More green water systems might be on tap for SFPUC 

When the shiny new headquarters of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission opens Wednesday, it will use 60 percent less water than the average 13-story office building. That’s because most of that water will be recycled for nonpotable uses at the site, running through a system of underground tanks and artificial wetlands that cleans and clarifies whatever is flushed down toilets or washed down drains.

Click on the photo to see more information about the new SFPUC headquarters.

“We’re trying to lead by example,” said Tyrone Jue, the commission’s director of communications. The commission has long promoted water-saving efforts, such as rainwater collection and low-flow toilets, he explained. “With all of the things we’re asking people to do, for us not to do them ourselves, it wouldn’t be right.”

The commission’s water recycling system, a $1 million apparatus manufactured by a Virginia company called Living Machines, is more advanced that anything its water customers use. But that could change if a new ordinance that Board of Supervisors President David Chiu plans to introduce today becomes law.

The ordinance would clear regulatory hurdles that currently make it impractical for developers to install on-site water recycling systems in new commercial, mixed-use or apartment buildings in The City.

“San Francisco is a leader for the nation’s sustainable green building movement,” Chiu said. “We’re solidifying that standing by supporting and encouraging developers to build sustainable buildings that utilize only the most efficient water systems.”

While a 1994 city law requires new buildings to include purple pipes for conveying recycled water that the commission plans one day to provide, those pipes have never been used. Current city health and building regulations were not written to accommodate on-site recycled water systems, and there are easier ways for developers to meet the requirements of The City’s Green Building Ordinance.

“We had to work very closely with the departments of Public Health and Building Inspection in order to get this done,” Jue said of the commission’s system.

Chiu’s proposed legislation would create what his office calls “a streamlined process” for permitting and approval by the relevant departments. The recycling programs can involve any type of wastewater, including so-called black water, which comes out of toilets and dishwashers, as well as gray water, used in showers and bathroom sinks.

That recycled water must be cleaned, and it can only be used for nonpotable uses such as toilet flushing and irrigation.

The SFPUC, which worked closely with Chiu on the ordinance, will offer grants of up to $250,000 to commercial developers who want to install water-recycling systems of their own.  

While messages with developers were not returned, Jue said the commission was eager to show off its Living Machines system and the entire ecologically minded building to anyone interested in mimicking it.

“We’ve already been getting a lot of requests,” he said.

Correction: This article was corrected on June 19, 2012. A previous version of the article incorrectly stated the grant amounts available for commercial developers who want to instal water-recycling systems. There are grants of up to $250,000 available.

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