Up and Coming
by Jack Sweet
Posted: September 14, 2010
A San Diego contractor shows there’s more than one way to save water.
Southern California, as many aren’t aware, is actually a kind of desert called chapparal. Almost all of the lush, vegetation that stays green all year long in the region has been imported. And all of it requires a whole lot of water. People do, too. We like big showers with torrents of water. Southern California residents used to have water to burn, so to speak, what with the California Aqueduct, bringing water from Northern California, and the Colorado River both full to the brim. Years of chronic drought, though, has everyone thinking both of ways to conserve water and alternate water sources that can be put to use for certain tasks.
K.C. Montgomery is the owner of Monty’s plumbing, a self-described “one-man show,” based in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego. Soon to be known as “Monty’s Plumbing & Sustainable Systems,” the 3-year old outfit earned its bones, so to speak, in service and repair. It will still handle those chores, Montgomery said, but the company now specializes in rainwater catchment, graywater systems and solar water heating: “I stick mostly to residential plumbing—service and repair,” the affable Montgomery said recently while driving out to have a look at a recent project in the nearby Mission Hills neighborhood. “But my real passion is sustainable systems.”
Driving through the old neighhborhoods in the west side of the city's hilly, winding streets, Montgomery talked about current eco-friendly plumbing trends in his sphere of influence. The biggest thing, he said, is that today, people are really into saving money. Instead of taking that as a cue to drop his rates Montgomery took a different tack:
“I drop subtle hints: ‘If you’re interested in saving water you can do this and this’,” he said. “Everybody’s looking to save money—water, natural gas, electricity—our precious natural resources are going up in price every year. Plus the American southwest is in a major drought and people are starting to become conscious of it and are wanting to do their part. Being green isn’t just trendy, it’s imperative.”
The project house turned out to be a winding, multi-level place on a wooded lot in a steep draw. The first part of the tour centered on the property’s graywater system, which catches some of the residence’s used water and diverts it for further use.
“They’re finally legal in California,” Montgomery said, noting graywater can’t be stored more than 24 hours. But, “just by changing to a graywater-approved soap you can set up your laundry machine and your showers to drain into your yard and water your trees and ornamentals and all that.”
The California Energy Commission’s Consumer Energy Center Web site notes a typical top-loading washing machine consumes about 40 gallons a load. Using a 2.5 gpm showerhead and a 10-minute shower sends 25 gallons down the drain, never to be heard from again. That’s a lot of water you can redirect for use in your yard so you don’t have to use your sprinklers as much.
He said plumbers who want to learn about graywater systems would do well to look into books on the subject by Montgomery’s “graywater guru,” Art Ludwig: “That’s the best way, if people are looking to get into that sort of thing,” he said, walking over to a large green tank on one of the property’s terraces.
That tank was the actual star of the show. This tank and five others of varying capacities located around the house provide a total of 3,100 gallons of rain water storage capacity.
“They have one system on one side of the house and another system on the other. One side of the house starts with a 200-gallon tank. When it fills up it overflows into a 1,000 gallon tank. When that fills up, it overflows down into a 700 gallon tank,” he said. “They have another system that’s very similar that holds 1,200 gallons on the other side.
Varying sources give San Diego’s average annual rainfall as a range between seven- and 13 inches. That’s not a whole lot—can you really catch 3,100 gallons of water with a maximum monthly rainfall of just more than 2 inches? Montgomery said when people think of rainwater harvesting they think of a 55-gallon drum in the back yard: But 55 gallons is really nothing when it comes to water and you’ll use that as quickly as it fills up.
“If you have a 2,000 square foot home you can easily catch 1,000 gallons of rain very easily in just the average rainstorm,” Montgomery said. “I’ve got a few of these systems around San Diego and these people use them and get them filled up twice a year with just a little amount of average rainfall but San Diego gets.”
He said most commonly the rainwater is used to water gardens. Some residents even use it to shower with because it’s “the purest water you can get and it’s softer than soft water,” Montgomery said. “A lot of people are into the whole lifestyle so they’ve torn up their grass and have planted vegetable gardens. It’s a hip neighborhood, but I have tanks in Tierrasanta and in Scripps Ranch and there are catchment systems here in Ocean Beach. We just put some rain tanks in at Cuyamaca College because we wanted to showcase what we do.”
Montgomery said one of his customers has taken the water-saving lifestyle to an extreme. Where the average San Deigan, he said, consumes about 160 gallons of water a day, this lady is down to consuming only 20 gallons of municipal water a day thanks to her rainwater catchment and graywater systems.
“Granted she’s more hard-core than average people,” he said. “You’re still using the same amount of water but you’re reusing half of it. If you do two loads of laundry a week with a standard type washing machine that’s 80 gallons. It’s a shame to see that much water go down the sewer when it could be reused. Here in San Diego, our water comes from the California Aqueduct or the Colorado River. It’s traveling 1,500 miles before it comes out of our taps. To me that’s asinine.”
Living in a city that gets just shy of 150 clear days a year (and who knows how many half-days owing to the area’s typical cloudy mornings) it sort of makes sense to take advantage and use some of that sunshine to heat some water. It makes sense to Montgomery.
“It’s green and sustainable and reusing the sun’s energy makes all the sense in the world to me,” he said. “I did some research and found you can reduce natural gas use by 30 percent by adding solar. You can pretty much power electric water heaters off and let the collectors do all the work.” Montgomery said adding solar is very attractive at the moment, what with a pretty penny to be had in the form of tax breaks and cash incentives from various state and federal agencies.
“You can get $1,000 federal tax credit for putting in an approved system. That’s on top of being able to get $1,500 off the cost of certain systems,” he said. “That’s potentially $2,500 off the cost of the system and people want to be part of that. A typical system’s total cost is in the $5,000-$6,000 neighborhood it can be installed in one day.”
As busy as things are for Montgomery these days, he said he’s placing great hopes in a section of the company’s newly designed Web site called The Sustainable Outpost. He said plans for the online store will be to offer any imaginable eco-friendly product: “Anything from low-flow toilets or showerheads all the way through complete solar hot water heating systems and anything you’ll need to install your own rainwater catchment system. Basically it’s a one-stop shop for all your sustainable needs. I’m hoping The Sustainable Outpost is going to outgrow Monty’s Plumbing.”