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Eliminating Gray Water – Ideas From Burning Man

Gray water disposal is a constant issue whether you’re living in a yurt, tiny house, RV, travel trailer, sailboat or even a yacht.  Where there is fresh water there will eventually be gray water and hence the question How Do I Get Rid of my Gray Water?

If you’re unfamiliar with the term Gray Water it’s basically water that has been used.  The definition of Gray Water is: the relatively clean waste water from baths, sinks, washing machines, and other kitchen appliances.  In terms of an RV it’s all the used water that doesn’t go through the toilet, and it’s typically stored in a “gray water tank” separate from the “black water tank” which holds the more toxic human waste (and we ditched that when we got our composting toilet).

While at Burning Man in 2014 we decided to give ourselves the task of finding the best way to safely, and legally, dispose of our used Gray Water.

No matter what people’s perception is of Burning Man, we feel each time we visit we have a renewed spirit of outside-the-box thinking when it comes to wild camping.  Where else in the world do 70,000 people converge onto the desert in the middle of nowhere and live completely off the grid and fully self-reliant?  The extreme weather and leave no trace mentality pushes some people to create inventive ways to dispose of their waste, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about here.

burning man camp

Proper gray water disposal is one of our main problems when we’re living off the cord, boondocking, wild camping or whatever you want to call it.  Our most common limiting factor on the amount of time we can spend in one spot is based on our grey water carrying capacity.  With our newest RV, the Bounder, we have 100 gallons of grey water storage and we can live off the cord for 10 to 15 days depending on our water usage.  But what if we want to live in the desert for longer?  Places like Yuma, Quartzite, Slab City, Anza Borrego and so on have a ton of public land that in theory one could stay for months without having to move too far.

This is where the ingenuity of our fellow Burners comes in.  There are literally hundreds of unique solutions throughout the playa for disposing of gray water, but here are a few of our favorites from the eco-friendly AEZ camp.

If you’re heading to Burning Man check out the AEZ camp tour, it’s an all off-the-grid camp where no generators are allowed, and the campers there welcome you into their temporary homes to share their experiments and solutions.  I love how the gamut runs from super simple to the insanely geeky.  Also if you need more information on how to build an Evapotron the original inventor has a site that’s insanely detailed in the history and how to: www.evapotrons.info/

If you’re looking to dispose of a little grey water when you’re out wild camping this seems to be the most simple solution we’ve found:

  • Use a Sewer Cap with Hose Connection and attach a short hose (I prefer the 25’ Drinking Water “white” Hose so people don’t get nosey and wonder what I’m doing).
  • Place a watering can (this one’s great because it’s plastic and has a large opening: Bloem Deluxe Watering Can) on the ground, place a fine mesh fabric (panty hose work well) over the hose outlet, or over the opening of the watering can, and open the gray water valve just a bit letting the can fill 2/3 of the way full.
  • Remove the panty hose strainer and add bleach or chlorine tablets (or whatever disinfectant you research to be the best) to kill the bacteria.
  • After a period of time (depending on the disinfectant you use) you can sprinkle the water very lightly over a broad area so that it does not pool or create a small stream.

We get questions about Gray Water often, so here’s a short dirty water FAQ

  • Will these Evapotrons work in Florida or other similar humid climates? Where there is sun there is evaporation, but I can say without a doubt dry climates will make your gray water disappear much faster.
  • Does an Evapotron smell? Gray water smells, and the longer it sits in your tank and festers the worse it will smell.  If you can evaporate your gray water daily you’ll be in better shape as far as keeping the smells down. If you prefer you can treat the gray water with chemicals to kill the bacteria and reduce the smells.
  • Why does Gray Water smell so bad? Decomposing food mixed with oils, fecal matter from showering, urine…this all creates disgusting bacteria that is literally alive, hence the awful smells associated with waste water.  Sometimes I swear RV Gray Water can smell worse than Black Water!
  • Can I treat the Gray Water with Anything to keep it from smelling? In your RV tank you can use black water treatment tablets, however we’ve found they aren’t very effective.  The solution I hear over and over is bleach or Chlorine tablets.  It’s a battle because we don’t like chemicals and prefer not to use them unless necessary, so do some research and a little testing of your own before going gangbusters with any one smell solution.
  • Is it Gray or Grey Water? It doesn’t really matter since they sound the same but the proper spelling for waste water in the US would be with an “A” (the “E” is more European).
  • What about the Berkey Filters, I’ve heard they can filter everything?  I too have heard this from fellow travelers so I contacted the company and this was their response: “While the Berkey system would be capable of removing the bacterial concerns, it is not able to successfully filter out the soap. The soap will clog the filters.”
  • What about sand filters? A “slow sand filter” often used for treating rain water should work well for filtering grey water, but they are not very travel friendly for RVers since they’re large and heavy.  If you’re staying somewhere for an extended period of time this may be a solution.
  • What are other Gray Water Resources? In writing this article I came across hundreds of blogs, stories, products, etc but these are a few of my favorite, however most aren’t viable for full-time travelers:
    • New Mexico State University research article http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_m/M106.html
    • Gray Water Action site with loads of info http://greywateraction.org/contentabout-greywater-reuse/
    • Earthship Gray Water Solutions http://earthship.com/blogs/2012/09/how-to-build-the-greywater-planters-in-an-earthship/
    • An “out of the box” gray water solution for homes http://greyter.com/residential/
    • UK Renewable Energy Article http://www.reuk.co.uk/Disinfecting-Greywater.htm
    • Wikipedia Article on City Sewage Treatment https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sewage_treatment

 

Most BLM, National Forest and similar Public Lands only allow for 14 consecutive days of camping.  For now we can go that length if we’re cautious with our water consumption, but it would be nice not to have to carry our heavy, smelly, gray water down the road when we depart camp.  We haven’t decided on which version we’ll end up creating for our winter camping on the West, but I do know we’ll end up playing around with some sorta waste water solution. I cannot guarantee that any of these solutions will work for every public land or in every state, when in doubt you can contact the proper public lands officials or just carry the gray water in your tank.

 

If you’ve seen any unique Gray Water solutions over the years please share in the comments below.  Gray Water disposal is a common issue for many RVers and Campers alike, so any ideas or recommendations are greatly appreciated.

Famous for my "how-not-to" videos, and typically the man behind the camera, sometimes I’m forced to be here in the “spotlight”. When you see my face you’re probably reading something more technical than adventurous, but either way I do my best to tell it like it is and infuse my opinions into the commentary…after all this is a blog and not MSN.

Comments (24)

  • Guy

    You don’t like using chemicals? Chemical isn’t a 4-letter word, do your research. Bleach decomposes into water and salt.

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  • brick

    All you have to do is make a Colloidal Silver generator and it will kill all the bacterial safely and wont pollute the environment. Very very cheap to make.

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  • Ryan

    I believe what people are missing here is that we are talking about getting rid of grey water at Burning Man. Everything else is really a matter of opinion. The rules are as follows. You are on public land. The rules are, you can not dump grey water on the playa, (ground), the reason why is, when you have 70,000 people doing this daily for 8 days, dont you think the entire city would be full of mud and foul bacteria smells? Not fun. So it’s a lot more about function then a being “green” issue, for the guy who spreads his RV grey water on his plants, awesome!! A lot of states, like my own, allow land owners to dump grey water on there own land, or let others do it with permission. The point is the video was about evaporation of grey water in a desert where the BLM is WATCHING YOU!! It is illegal to dump any amount of grey water on the ground, and you WILL be fined. Grey water, if left to sit, will eventually turn to black water in a matter of 48 to 72 hours. Yes thats right, grey water WILL turn to the same stuff that comes out your ass, no it’s not poop, it’s because in 2 to 3 days even MORE bacteria have swarmed to the water to feast on the lovely yummies contained inside of it, sooner of later the bacteria turn to what is called “gram-negative bacteria,” can anybody say E. Coli? Ya know, Sh*t Happens!! Oxidizing solutions can be used, bleach is sometimes what people think of, however bleach is nothing but a strong oxidizer. There are many oxidizers. One of them being Hydrogen Peroxide, not the stuff mommy use to clean your boo boo’s with, which is only about 3%, the stuff i am speaking of is used by professionals, which is 30%, it can burn your skin, and is available through Professional Cleaning and Restoration Chemical Suppliers. Just tell’em your using it to get pet pee stains out of a carpet, they usually only sell to the pro’s, but in my opinion powerful hydrogen peroxide is safer for the environment vs. bleach is, and the funny thing is, they both are bleach “cousins,” it can help on keeping the smells down when evaporating grey water, it can burn your skin so where gloves and goggles. If you do get it on your skin, it’s ok dont freak out, it will burn and itch, and your skin will turn white where it touched it, but in 5 minutes it will subside….as far as RV’s go, i have no idea, this is about the Evapatron tech only.

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  • Byron the Savant

    Brand new to RV-ing (actually don’t even have one yet and stumbled upon GWTWs while researching campers, motorhomes, etc.). And you are a superb resource.
    I’m a history major so forgive me…..but why hasn’t someone figured out a way to recycle gray water to flush the toilet?
    I’m either the dumbest guy in Texas (which is saying something) or an Idiot Savant….

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  • Dennis

    Awesome videos. Well edited and everything. Anyhow, regarding graywater disposal, I would be thinking in terms of recycling if I was out in the desert. One way is with a solar still. There are cheap plastic ones and plans all over the Internet. Bacteria can be eliminated from the graywater tank by using ozone injectors or UV lights. There is also a sweedish guy that invented a recycling shower. The shower wastewater is hyper-purified in real time and returned to the shower head. Lastly, there are chemicals that can be added to gray water (probably not to the RV tanks) that cause the contaminants to fall out of suspension and coagulate at the bottom leaving clean water on top. This makes a better starting point for other water recycling methods. Happy RVing.

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  • Sam Fisher

    With such a large event, it is quite important to have proper waste disposal. You wouldn’t want people to get sick or leave before the main event. The method you did up seems like it would work quite well given that these people are far away from the cities.

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  • john brunson

    i guess I just don’t get it ~ in the deep south, when you live in the country, you put in a septic system where the sewage is actually re-inserted into the soil. Something called anarobic bacteria in the soil breaks down all of the nitrates and bio particles…. in time the water percolates back into the earth and re-joins the aquifer where it came from. Municipalities do it on a much larger scale. Really low tech stuff. Animal fat is separated out usually but you guys are vegetarians…. what in the world is wrong with watering the bushes with this stuff?? It’s a desert right???

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  • My brother-in-law is a water expert. He and his brothers run a company here in Salt Lake, and all they do is design and sell water treatment systems. (For all kinds of applications.) (Did you know some car washes recycle their water and use it again?) Since I’ve been looking for a way to filter graywater myself, I talked with him for a few hours about options, and we are going to actually test a few ideas. There are filters that can pull out the bacteria and all the soap, etc, so you would be able to dump the clear water literally anywhere. The big questions is, just how clean do you actually need/want it? How clean, what you actually put into it, and the volume, determines what filter(s) would be best to use. For me, I am low volume (5-10 gallons a day), and I want the soap removed, and the bacteria removed. I want it clean enough that it doesn’t smell, and that it’s really okay to dump on a lawn and never notice. (I already did my own tests with some cheap carbon filters, but it didn’t work at all. So I got him involved now.) I’m also willing to throw a cartridge filter away now and then, and I’m not sure if that’s acceptable to you. Would backwashing a filter when you get back to someplace that it’s possible be acceptable or too big of a pain? And would that be more desirable then a disposable cartridge filter? I would like to come up with an option for a solution about the size of a five gallon bucket. Do you think that very many RV’ers would be interested in something like that? Or would you rather just use your watering can idea?

    Also, you can use a high concentrate of Hydrogen Peroxide (say 30% solution) instead of Chlorine. It’s more of an Eco-Friendly option. I haven’t tried it yet, but I intend to test it a little and see how it affects the odors. (Maybe you already have done this?)

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  • tsimitpo

    I can’t help but wonder if some solar still principles could be utilized to separate pure H2O out of the waste water and leave a solid behind that could be more traditionally disposed of. Hmmm…

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  • ​I have a 25′ black garden hose that I only use for draining the gray water tank (they didn’t sell a gray one) , and when the tank is full, and it isn’t convenient or possible to head to a dump station, I wait until dark, go out and hook up that black hose, running it over to the “bushes” and empty the tank.

    Yeah, I’m leaving saving the planet for the kids, I’m getting old and cranky.

    As the article points out, the smell of gray water can sometimes be as bad as that nasty black water (why don’t they call it brown water?) The camping stores love to sell that $5.99 a quart gray water deodorizer, but a fellow camper pointed out the main ingredient to me a few years ago, ammonia. His advice, which I follow to this day is, “Go to Family Dollar Store and buy a couple of half gallons of their lemon-scented ammonia for a buck a bottle.” Works great to kill the odor.

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  • Sandy R

    To change the subject for a moment, why did you have your “Gone with the Wynn’s” taped over in that video with blue tape?

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    • At burning man there isn’t supposed to be any promotion and even though we don’t have anything to sell, we cover up our logos anyway.

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  • Sebastian

    interesting, I found something in old vintage Motorhomes, they had a waterpump which injects the grey water into the exhaust after the engine reaches a certain temperature. This evaporates the water and kills all harmfull stuff instantly. They even had grinders to process black water that way… I would guess that this tech got out off the view due to EPA but i couldnt find anything. the idea itself promisses never dumping. Second, in a self sufficency book they had bunker toilet which burns the waste and evaps the water with propane at 2000 degree 😉 very ineffiecent. only get out the ashes every month or so.

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  • Robert Ferguson

    NIkki and Jason, thank you for the video on grey water issues. Very interesting and innovative contraptions out there. In the short run, our experience has been limited in disposing of grey and/or black water. When we want to really conserve water usage and limit grey storage (even at our brick&mortar) we use large pre-moistened towelettes. If they are not wet enough , we can add liquid to them along with body gel. The towelettes can then be dried in the air and can be used for grill fire starters. (that would be for enclosed fires only). When I was small, my mom & grandmother called this ‘spit bathing’ and was a necessity since many country homes did not have running water indoors and used wash tubs for bathing. Saturday night bathing was for the kids, girls first. (five girls & four boys blended family) A dry towel will whisk away the moisture on the body along with the any remnants of the cleansing gel. Back to the present -This does not answer the problems of showering, dishes, or liquid human waste. Our experience has been limited to RV parks or parks with dump stations. We have found that “Pilot”, “Travel America” and FLying ‘J’ truck stops provide dumping station. Some even allow one to dump free of charge. Hope this helps someone. Regards from Memphis. Bob

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  • John Puccetti

    If it is OK to pee in the bushes why is it not OK to spread urine around the ground? Have you thought of trying to switch to all biodegradable washing products? Basically a septic system just spreads the water out through a leach field if I used certain products I would be OK with dumping gray water.

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    • It’s not always ok to pee in the bushes everywhere, like burning man where there are 70,000 people. We do use all biodegradable products and in areas where it is acceptable we filter and sprinkle gray water. It’s never good to pool or dump all your gray water in one area.

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  • Liz

    My understanding has always been that kitchen gray water should actually be considered black water since it is filled with grease, food particles, and yucky stuff. Bath gray water, however, if you use a nontoxic and nonpolluting soap like Dr Bronners can be safely discharged on the ground. My plan, when we actually get our RV, is to install a composting toilet then somehow route the kitchen sink to the black tank and have the gray tank just be bath. Don’t know if that would actually work, of course…

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  • Deborah Kerr

    Hello, after just buying my 2008 motorhome and researching all the electrical and holding tank stuff I will need to do, I ran across TankTechsRX for both black and gray holding tanks. It’s all natural probiotics, which I love the idea of no harsh chemicals. I love the fact that it is based on science/chemistry and these guys are in the “holding tank cleaning” business. I haven’t yet tried it, but it’s on it’s way through mail-order. I guess a capful is all that’s needed and it grows good bacteria, kind of like yogurt does for our digestive tract. BTW, I am so thankful that I found your website/blog – you were the first site I found when researching for the best small RV’s about 9 months ago!! It feels like I am right there with you on your travels! Keep up the great work 🙂

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  • Interesting tips about how to dispose of gray water on land. We spent time living in our 13′ Scamp travel trailer and managing our gray and black water tanks was a constant challenge. Now that we’re living on our sailboat, it’s so nice to not have to worry about gray water (you don’t need to store in a separate tank, you can just discharge directly from your boat). Unfortunately, we still have to manage our black water tank. Definitely want to look into changing out our marine toilet for a composting one in the future!

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  • Cindy

    I have watched a variety of videos (including yours 🙂 ) about composting toilets. Am I missing something? I’m getting that these systems only compost the solid waste. How do you dispose of the liquid waste?

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