How zero is net zero…what’s not changing?

So there’s lots of excellent work and capacity building going on and Net Zero Energy and Low Energy and High Performance houses are being designed and built throughout North America. Innovation and forward thinking abound. It’s all very exciting. But there’s a place past which most builders, designers, and homeowners will not go: beyond low-flow plumbing fixtures, specifically toilets. Massive infrastructure has made it pretty convenient to not think about the consequences of flush toilets. Sure, there are problems with effluent and e.coli and we have to treat water severely before it can be classed as ‘clean’ once we flush it, but there are engineering solutions for that, and there’s lots of money tied up in that, and this system works just fine, thanks, with a few extra jolts of chlorine added every once in a while.

But really, no. There are big issues. This is not a good version of an open system. Piped water is a great convenience and a massive boon to public health, at the same time that it’s a disaster for the environment.

Water usage and access to potable water is in my mind a lot right now, with water rate hikes, and low-income households in Detroit having their water turned off due to one missed payment (yet 80% of the unpaid bills are corporate customers), and the looming potential of privatization of water resources. Tank Girl anyone?

Water shut-offs at the city scale, like what’s happening in Detroit (hey, kick ’em while they’re down, whydoncha?), are likely precursors to major health problems, to homes being made uninhabitable, and to state-sanctioned removal of children from their homes. How is that cost-effective? What are people going to do? Where are they going to go (in so many ways, where are they going to go), and how does the city expect to garner property taxes out of more derelict, abandoned houses? It’s a painful situation where solutions need to be found, and quickly, but this plays out quickly in my head as a worsening situation not an improving one, not even in the short run.

This article, by Lloyd Alter, managing editor of Treehugger, does a good job of dissecting problems with the North American approach to piped water and poop. I like his observation that the modern bathroom hasn’t changed much since 1910: small room, porcelain fixtures, line everything up in a row to use less pipe. Done.

Ya, except is this the best way to do it?

Critical analysis would indicate not: just from a health point of view, flushing a toilet sends reams of bacteria into the air. And sinks are right beside toilets. And toothbrushes are right beside sinks. Ew.

And there’s more: toilets are designed for sitting, we’re designed for squatting…ergonomics 101 have not been applied to the standard bathroom layout or fixture design. But we do have have an engineering solution.

But flushing is the big thing that circles back to my concerns about piped potable water usage and energy use and costs (not to mention the burden on aquifers and such): flush toilets result in millions of gallons of clean, potable (ie, drinkable) water contaminated, churned up and redistributed for your swimming pleasure. Ew. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if the blackwater (toilets) and greywater (pretty much everything else) were separately treated. Then at least the lightly contaminated greywater could be treated in a different manner that quite possibly would be less energy intensive, bringing down the overall amount of energy required to treat water (from Alter’s article: 10 bn litres of sewage/day in England and Wales requires ±6.3 GW hours of energy to treat, nearly 1% of daily electrical consumption for the two countries).

What if there were no blackwater? If there were no flushing…

Compost toilets have been around for a long time — I first read about them in my cherished 1981 first edition of ‘More Homes and Other Garbage: Designs for Self-sufficient Living‘. Clivus Multrum was then, and still is, the Cadillac of Composting Crappers.

It could be time to re-write Witold Rybczynski’s classic from the ’70s ‘Stop the Five Gallon Flush‘ (That book was out of McGill, it was brilliant, and yes, I have a copy), as ‘Stop the Flush’.

Except of course, people would be responsible for their own shit.

That could be awkward.

Or it could be a re-learning of how open systems work — you have an environment, there’s input from the environment, there’s throughput, and there’s output back into environment, feedback comes from the environment and allows for changes that allow for survival and growth.

THAT would be fine.