52 Weeks Down - Week 13 - Catch Some Rain

Sharon July 23rd, 2007

Right now, my garden is getting a lovely watering. We’re fortunate to be enjoying a summer with a nice mix of rain and sun. I know many people all over the world right now are suffering through a hot, dry summer, and often, serious local drought. This is a real problem - the Southwestern Drought is essentially expected not to end in our lifetimes. Much of the best farmland in the world is now in drought conditions. We’re deeply grateful that our land is pretty well situated for water. Still, we don’t take it for granted. We mulch our gardens, pour our dishwashing liquid and cooled cooking water on the potted plants, use a composting toilet and otherwise focus a lot of energy on the conservation of water, simply because we don’t like waste, and because the time may come when these practices will be necessary.

Which is why it is so urgent that, whenever possible, we keep collect water off our roofs. Water that hits asphalt or gravel represents a real management problem for towns and cities, causing flooding, and when it soaks into sewers, it is contaminated. It would be wiser to catch water as much as possible where it strikes the ground and make the best use we can of it - for irrigation, clothes washing, hair washing. I was horrified to learn that some American cities prohibit rainbarrels - personally, I think this is madness. I understand that dry areas depend on their runoff, but in many cases, such a large portion is lost or contaminated in heavy rainfall that allowing homeowners to capture a few hundred gallons would represent a signficant net benefit. And because industrial agriculture always uses more water than growing your own food, if people are capturing rain water for irrigation, that has even greater net benefits. We simply can’t afford to let this resource go.

The simplest option here is a rainbarrel - any food grade plastic barrel will do, and there are cheap ones out there, or you can get something pretty and fancy that will make your homeowner’s association happy. Hook it up to your gutters, and you are set to go. A few more and you’ve got more. You can put a couple on your barn, or your garage as well, or even your garden shed, so water things there.

Even better for us, is the cistern. This house came with an old one, but after several failed attempts to fix it, we’re waiting to have the gentleman come and dig us another one. The beauty of the cistern is that it can collect vastly more water (5,000 gallons - our rainbarrels together can only collect 200), and because it is set in the ground below the frost line, won’t freeze. The whole set up, including a hand pump for our kitchen sink costs about $1800 dollars - not cheap, but worth it for the security of non-electric, soft water (our well water is hard as nails and has sulfur and iron galore) that comes into the house without going out with a bucket. It cost only a little more than a manual pump on our drilled well.

Rainwater is great for irrigation, and some people even raise fish in their rain barrels. I can’t help you much there, but I do know that I love the way my hair feels when it is washed with rainwater. I can’t wait for the cistern to be finished!


9 Responses to “52 Weeks Down - Week 13 - Catch Some Rain”

  1. susanon 23 Jul 2007 at 7:01 pm

    We got two rain barrels back in May and found that they weren’t enough, so now we have four :-) But I’ve noticed that often the water is pretty stinky. Not what I’d want to wash my hair in!! If anyone has any suggestions on what I should be doing to avoid or eliminate this, I’d be happy to hear them.

  2. jennylewinon 23 Jul 2007 at 8:39 pm

    sharon!!! long time no see. lotsa news. write me? jennlewin at gmail

  3. feonixrifton 24 Jul 2007 at 3:33 am

    I suspect many places ban rain barrels because they are concerned about mosquitoes. In some places, any standing water is forbidden for this reason, such as having tire swings that rain might puddle in.

  4. Alanon 24 Jul 2007 at 6:50 am

    This has been hashed out on the Running On Empty e-groups on Yahoo. Rainwater harvesting is banned in some jurisdictions because the system of water rights established by law in those states requires that all runoff belongs to those who own the water rights. There is often little to no enforcement of those laws against a homeowner who snitches a few hundred gallons.

    A farmer, on the other hand, who bulldozes a catchment pond to collect most of the rain which falls on his property and would otherwise run off into a stream from which some downstream water rights owner is entitled to draw water would face enforcement.

    Some jurisdictions may be concerned about possible mosquito breeding sites — and rightly so. Mosquito-borne illnesses are no joke, and with the coming of global warming are going to get considerably less humorous.

    It is essential that anyone who collects rainwater — whether it is permitted where you live or not — screen off their storage to prevent mosquito breeding. Or use some system which excludes mosquitoes.

    I have four downspouts which collect rainwater. Three are sealed systems which exclude insects. The fourth (and oldest) is a simple hinged diverter which dumps rainwater into a hole in the top of a barrel. That hole is tightly covered with nylon mosquito netting (available in any camping equipment store). That barrel also gets a regular dose of “skeeter dunks”, a preparation of Bacterium thuringiensis, a natural insecticide which kills mosquito larvae.

  5. Anonymouson 24 Jul 2007 at 2:23 pm

    My barrels have little mesh holes in the lid that keep mosquitoes out.

    As for stinky barrels — is the water standing in there too long? Is there a way to drain it from the bottom or are you dipping off the top?


  6. Weaseldogon 24 Jul 2007 at 2:36 pm

    On the stinky water, circulation helps. Its probably not getting enough oxygen and you’re getting anerobic respiration down in the bottom.

    So the bacteria on the bottom are producing hydrogen sulfide gas which has a rotten egg odor.

  7. Alanon 25 Jul 2007 at 5:38 am

    There is another possibility for your stinky water. You may have sludge in the bottom of the barrel which contains some odor-causing substance. That water has washed off your roof, and depending how it is filtered before it winds up in the barrel, might contain pieces of dead birds, squirrels, or other wildlife, perhaps dropped by other birds. In some neighborhoods, kids may have thrown something on the roof which might be decomposing in your water barrel. Certainly, it can be expected to have some bird excrement in it. If you happen to live someplace where large numbers of gulls or pigeons gather on roofs, then there could be a substantial amount of bird fecal material.

    I suggest that you remove the water from the barrel and clean it thoroughly, using some bleach to kill microbial colonies. A little archeology in that barrel might be illuminating. And if you are not now filtering that runoff, consider installing some sort of filter.

  8. susanon 25 Jul 2007 at 3:37 pm

    Thanks, Alan and everyone else, for suggestions re stinky water. We drain from the bottom, but yes, lots of squirrels and birds over/on the roof due to large adjacent trees. I think you’re right about the sludge. I will figure out some kind of filter and do a cleaning.

  9. Weaseldogon 27 Jul 2007 at 4:52 pm

    Cisterns, rain barrels etc, often have valves on the bottom to bleed off the stuff that settles out.

    Even with filtered water, bacteria will build up on the bottom.

    You could also put in an overflow pipe, so that when the barrel is filling to overflowing, the water that is draining is piped up from the bottom.

    ====|| Water flows out here.
    …#|| Pipe
    …# Intake

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