Plumbing and Waste Systems

Thinking about plumbing is usually not the first thing that I do in the morning - except for finding where the bathroom is.  This will be a learning experience and one in which we will ask questions, do a lot of research, and stick our heads into certain areas - something that heretofore I would not think of doing.

No PVC Piping in the Building

What was that advice given to Dustin Hoffman in the move The Graduate about going into plastics?  Well, all plastics are not created equal and apparently there is a swelling movement to rid buildings of PVC piping.  This may still be controversial but so was lead paint, asbestos and pressure treated wood so we will not be using PVC piping in the Barn House.  The majority of plumbing piping would either be HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) or cast iron for major drain pipes. 

For more information about alternatives to PVC visit www.healthybuilding.net

Cast Iron for Major Drains

When trying to "Go Green", none of the choices are easy especially when you complicate the choice with the criteria that the building must last 200 years.  Obviously, everything in the building is not going to last 200 years but the long-term durability and ease of maintenance of as many components possible is high on our goal list.

We chose to use cast iron for the major drains in the building for a few reasons:

First is the durability, cast iron will outlast just about any other product on the market.

Second is noise, we did not want to hear the drain noise from one of the bathrooms in other parts of the house.  (Hey, give a break here, I have spent the last 24 years leaving with a wife and two daughters- do you know how many times everyone had to listen to a tub draining?)

Third is that we are able to put a heat-recovery coil in the cast iron drains in order to recapture some of the heat that is going down the drain.

Above are the benefits but on the other side, even though cast iron is mostly a recycled product, there is a lot of "embedded energy" in the making of cast iron pipes. 

Ability to Drain Complete Building

There may be times during the winter that we want to close the building for a week or more and not worry about pipes freezing.  We want to be able to completely drain all the water out of the building easily.  Sounds like an easy goal but this has its challenges as well.

Remodeling Made Easy

The bathroom and kitchen are the two most regularly remodeled rooms in any house.  Trends change, needs change, color or just people's taste change.  If we are building something to last for 200 years how many times should we realistically expect the bathrooms in the Barn House to be remodeled over this period of time?  How long does the average bathroom last?  Ten years, twenty years, thirty years?  If the average bathroom lasts say, twenty years then are these bathrooms really going to be remodeled ten times over in the next 200 years?  What is the cost and waste for all of this remodeling?  How can we design and build today so that we can either reduce the number of times it is remodeled, make it easy to remodel, make it less costly to remodel and recycle or reuse what is being put in there in the first place?

I know if everyone designed and built this way, the construction industry would take a big hit because these remodeling jobs are a large part of the residential construction trade.  So the question is, from a builder's point of view, is it "better" to build to last or build to have others prosper?

Composting Toilet

A composting toilet is a stretch for us...or we thought it would be.  We are accustomed to outhouses at Camp but in a house are also sued to a real flushing toilet.  The thought of doing the research on a composting toilet was not the most exciting thing to do and of course we thought the biggest issue would be the smell.  We asked our neighbor at DAcres, a local organic farm, if we could smell their composting toilet and they said, "Sure, come over Sunday night during the community pot luck dinner".  We visited their toilet, looked inside, opened our eyes and looke again, stopped holing our breath and yes took a big whiff.  Surprise!  It was not an issue.  Ok, not to visit the cellar where everything ends up.  What appeared to be a mini submarine in the cellar was where "it" all goes.  Ok, open'er up and lets see what we are getting ourselves into.  With 50 people upstairs in the kitchen I thought for sure the house would have to get evacuated as we disembowed the composter.  Well, wrong again!  I didn't need the close pin I had in my pocket after all!  This composter stuff was nothing like I imagined and environmentally it sure makes a lot of sense.  So if anyone wants to stick their head in our composter and test it, come on over.  Actually, it may make sense to wait until we install it and fill'er up a tad.

Some Habits are just hard to break and the general perception out there about composting toilets get some people like me just a tad...how would you say...reserved.  The toilet below is a great compromise, it has a flush handle for that old habit and squirts a small amount of soap into the composting toilet. Hey, this is the best of all worlds, no habit to break and the smell is an environmentally plesent soap that adds to the cleanliness of the "experience". 

What Clivus has to say about their toilets:

  • Save Money

  • Solve Problems

  • Avoid Spetic Mounds

  • Increase Property Values

  • Save Your Yard

  • Save Your Trees

  • Save Water

  • Drastically Reduce Pollution

Bathtubs

One of the big choices in a bathtub was what material it should be made of.  There are literally thousands of bath styles made of acrylic and the price of them is not too bad either. 

As part of our research we took a trip to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and visited the Kohler showroom.  What a lot of cool bathing systems!  They have the title wave system that literally covers you with a tsunami from fourteen different directions to the was tub whirlpool that spins you around so fast in the water that you would probably drown because you got so dizzy.  Okay, so maybe not quite!

They also had sitting in the showroom a cast iron tub that Kohler made over 100 years ago and it looked terrific, right next to their modern version of this classic cast iron claw foot tub and other than being a bit larger, it had not changed much in all of that time.

We then took a trip to some antique stores in New Hampshire and started to notice all of the cast iron tubs that were selling for some awful high prices at the antique stores.  Guess what?  We did not see one acrylic antique tub!  Our next trip was to a local bath shop in New Hampshire where we got an opportunity to talk to a manufacturer sales person from one of the acrylic bath companies and asked him how long we should expect his company's acrylic tub to last.  It appeared that he had never been asked that question before and was a bit stumped, so I prodded a bit and said 20 to 30 years?  His response was yes it should last that long unless we replaced it for a different model. 

Okay, so if an acrylic tub lasts 30 years, than over a 200 year period we could have six replacement tubs for each of our three bathtubs than that is 18 tubs that would most likely head to a landfill.  Or could we buy 3 cast iron tubs that at least had a chance of lasting 200 years and worst case could be reused by someone even if they ended up being decorative flower pots.

The next dilemma was what size tub did we want.  Part of "Going Green" is conservation of our natural resources such as water.  The tub i was lusting after could hold 82 gallons of water.  This really required the old Ben Franklin list to try and make this decision, so bear with me while I put it in writing.

On the positive side of the page are the following:

  • The newer styles are definitely getting bigger and rarely are they getting smaller so maybe a larger tub will stay in "style" longer.

  • Even though the tub is bigger we could always put less water in it (this is where I start kidding myself)

  • Kohler classifies the tubs we are looking at as designed for two people so I guess the 82 gallons could be divided by tow and qualify for conserving water.

  • For me the biggest reason is quality of life and the health benefits of a nice hot tub after either a stressful day or a physically exerting day.

Okay, now I need to justify to myself further our decision to go with the larger tubs and my need for the creature comfort of a large soaking tub.

All of the faucets except for the filling spout of the tubs have flow restrictors of 1.5 gallons per minuet, our washing machine and dish washer are designed to conserve water and out composting toilets only use a few ounces of water.  Our artisan well drilled for the Barn House has a flow rate of 24 gallons per second so we certainly have plenty of water.

Bottom line, our grey water system is designed to clean all of the water used in the Barn House and return it to the water table.

Grey Water System

Okay, we have our composting toilet so we are not hiding our "waste" underground.  Now we need something to take care of the water.  This is water from the sinks, washing machine, showers, etc.  As opposed to putting that underground and ignoring it, (as I have done for years) we want a system that cleans it but does not make any additional work for me.  I for one do not need any additional things to put on my "to do list". 

Grey Water System Brochure

The following summary is from Bill Wall of Clivus New England, 1/27/2006

"The argument for including grey water filtration along with the composting system at Green Woodlands is basically an environmental on.  The scenario is as follows:

  • Toilet wastes go to the composter(s), where natural biological processes break down the material, bacteria is killed, and the end product is non-polluting.

  • Grey water - from sinks, showers, dishwasher, etc - is sent through the filtration system

  • Neutralized, non-polluting liquid waste - nitrogen - from the composter is dispersed along with the grey water to a soil absorption system (leach field), where it is distributed into the root bed of plants, fostering growth.  A conventional septic system inhibits the biological processes it discharges below the frost line and harmful nitrates are released into the soil, causing pollution.  In the grey water system liquid is released anywhere from 3" to 18" below the surface.

At Green Woodlands, why is this an issue?  It probably isn't today, although it is a long term serious problem in an over crowded planet, even in New Hampshire.  Some communities in Massachusetts are no longer permitting owners of failed conventional systems to reinstall another.  They are requiring alternatives to treat the nitrate.  This can either be a natural process (composting system), or a $50,000 nitrate treatment structure.  Green Woodlands can demonstrate a model system that is not "disposal", but a reuse of resources.

Bill Wall of Clivus New England says conventional systems do not treat wastes:

"It's like sending a toilet flush to the dump."