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GARDENING : Doing Double Duty : Recycling systems let households get two uses out of some of their water.

February 19, 1993|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times.

For most Southern Californians, it will take buckets of rain to flush away memories of the Great Drought--six grueling years when washing the clothes sometimes meant skipping a shower or letting the lawn go dry.

While the Department of Water and Power has officially declared the drought over for Los Angeles, the need for conservation remains. But rather than keeping a lock on the taps, there's a way to use water and save it too--by installing a gray-water recycling system.

"With gray water, everyone's a winner," says Gary Stewart of Burbank-based Agwa Systems, makers of high-tech automated recycling apparatus. Not only is it personally satisfying, he explains, to soak the garden with the outflow from your own washing machine and bathtub, but it cuts down on water bills and relieves overloaded sewage treatment plants.

Despite its rather unappealing name, household gray water includes no toilet or kitchen waste, nor is it chemically treated before it's filtered, collected and funneled to a garden's irrigation system. A 1992 report by the city of Los Angeles Office of Water Reclamation found no greater health risks associated with below-ground gray-water irrigation than with conventional watering.

The report, which evaluated a gray-water pilot program undertaken by the city, went on to state, "The water savings potential of a gray water system to an individual home can be . . . about 50% of all the water used."

Stewart puts this in even more dramatic terms: "A family of four producing 1,652 gallons of gray water per week produces enough water to support an entire yard consisting of 900 square feet of lawn, 10 mature fruit trees, nine large shade trees and 15 large shrubs."

Unique in the field of gray-water technology, Agwa--which supplied two systems for the Los Angeles pilot program--produces fully automated recycling. Bahman Sheikh, who directed the program, calls Agwa "the Cadillac of gray-watering systems--virtually trouble-free. As far as I know, there's nothing more sophisticated." Less complex apparatus, he adds, will clog unless it's cleaned and monitored on a regular basis.

Agwa pairs its system with what Stewart terms a "state-of-the-art," below-ground drip irrigation setup manufactured by Geoflow of San Francisco. Geoflow increases water savings while irrigating more deeply and efficiently than systems more conventionally used with gray water. What's more, when the gray water runs dry, Agwa switches potable water back on.

If all this sounds too good to be true, it is--for the moment. While gray water has been sanctioned for use in several Southern California counties--including Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego--it's still not legal in the city of Los Angeles, though Sheikh and other water reclamation specialists predict it will be by June.

Meanwhile, city residents who want an Agwa system--or another gray-water setup--may volunteer to be part of a second pilot program, this one sponsored by the state. For now, those choosing Agwa will pay several hundred dollars below the equipment's usual cost.

As one might expect, a high price tag--between $2,000 and $5,000 in contrast to the $400 to $800 of its lowest-tech competitors--goes along with Agwa's ease of operation. But so does a high degree of customer satisfaction, says Stewart.

"Our clients see this," he explains, "as a chance to give something back--to help everyone. Bit by bit, the savings add up."

WHERE TO GO Location: Agwa Systems, 801 S. Flower St., Burbank. Call: (818) 562-1449 or (800) GREY-H20. Also: For information on obtaining another gray-water system through the California pilot program, contact Bahman Sheikh, director, Board of Public Works, Office of Water Reclamation, Room 366, City Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90012, or call (213) 237-0887.

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