MARCO ISLAND — Seeing his sprinklers water his yard feels great, says Marco resident Mario Sanchez. His home is among the first on Island that won't waste as much treated drinking water on the lawn.
Sanchez celebrated the completion and approval of his septic tank to cistern conversion on Friday at his house on San Marco Road. After a long struggle over local regulations, he has a system in place that captures rainwater from his roof via the gutters, stores it in a 1,400-gallon underground tank, and uses the water for landscape irrigation.
“Every gallon we use is a gallon of water not taken out of the aquifer,” Sanchez said. He calculates his sprinkler flow at 90 gallons per hour.
Sanchez, who has a Ph.D. in computer science and is a tenured professor at Miami Dade College, jokes: “I’m the smart kind of doctor.” He adds that the ecological benefits of his setup were the primary concern.
“I have always been a steward of the environment. That’s who I am,” he said. “When we hooked up to the city sewers, we were ordered to destroy our septic tank. I thought, ‘why not use it as a cistern?’”
Initially, he said, the reaction from the city staff was not encouraging. “The feedback from staff was, ‘no, no, no, no, no,’” he recalled. “They had ridiculous, stupid numbers for the cost.”
But Sanchez persevered, and got several city council members interested in his idea. Working with contractor Shannon Cain of Cain’s Bobcat Service, he got permitting, and a unanimous approval from the council to waive the permit fee.
First, he said, the septic tank needed to be emptied, as must be done for every tank, whether it is being destroyed or converted. Then, the tank was disinfected, inspected, and pipes were run from the downspouts on his gutters to fill the new cistern with rainwater.
For the final step, connecting the cistern to the sprinklers, Sanchez created an innovative technique.
“My design does not use electricity or a pump. I use a system developed by the ancient Romans,” he said. “It’s hydrostatic. When you go from a wide pipe to a narrow pipe, and back to a wide pipe, it creates suction, a natural vacuum.” He credits Marco Public Works Director Rony Joel with providing a key piece of the puzzle.
“Rony Joel came to a meeting and said, ‘Hey, that’ll work. I know where you can get that injector.’ We’ve been testing about a week, now, and every test has been beyond our expectations.”
Cain said he was surprised by how effective the system was. “Mario’s is the first to use that style to pull water out of the tank. It’s pretty unique. I knew it would work, I didn’t know how well.”
He learned a lot in the course of putting the apparatus together, and hopes many more islanders will use a similar system.
“If you’re eco-conscious, want to use less drinking water, and still have green grass, this is a great way to do it,” he said.
Cain estimated the total cost at around $3,000 for the entire operation, versus roughly $2,000 to simply drain, crush and fill a septic tank. Although a previous grant offsetting the costs did not materialize, there is a prospect grant money may become available in the future, he said.
What has taken most time is the paperwork, said Cain. The actual installation, he said, can be completed in about 10 days.
Doing some of the work himself, Sanchez figures his total cost was under $500, and hopes to see his systems replicated all over the island.
“I hope they can take this as a spark. Imagine if there were 1,000 Marios on Marco. You could be saving 11 million gallons of water a year,” he said. He has posted a journal of his project on the web at marcoislandblog.blogspot.com, with photos of the installation and video of water pouring into his cistern. Click here to see the blog.
There are several thousand homes on Marco Island where a septic tank is being replaced by a sewer connection, making them candidates for a system like his, said Sanchez.
Cisterns are common in the Caribbean, for drinking water, not just irrigation. On Marco, Island Automotive owner Keith Pershing and musician JRobert have also done septic tank to cistern conversions, although Pershing uses electricity and JRobert uses a hand pump to deliver the water, said Cain.
So when the next rainstorm pours off your roof, keep in mind: you could be saving the water, and using it to save the planet, one gallon at a time.
Click here to visit a Web site by Shannon Cain if interested in using your old septic tank to store water for irrigation. Or call Shannon Cain, 229-2337, for more information.