By Larry Breed
The water situation was growing desperate at the Beacon camp, that Wednesday in 2005. Fresh water had been plentiful on Monday, and now every available container was filled with graywater, with more, always more, on the way. Graywater is runoff from kitchens, showers, and sinks (but not toilets). It’s a major aggravation at Burning Man because it’s highly unsanitary (bleach helps) and because there is no easy disposal method. The rules — and courtesy and common sense — prohibit dumping graywater on the Playa: participants must cart it out, pay the porta-potty company (one of the few examples of real-world commerce at Black Rock City) to suck it up, or do something truly creative to make it disappear.
It’s no surprise that some Burners were already intrigued with the problem, and had created solutions ranging from super-sophisticated to super-simple. At the high end were complete water purification systems. BRCMUD camp’s “Freshmakkur” filtered, flocculated, and purified, and watered a domeful of plants with the result. In another camp of sanitation experts, yesterday’s shower became this morning’s coffee.
Further down the scale are evapotrons — contraptions of many sorts that encourage graywater to disinfect, dry up and depart. The most basic of these are evaporation ponds of black plastic sheet laid over a rim of two-by-fours; often stinky (insufficient bleach) real-estate hogs, slow and then slower as they cloud up with playa dust.
More fun to watch, and more effective, are evapotrons that blend utility with kinetic art. In the Alternative Energy Zone , Kevin Wells’ machine pumps graywater up to cascade down the sides of a cylinder of metal screen. In 2005, two other designs debuted in the AEZ. Jeff Barlow’s Evap-o-Wheel used a solar-powered motor to rotate a PVC towel rack, to dip and dry fabric panels. Separately, Ember, a Beacon co-founder, brought the first of his wind-powered evapotrons: above a pond, a bike wheel with fan blades on its spokes spins in the wind; a drive belt of nylon stockings rotates a drum made of fabric stretched between two more bike wheels; the drum, semi-immersed in a pond, lifts and exposes a sheet of water to the bone-dry Playa air. Because there’s never a crosswind on the Playa, the fan’s orientation never needs to change. Playa dust doesn’t faze it; each trip down into the water washes dust from the fabric, and the dust eventually settles to the bottom of the pond.
This unlikely device worked remarkably well, chewing up 10 gallons a day. Ember moved it to the Beacon camp Thursday morning, where it started in on the stored graywater. Container after container was emptied into the pond, along with each day’s production of new graywater. By Sunday the pond was dry, its bottom covered with delicate mudcrack patterns of playa dust.
Over five years of tinkering, Ember’s evapotron has evolved — the fan’s aloft, to catch more wind, the drum fabric is an ultra-fine plastic mesh, and the pond has a “deep end” to collect the last dregs of water. It’s time, he says, to start building lots of them. The construction is greatly simplified, there’s a construction guide online, and the device finally has a name: the Gray-B-Gon. The guide can be found at tinyurl.com/gray-b-gon. In a recent workshop, Burners built four new Gray-B-Gons in about half a day. Three of those will be on display, and at work, at the Beacon camp at 5:30 and Evolution, in the AEZ, and at the Earth Guardians pavilion. Many more workshops are in the offing for 2010.