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Some ideas for getting those last drops out of the tub

September 09, 1999

What a nerve! I no sooner get my water recycling techniques down pat, than Gov. Parris Glendening calls off the water emergency. Well, I'll show him. He's not going to stop me from using gray water.

[cont. from lifestyle]

Particularly not after several readers of this column came to my rescue after I couldn't find a way to get the last of the dirty bath water out of my bathtub. Two of them offered similar solutions, based on their memories of bailing water out of boats.

When the water level gets too low to use a bucket, wrote a reader from Berkeley Springs, W.Va., "use a large sponge, and wring it out into a bucket. It really doesn't take too long." A reader from Smithsburg suggested cutting the top off a quart or a half-gallon jug and using it as a scoop.

I tried both ideas, and they worked. I felt rather stupid for not thinking of them myself, but at least I got to use every drop of my gray bath water.

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In fact, I used the last wet sponge to mop the bathroom floor, which has never been cleaner! If it's up to the governor, it'll be dirty again.

The reader with the sponge idea learned the hard way about conserving water in the 1950s, when she and her husband worked for the Forest Service as lookouts in a fire tower atop a mountain in Oregon.

"All the water we used had to be carried straight up, from a spring one-quarter mile below us," she wrote. "We used to kid about all the ways in which we used it, before finally 'making coffee.' "

Two readers from Chewsville and one from New Jersey wrote about a different kind of gray water they use - water they collect from their air conditioners.

"On a humid day, we get five gallons of water," wrote a Chewsville reader. "We have used it to bucket-wash our cars and water all the flowers we have in pots. Most of the time there's enough left over to water a few things in the yard. Also, if you drop ice on the floor or have ice melt or any leftover drinking water in cups, use it on houseplants."

A Hagerstown reader asked about using soapy gray water, which is alkaline, on acid-loving plants like evergreens and rhododendrons. She knows you're not supposed to, so she asked if there's a way to neutralize the acidity.

I got an answer with some help from a local nursery, a state chemist and Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County: Add household items such as vinegar or lemon juice or garden products such as sulfur or iron sulfate.

The trick is to get the pH level just right, which is around 5.5 for most evergreens. It's not simple to do. I bought a pH test kit designed for fish ponds and a bag of garden sulfur. It took me several tries to get a bucket of water where I wanted it. The sulfur worked better than vinegar.

But actually, I think it was more trouble than it was worth. My various sources pretty much agreed that it's OK to use some gray water, as long as you don't overdo it. In any case, it's better to weaken the plant with alkaline water than have it die of thirst.

An organic gardening book also suggested putting two to three inches of compost - preferably from evergreen needles or leaf mold - around the plant first. That'll provide acid to counteract the alkaline.


Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at 12364 Harvey Road, Clear Spring, Md. 21722 or call 301-842-3863.
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