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Tap to Toilet Versus Tap to Toilet - Same Words, Totally Different Solutions

by Doug Pushard

Toilet with faucet in itMuch is being written about 'Tap to Toilet' these days as a new water source for municipal water providers. This type of tap water is your old toilet water cleaned and sent back to the tap. As you can imagine these are big, costly water infrastructure projects.

In an effort to seek viable alternatives California announced a couple of years ago a project, whereby used water would be cleaned into drinking water. The project was shelved due to public outcry. It is back.

In August of 2010, the San Diego City Council launched a pilot program to do just that - 'Tap to Toilet'. The public remains skeptical about the cleanliness and drinkability of the water and there are many that have raised concerns in the treatment and purification of the water from waste to potable.

The term 'Toilet-to-Tap' angers and scares the public very easily. Originating from Gerald Silver, an angry Encino homeowner's association president who used the phrase in 1995 during a debate over it in Los Angeles; consequently the industry prefers to use the term IPR (i.e. Indirect Potable Reuse ) instead.

Typically the IPR process for treatment of water involves a multi-phase filtration system broken down into many, many steps. During the first few processes, the water passes through various screens and sedimentation, including beds of anthracite coal, which removes most suspended solids from the water. According to many experts familiar with the process, the water at this point is safe for irrigation and other non-drinking uses.

In fact, many cities across the United States and around the world use this processed water already for irrigation of parks and golf courses as well as other industrial uses. Of course, to be ready for drinking it must be further filtered and cleaned and meet EPA Drinking Water Standards.

With over 90% of its drinking water imported, the growing city of San Diego is facing a water crisis - it is only a question of when. A recent federal judge's ruling that may limit the amount of fresh water that can be pumped from the San Joaquin River Delta in an effort to protect the delta smelt, an endangered fish is just one thing that could throw the whole water supply equation totally out of balance so the city is at the forefront where IPR may become a reality.

It is an emotional issue and consequently some arguments are not entirely based on reality. Many, many communities today are using water that was used before. Unless you are fortunate to be near a fresh the source of water or rely totally on well water the chances are very high that the water you are drinking partially came from a waste water treatment plant upstream.

To make this water drinkable it is mixed with raw water and then large plants are built to process it before it gets to the tap (i.e. new treatment plants are usually hundreds of millions to billions of dollars depending the on size of the plant). There is a gigantic industry supporting water treatment due to the monies and potential profits involved, so you can be sure it is going to happen - it is just a matter of time.

The other 'Tap to Toilet' that is not getting as much coverage in the press these days is piping your used bathroom faucet water into your toilet and reusing it a second time. Not very exciting nor very expensive. Given toilets are the biggest water users in a house the potential water savings are enormous. But this is of little interest to water providers as they make money selling 'new' water; not promoting reuse of water in the house two or three times.

These relatively inexpensive devices direct the water from your faucet that would normally go down the drain to go instead to a basin hooked to your toilet. To avoid the 'tap to toilet' controversy these are sometimes referred to greywater toilets; although the toilets have nothing to do with the installation - it is the water source that is changed. So instead of flushing clean drinking water down the flush you are flushing slightly used water - saving literally tons of water over the life of a flush and billions of gallons if implemented across the United States.

There were an estimated over 350 million public and private toilets in the United States and growing. That is a lot of gallons flushed no matter how you look at it. In fact, residential toilets account for about 30 percent of all indoor residential water use in the United States and faucets account for more than 15 percent of indoor household water use.

So marrying the tap to the toilet just makes sense. So why is no one picking it up and pushing it as a great inexpensive solution. Especially, since the US government is projecting that over the next 5 years water shortages will occur in nearly every state.

My bet is on the money. Inexpensive, highly distributed, cost-effective approach to saving water versus highly-costly, centralized approach - my bet is on the latter just due to the dollars involved. But my heart is on the former as a much better solution for us all.

What do you think?





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