Recycling wastewater in winter

The winter of 2013/14 is breaking records for snowfall and freezing temperatures.  Sitting inside a warm house and looking out at the piles of white snow, it is hard to imagine “being green.” However, when the big winter utility bills arrive, we are all looking for ways to conserve and recycle. Is it possible in Ohio to conserve water and recycle wastewater in the winter? The answer is yes!

Ohio State University began studying reuse of reclaimed wastewater through irrigation over a dozen years ago. A demonstration system was constructed at a home owned by OSU in Madison County at the Molly Caren Agricultural Center. Household wastewater is reclaimed on the lot in a treatment filter, disinfected and then sprayed early each morning on the lawn and landscape plants. The irrigation system works year-round, even on the coldest days.

We have heard many people say that winter irrigation is a bad idea. Some say the irrigation equipment will freeze and break, others say the plants will be damaged if sprayed with water in the winter. The environmental regulators claim that if the soil is frozen, pollutants will runoff. At OSU, we are studying all of these and many other winter irrigation issues. In fact, this winter we are irrigating treated wastewater every day with no problems and no polluted runoff.

Why irrigate in the winter? The main reason is to protect Ohio’s streams, lakes and ground water from nutrients and pollutants. The nitrogen and phosphorus in treated wastewater can cause algae blooms if discharged to lakes and streams. The same nitrogen and phosphorus is a great fertilizer for lawns and landscaping.

Spraying water on plants in the winter also protects the plants from harsh weather. That is why fruit growers will turn on irrigation sprinklers and spray water on plants during cold weather.

Most of all being able to treat and irrigate wastewater year-round enables property owners to build homes on lots that are not suited for septic systems. The Ohio Department of Health has just approved the installation of wastewater reuse systems for rural homes.

The recommended irrigation rate for recycled wastewater is about 1 inch per week.  Therefore, based on estimated water use, a 3000 square foot area is needed to distribute the recycled water from a 3-bedroom house. In the OSU system 3 sprinklers spray the wastewater on the lawn.

To learn more about irrigating with recycled water look at Bulletin  912 “On-site Sprinkler Irrigation of Treated Wastewater in Ohio.” A new Extension Fact Sheet “Spray Irrigation of Reclaimed Wastewater: Riser Configuration” AEX 758-13 offers instructions to protect the sprinklers from freezing. Find both at a local Ohio Extension office. You can purchase the bulletin and other publications on wastewater treatment at the web site for the OSU Soil Environment Technology Learning Lab setll.osu.edu.

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