Going off the mains

There’s no water connection where James Stronell is building his house. He tells the NI about it.

JAMES Stronell is busy putting the finishing touches to his autonomous house - not connected to power, water or sewers - in a rural area 60 kilometres west of Bendigo in southern Australia. He's an old hand at self-sufficiency. In 1993 he built a house in a Melbourne suburb with no mains connection which collected rainwater off the roof. The water company wasn't pleased.

'When the meter reader came to read our non-existent water meter, this created a small difficulty for the water company - what to charge us for water and sewage disposal? No matter! An "average" figure was derived and the account duly rendered. Because we were still connected to the sewer we did pay that part of the account, but we never paid for water - after all they could hardly cut us off (the usual punishment for recalcitrants) if we were not connected. It took three years of not paying the charges for water we never received before the company agreed they would not send us any more water bills.

'My ecological concerns began as a child. On camping trips in the Australian Bush over the years I began to notice changes to the remote places where we camped. The rivers were becoming noticeably polluted, their stream flows were dropping and the wonderful plant and animal life in and along the rivers and further into the Bush was disappearing.

'Twelve years ago while working for energy-efficient housing I was confronted by a parallel need for water efficiency. Australians not only have the greatest amount of water per person stored in dams but also use the greatest amount of water per person per day after the North Americans. Since we began damming our inland rivers we have doubled our water consumption with each generation. We are now averaging 100 litres more a day per person than we did 40 years ago.

'In 1996, massive river-water diversion for domestic use was identified as a key threat to the sustainability of Australia's inland waters. Seven years on we have yet to regulate for water-efficient housing and reduce water use.

'Currently chronic drought conditions threaten to force the issue. In due course, spiralling consumption will require key players in the water industry to commit to greater efficiency. Governments and water corporations seem content to "blame the farmers" for the poor state of our rivers and "water wallies" for the high rate of urban water use.'

Taking control

'Our new house is in an area where the average annual rainfall is quite low - 535 millimetres - and the only reliable thing about it is that it is unreliable. The house is not connected to the mains - there are none out here.

'A water-autonomous house collects the rainwater that falls on its roof and stores it in tanks. It is then distributed as required through a normal plumbing system. For the house to 'work' properly and supply good-quality potable water through all seasons wet or dry, its raincatching and storage systems need to be designed smartly.

'In terms of capacity, smart design takes into account minimum annual rainfall, the longest period without rain, roof size, number of householders, tank size, efficient water-use appliances and provision for reusing water. For ensuring safety of the water supply, the roofing material used, debris diversion, mesh coverings for tank inlets and outlets, aeration of tank water and the ease of keeping the system running in good condition must all be considered.

'Above all a water-autonomous house must be designed to use water efficiently by incorporating appliances which use the minimum amount of water for the desired result - a low-flow shower head which uses half the amount of water, a three-to-six litre flush toilet (or a completely dry composting toilet). Then there are recycling systems, such as using waste water from the washing machine to flush the toilet and water from the bath for the garden or, if treated, the hot-water system. The essential point about a water-autonomous house in a medium-to-low rainfall area is that low water consumption is built in - it does not rely on the behaviour of the occupants.

Household recycling systems use waste water from the washing machine to flush the toilet

'But living in such a house can change behaviour, too. A simple level gauge located in a prominent position which clearly shows the water level in the tank raises awareness of water harvested and used. When people become aware of the consequences of their actions in this way, they often change their behaviour (for example, take shorter showers in dry weather).'

Obstacle course

'Currently the political economy of the water industry in Australia works to encourage corporate "ownership" of water and profligate water use by the "buyers" of water - including householders. In this economy, there are currently no corporate water-conservation targets, few "rewards" for conservation activities, no plans to decommission dams or to incorporate urban raincatching as a part of the supply system.

'In such a climate when urban residents attempt to set up a household water-supply system or a domestic waste-treatment facility, the workings of the water industry effectively create barriers and disincentives. The upshot is that the householder must meet all the costs of installing raincatching and water-treatment facilities, waterefficient fittings and appliances, and negotiate a complex bureaucratic obstacle course.

'All of this pushes action for water autonomy to the fringes. But the benefits of living in a waterefficient house, whether on or off the mains, are there for all to see - lower water bills, less infrastructure, respect for environmental limits.'

James Stronell was a design engineer in the construction industry for 25 years before retraining in Environmental Science. He has currently been building and refitting houses for optimal water and energy efficiency that will act as pilots for efficiency standards in southern Australia.