plumbers to install equipment that is suited to saving rainwater and capturing grey water for later use.

Grey water is the water that comes from the bath, shower, and washing machine. It has been contaminated with mild soaps and dirt from washing, but it is still good enough for use on plants and gardens or for flushing the toilet.

Black water, on the other hand, is water that is too polluted for secondary use and cannot be reused. This is water that has been mixed with sewage or has been used to wash dishes. Grey water generally has a mild odour and should not be kept in a holding tank for a long time as it will begin to smell. It should be used frequently.

“To enhance the quality of this water further, a family can use biodegradable soaps and detergents which will not harm any plants and it will also not affect the pH balance of the water,” said Mallen.

“In an area like the Midlands where rain is often plentiful, rainwater is a source that should not be ignored.” Mallen said it is not difficult to capture rainfall, which entails attaching pipes to the gutters on the roof.

“These pipes lead to the huge plastic water containers that can hold from 750 litres to 20 000 litres of water. The rainwater is usually filtered twice before it enters the storage drum. Some people buy a small pump in order to pump water from the drum into irrigation systems, but others prefer a simple tap system where they can access the water directly.”

Mallen says if you are intending to use the rainwater in your home you will need the electric pump to ensure the correct pressure in the household taps. “We have invented a float system that tells you how full your tanks are, and when you can see the tanks are running low, you can switch your house back on to the municipal water system.”

Mallen says that he has done installations at housing complexes where they use rainwater as a backup for when the municipal water is cut off and also for watering the gardens.

He has done a huge installation at Hulamin where the massive sloping corrugated iron roof was perfect for capturing water for storage and use in the company’s toilet and bathroom facilities. This has made a substantial saving to the company’s water bill.

Zunckel says the cost of providing clean, fresh water to people is underestimated. “Many people do not know that South Africa is one of only 12 countries where the tap water is safe to drink. Our tap water is rated the third best worldwide.

“They also don’t realise that we are actually a very dry country and even though you may think we have rain regularly, in comparison to other parts of the world we have very low rainfall. The global annual average for rain is 960 mm, whereas in South Africa it is only 520 mm.”

Zunckel said the country’s water infrastructure will need a massive R573 billion investment over the next 10 years. It is also becoming cheaper to purify dirty water than to provide clean water, so recycling must become a priority.


The Zunckels spent over R10 000 installing both a rain water harvesting system and a grey water recycling system. They believe that they will recoup their investment in the next seven years with the costs saved in rising water bills.

Karen Zunckel worked out that if the average person uses about 150 litres of water a day, 100 litres of this would be able to be recycled as grey water. A family of four will be able to reuse 400 litres of grey water a day.

An average household rainwater harvesting installation plus pump could cost approximately R8 000.

Installing a grey water recycling system on a common household outlet (eg: the bathroom) would cost an estimated R3 950.


How to save water



• Simply turning off the tap while brushing your teeth could save 1 140 litres of water a year.

• Cut back on shower time. Showering uses about 9,5 litres of water per minute.

• Wait until the dishwasher is full before switching it on. It will use approximately 76 litres.

• Avoid using the toilet as a dustbin, eg: throwing tissues in the bowl. Every flush uses six to nine litres of water.

• Is your toilet leaking? Put some food colouring in the cistern and see if it goes in the bowl without flushing.

• Check if your geyser is leaking. The overflow pipe should not fill more than one bucket.

• Plug the bathtub before turning the water on, then adjust the temperature as the tub fills up.

• Make sure you know where your master water shut-off valve is located. This could save litres of wasted water when there is a burst pipe.

• If your shower can fill a bucket of water in less than 20 seconds, then replace with a more water-efficient shower head.



• Minimise evaporation by watering plants during the early morning hours or late afternoon.

• Plant indigenous plants which are adapted to local conditions.

• Use grey water for your garden, collecting water from your washing machine, bath or shower.

• Use a layer of organic mulch around plants to reduce evaporation and save hundreds of litres of water a year.

• Only water your lawn when needed. You can tell this by simply walking across your lawn. If you leave footprints, it’s time to water.

• Adjust your lawn mower to a higher setting. Longer grass shades root systems and holds soil moisture better than a closely clipped lawn.

• Set a kitchen timer when watering your lawn or garden with a hose.

• Use a grease pencil to mark the water level of your pool at the skimmer. Check the mark 24 hours later. Your pool should lose no more than one centimetre each day. Buy a pool cover.

• Wash your car on the grass. This will water your lawn at the same time.

• Leave lower branches on trees and shrubs and allow leaf litter to accumulate on top of the soil. This keeps the soil cooler and reduces evaporation.

• Start a compost pile. Using compost when you plant adds water-holding organic matter to the soil.

• Bath your pets outdoors in an area in need of water.

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