Eliminating Gray Water – Ideas From Burning Man

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.