Can This Home Be Greened? Conserving Water and Saving Energy on Catalina Island

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Sandy and Ernie Rodriguez want to conserve water at their Catalina Island home.
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The home's front entrance is already planted with low-water landscaping.
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The Rodriguez home is effective at storing the sun's heat during the day.
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Ernie and Sandy's home sits on a double lot, giving them an unusually large amount of outdoor space.
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With native plants and graywater reuse, Sandy and Ernie can transform their backyard into a low-maintenance oasis.
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The diagram shows how the gardens, new outdoor spaces and rainwater-collection stations work together.

“Living on an island magnifies the costs and challenges of daily routines.” 
–Ernie Rodriguez

Ernie and Sandy Rodriguez have lived on California’s Catalina Island for 14 years. They bought their 1929 two-story home in Avalon three years ago. Originally a single-family dwelling, it’s now divided into three units, with two rentals upstairs. The house’s double lot provides a large yard.

Ernie and Sandy love Catalina’s beauty, temperate climate and rustic charm. With more than 3,000 people living in about 2 square miles, Avalon is a dense city with verdant open country just beyond its borders. Because of the limited space, cars are extremely restricted (there’s a 14-year waiting list to get a permit), and some downtown streets are pedestrian-only.

Island living has its drawbacks, however. Fresh water is limited, most goods must be shipped in, electricity must be generated on the island and waste disposal is a challenge. “It is important to maximize and efficiently use resources and energy in balance with our unique surroundings,” Ernie says. 

1. The outdoor spaces aren’t inviting.

Problem: Avalon’s climate is perfect for outdoor living, but Ernie and Sandy don’t spend as much time as they’d like in their yard. Their small wood deck is rotting, and much of the yard is bare dirt.

Solution: With glass doors leading out from several rooms, this house begs for more decks and patios. I advised Ernie and Sandy to enlarge the deck that extends from the great room toward the ocean using GeoDeck, a composite material made from recycled plastic and clay. This addition would allow the couple to carry food out from the kitchen without negotiating steps.

I also suggested they add a patio off the house’s long side, which would extend their living space into a shady area of the yard. A few steps down, a lower patio could be defined by existing palm trees and bird-of-paradise shrubs. The patios can be paved with “urbanite”–reclaimed chunks of concrete paving from local demolition sites–over base rock from an island quarry.

2. The yard needs help.

Problem: The yard was overgrown when Ernie and Sandy bought their house. They’ve cleared it, but bare dirt, grass and a few interesting plants are all that’s left.

Solution: Ernie and Sandy can help restore the island’s web of flora and fauna with native plants that need little or no water after they’re established. The Catalina Island Conservancy’s James H. Ackerman Native Plant Nursery is an excellent resource. Senior nursery technician Peter Dixon provided a list of appropriate plants specific to the Rodriguez garden. To find native plants in your area, visit a local nursery or visit PlantNative

Cost: $700 for plants; DIY

3. Water is a precious commodity.

Problem: Avalon’s fresh water comes from underground wells that tap an aquifer recharged by rainwater. Supply is limited, and demand is increasing. Avalon is under first-stage voluntary water-use restrictions, and water cost recently increased by 200 percent. Most Avalon homes are double-plumbed to flush toilets with abundant saltwater, which is one way they conserve freshwater.

Solution: The solution includes three components.

1. Conserve. Ernie and Sandy’s water bills indicate their use is moderate; they could reduce with basic measures such as turning off water while soaping up or brushing teeth, not overwatering garden and house plants, and taking shorter showers. At City Hall, Sandy and I picked up a package of free water-conservation devices: a low-flow showerhead, flow restrictors for sink faucets, a hose nozzle and a leak-detection kit. Composting food scraps instead of rinsing them down the garbage disposal helps, too. When it’s time to replace the dishwasher and washing machine, the couple can purchase more water-efficient models.

Cost: $0 (positive payback)

2. Reuse graywater. Graywater, which flows down the drain from sinks, showers, tubs and washing machines (anything but the toilet), can be used to water the garden. California’s graywater code offers design guidelines for getting it from the drain to the garden. Because all their plumbing fixtures are along an accessible side wall, the Rodriguezes can easily tap into the waste lines that lead out from sinks and showers to divert wastewater into a graywater system. A plumber can help them divert wastewater at each drain to a common solid pipe, running downslope along the side of the house to the backyard. From there, the flow can be split into hoses that feed mulch pits for water-loving plants. Using Los Angeles County’s rule of thumb (the average person produces 40 gallons of graywater per day), the five residents generate about 200 gallons of graywater each day.

Cost: $600, with some DIY

3. Catch the rain. The Rodriguezes’ could capture as much as 10,000 gallons of rainwater a year for use in the upper gardens that can’t be gravity-fed by graywater. Catalina’s climate requires that winter rainfall be stored for the dry summers, and the cost of large storage tanks can be discouraging. Salvaged food-grade plastic barrels (which are cheap and sometimes free) work just fine. Rain that falls on the yard also can be better used by contouring the ground to retain surface runoff in planting beds.

Cost: $600, with some DIY (cost includes barrels, piping, downspout diverters, fittings and valves)

4. Ernie and Sandy want clean power.

Problem: While Sandy and Ernie’s power bills are fairly low, the electricity they buy from their local utility company comes from polluting old diesel generators, and they want to rely on cleaner electricity sources.

Solution: In Catalina’s climate, many homes don’t have heating systems, and mechanical air conditioning isn’t needed. The Rodriguez home benefits from passive solar heating; its south- and east-facing glass lets sunlight shine on the tiled concrete slab, storing warmth for cool evenings.

The house is adequately insulated for its climate, with R-30 in the roof. The water heater is fairly energy-efficient, so there’s no need to replace it. However, with Catalina’s abundant sunshine, solar water heating makes tremendous sense.

When winter nights get chilly, the Rodriguezes use an electric quartz-radiant space heater in their great room. Adding shades to the room’s extensive windows would help retain heat. Honeycomb shades have minimal visual impact in their open position, and they could be closed on only the coldest nights.

Cost: $3,000 for solar water heater; $600 for window shades

Green your home

1. Create outdoor rooms. Take note of the gifts and challenges (sun, wind, water, views, vegetation, slope) at various spots around your home. Consider what simple features would improve the microclimate: a trellis or arbor, an upwind pond, a solid roof, screening, glass or perhaps a stone bench to soak up solar heat.

2. Capture roof rainwater. Look up monthly and annual rainfall in your area, then calculate how much you can capture using this formula: Catchment area (sq ft) x rainfall (inches) x 0.623 = gallons of water Compare your monthly water usage to available roof rainwater to decide how
much to store.

3. Reuse graywater. Sketch a rough plan of your house and your lot, then mark all the graywater-producing fixtures and their approximate water use, and all your water-using plantings and their approximate water needs. Design a system that directly links exiting graywater to thirsty plants.

4. Plant natives. Most regions have native plant societies that can teach you about the plants that were in your area before Columbus landed. These plants are well adapted to your regional terrain and rainfall and provide food and shelter for native birds, bees, butterflies and other beneficial species.

Cost: $15,000 to $20,000 for deck and patios, with some DIY


Oasis Design
Greywater Action

Harvesting Rainwater
Greywater Action/Rainwater
The Rainwater Harvesting Community
World Climate

Native plants
Native Plant Database

GeoDeck Composite Decking

Carol Venolia is an architect who believes that green design is about looking to natural systems before deciding which products to use. With Kelly Lerner, she wrote Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House.