Graywater Experience and Advice

The graywater page on the Burning Man website is badly out of date.  Written before any evapotrons were devised, it recommends Evaporation Ponds (known for years now to be high-maintenance space-wasters) and says nothing about sanitation.

In spring 2011 two Earth Guardians prepared a revision of the page.  Most of the content appears below.  Once the official review is complete, it will replace the old text on the Burning Man website.  In our opinion this information is needed now; so for now we present it as our personal experience and advice. 

Ember, Larry Breed
Raybees, Ray Bruman
Burning Man  Earth Guardians

What is Gray Water?   “Graywater” or “grey water” is in between drinking water and “black water,” which requires a septic waste system for disposal.  Graywater ranges from ice-melt in coolers, to shower water with soaps, cosmetics, and glitter,  to kitchen waste like dishwater, toothpaste, and saliva.  Also a good bit of playa dust.

Why is it a problem?  It’s hard to make graywater disappear. Almost anywhere else in the world, a campsite is near absorbent soil (filled with microbial activity, and usually with plants) where it is safe and decent to dump graywater.  But we are on the Playa, on dried clay, striving to avoid contaminating our surroundings.    It’s very different.

Don’t dump it!  Dumping untreated water on the playa introduces contaminants.  Dump enough water, and you turn the clay into instant slippery, sticky mud.  This can make walking nastier for your neighbors, and violates Burning Man’s contract with our landlord, the Bureau of Land Management.  You could get a citation and a fine.

Don’t put it in the Potty!  Each potty serves 40 to 50 people, and can handle only pee, poop, and special toilet paper – absolutely nothing else.  Toilets are for blackwater, not graywater.

So what does work?  There are several acceptable ways to dispose of graywater; pick one that’s right for you.

* Contract a Removal Service.  Large camps may contract at least a month in advance with United Site Services for removal of graywater in multi-hundred-gallon containers.   Contact United Site Services’ Mindy Cook or Mike Kivett at 1-775-826-5646, in Reno.  USS does not deliver fresh water.  For delivery of fresh water in volume, contact Meco in Reno at 775-475-2602.
* Have USS empty your RV tanks on-playa.  You can flag down a USS truck, one that isn’t busy servicing potties, and ask them to send a pumper to your RV location.  It’ll cost you $60 or more.

* Pack It Out.  You can accumulate your graywater and pack it out when you leave, perhaps reusing your resealable freshwater containers   Caution: once you put graywater in them, your containers should never be used for anything else.  Watch out for single-use containers that require you to stab an air-hole in them;  they would leak graywater during the return trip.  You’ll need to have a funnel and bottles which are both re-fillable and disposable, so plan ahead.  While you store your graywater,  you’ll need to keep it chlorinated (explained below).  Take it all the way home, or to a dumping station along the way.

* Haul to an RV Dump Station.  Several RV parks and truck stops are listed below.  Dumping tanks costs around 5-10 dollars.

* Install an evapotron in your camp.  Evapotrons  are Burner-built devices for evaporating graywater in the playa's intensely dry air.  The Pumped Cascade design is powered by sunlight on a solar cell; the Gray-B-Gon is powered by a small windmill.  Either design can meet the disposal needs of ten or more people.

* Share an evapotron.  Camps with evapotrons usually have excess capacity, and enjoy helping neighbors dispose of gray water.  Ask first.

Be a sanitation expert.  A very few Burners are experts in water sanitation, and in past years have brought and used professional-level water-purification systems – yesterday's shower becomes today's fresh coffee.  If you are an expert, you know it.  But beware trying out an advanced technology if you're not an experienced professional.  More than one camp has discovered that (for example) their flocculation tank pH was off, so they had no graywater disposal at all.

* Filter, Treat and Disperse small quantities of graywater.  This method is only for small camps who already know how to minimize dishwater and body-washing water.   If your graywater is both filtered and disinfected, and you don’t make mud, you will be within the rules.

So, collect graywater in a container over which you have mounted panty-hose or a paint strainer.  Add chlorine bleach regularly. In your own camp space (NOT public areas like roads or shortcuts), use a garden sprinkler-can (or improvised equivalent, even just a spoon) to distribute water very sparsely during the hottest hours of the day. The droplets must be sparse enough that they soak in and dry up quickly, and the surface stays hard. But keep in mind that somebody watching you might think that you are simply sloshing untreated graywater around, so be prepared to explain your careful process.

* DO NOT USE Evaporation Ponds (yesterday's technology).  Evaporation ponds – black plastic sheeting laid on the playa, over a rim of two-by-fours on edge – were the earliest evaporative devices invented for Burning Man, but we cannot recommend them.  Ponds take an enormous amount of space to make a shallow layer of water, they’re hard to make perfectly level, and they eventually fill with mud. Pond evaporative performance relies on a sunlight-absorbing black surface, and playa dust gradually disables it.  Then you have to pump out the pond, and clean or reline it  (carefully saving the mud, which now holds concentrated contaminants.) Your pond may attract slip-and-slide buckaroos, whose antics can tear up the plastic surface. Many other mishaps can cause pin-hole leaks, which eventually make large muddy patches on the playa.  Even if it never leaks, it will probably spill when you try to empty it. At the end of the event, you have a very nasty mess of stuff to take home in your vehicle.  And it didn’t even get rid of that much graywater.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How hazardous is gray water?  Can we disinfect it?   Gray water is inherently unsanitary. It may contain bacteria, fungi, viruses, or other life. Gray water left to stand untreated in the desert warmth eventually becomes black water as microbial populations increase.  

To disinfect gray water, and suppress funky aromas, mix in Clorox Regular Bleach or other chlorine-based bleach periodically.  Chlorine bleach is the only reliable killer for some antibiotic-resistant pathogens.  The active ingredient in chlorine bleach is sodium hypochlorite – a powerful disinfectant that decomposes into water and salt. Age, sunlight, warmth, and gray water impurities (including playa dust) all increase the rate of decomposition, soon exhausting the disinfecting power. Make sure your bleach is newly purchased, not left over from last year. The following rule will help compensate for all those uncertainties:

                 The No-measure Rule of Thumb for Disinfecting: Follow Your Nose.

Loosen the cap of your bleach jug one-half turn: no farther, or it may come off. Using your thumb to restrain the cap, invert the jug over your gray water and dribble for about two seconds per gallon.  Slosh or stir to mix, and half an hour later, sniff it.  If it doesn't have a strong chlorine tang (like a public swimming pool) dribble in more bleach and check it again later.  Make this a morning and evening habit. 

When buying chlorine bleach, check the label for the concentration of sodium hypochlorite. Clorox Regular Bleach has about 6%. If another brand has 3%, it should cost half as much and you'll need to add twice as much. Scented products are always lower in hypochlorite. Bleach has a limited shelf life, and this year's leftover jug won't last until next year.  

Disclaimer: We are not sanitation experts, but an expert at Clorox Corp reviewed this text. Following the guidelines above is not guaranteed to fully disinfect your water.
2.  How can we minimize gray water production?
The easiest gray water to dispose of is the gray water you don't produce.  If you bring less water, you will use less: at a minimum a gallon and a half per day per person, mostly for drinking.

Use waterless disinfectant lotion (available at drugstores) to sanitize your hands before you handle food.  For dish or skin soap, go ecofriendly with Campsuds.  For general cleaning, try Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds.
  • In your kitchen area, set up a low-volume water spray over a basin, for dishwashing and hand cleaning.  A personal spray bottle, like the Cool Blast, is a good starting point.
  • Bring several small hand towels (say three per person); use one towel end on clean dishes and the other end to wipe your hands and face clean. You’ll need remarkably little water to wash up with. 
  • Wipe out dishes with paper towels rather than washing, or before washing.  Save a dish; eat from the cookpot.  Lick out the cookpot, or scrape and rinse it with clean water, then think "This soup is thin but wholesome" and drink it.
3.  Any tricks for frugal showering?
  • Save your cooler's ice-melt water, and add it to your solar shower bag.

  • When you shower, first get wet, turn the water off, soap up and scrub down, then turn on the water again to rinse off.  But, operating valves is a nuisance when your hands may be full and your eyes may be closed.  You can hang a bungee above and a rope below, tied to the solar bag’s nozzle: pull down, water flows; let go, water stops.

  • Or shower with a friend, and trade off controlling the water supply.
  • Hard core:  take a sponge bath instead.  It’s possible to wash your body clean with a pint of water, soap and a washrag.

Dump Station Tips Useful info from the pros at :

For years RVers have been pulling into Interstate rest areas and other areas with free dump stations to empty their holding tanks. But because of abuse, many states are removing dump stations from their rest areas, and campground owners and others view their dump stations as an expensive maintenance headache due to abuse of the facilities. Dump station abuse amounts to folks leaving a mess or putting things into the dump drain that just don't belong there. Remember: somebody has to clean up the mess or clean out the drain. Dump station abuse causes aggravation, creates a health hazard, and costs money. You can do your part to ensure RVers and campers will continue to have free and clean dump stations by following these simple tips:
  • Use a heavy-duty sewer hose about 6 to 8 feet long to make handling easier.
  • Carry an extra garden hose for rinsing in case the dump station doesn't have one. Store this in an area where it won't come into contact with your drinking water hose.
  • Never use your fresh water hose for rinsing sewer hoses or the dump station area.
  • Wear protective rubber gloves and avoid touching the outside of the gloves.
  • If others are waiting to use the dump station, skip the tank flushing and hose rinsing steps. Pull away from the dump station and then add some water and chemicals to the holding tanks.
  • Never put anything other than the contents of your holding tanks into the dump station.
  • Leave the dump station area cleaner than you found it.
Resource Links

Evapotron web site:

Boomtown RV Park
    Garson Rd (I-80 @ Exit 4)
    Verdi, NV

Baldini’s Sports Casino
    Rock & Glendale
    Reno, NV

TA Travel Center
    E. McCarren Blvd
    Sparks, NV

Loomis RV Park
    3945 Taylor Road
    Loomis, CA
    (North on Sierra College Blvd to Taylor Rd)

Sacramento 49er Travel Plaza
    W. El Camino Ave (Exit 85)
    Sacramento, CA

Gold Ranch RV Park
    I-80 Exit 2 at Gold Ranch,
    Verdi, NV - 775-345-8880
Loomis RV Park
    3945 Taylor Road, Loomis, CA.
Sacramento 49er Travel Plaza
    2828 El Centro Road (off W. El Camino Real)
    Sacramento, CA