Harvesting Rain Why Using Rainwater Is Better for You, Your Plants and Your Water Bill

Though we usually tune out the pitter-patter of rain on the roof, that water flowing down the gutters and into the storm drain is a valuable resource. We not only depend on water, we also pay for it. So, why not put that rainwater to use?

Nearly any homeowner can collect rainwater, since the roof and gutters do most of the work. Furthermore, they can harvest huge volumes. An inch of rain, falling on a 2,000-square-foot roof, produces 1,200 gallons of runoff, which is enough to supply a family of four for about two weeks.

Using rainwater has obvious budgetary benefits, but there are reasons to do it besides putting a dent in the water bill. For those facing water shortages, harvesting rain can help keep the lawn green, or even provide water for indoor use. However, water to be used indoors, whether for washing or for drinking, must be thoroughly treated. With 36 states anticipating water shortages within the next five years, this may become an attractive option for many—if they can do it legally.

Contraband H2O

In some places, collecting rainwater is a crime. Colorado and other western states have water rights dating back to the 1800s that give priority to decades-old properties for water access. Under these restrictions, any captured rainwater is considered stolen from those who own the waterways into which that water would have flowed had it not been collected.

© Clean Air Gardening

Assuming homeowners are allowed to collect it, there are a slew of benefits that come with the purity of rainwater. Plants prefer it, especially if tap water has been treated with softening salts, which dampen plant growth. The lack of minerals in rainwater make it more effective for washing hair or doing the dishes. Furthermore, reducing or eliminating mineral deposits in pipes and water heaters can extend their life, requiring less maintenance and associated costs.

Collecting rainwater also reduces pollution-causing runoff, and if it is collected and used without the aid of pumps or other powered equipment, provides a carbon-neutral water source.

Roll Out the Rain Barrel

The simplest form of rainwater collection is also the most affordable: a rain barrel positioned under a gutter’s downspout. The barrel is typically fitted with a spigot at its base to fill a watering can or attach a soaker hose (which bleeds out water all along its length, providing effortless drip irrigation), and a filter or screen at its top to prevent a buildup of leaves and other debris.

Though a rain barrel typically holds under 100 gallons, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that just one of them can save most homeowners about 1,300 gallons during the summer months.

For a little extra money, a barrel’s capacity can be increased. When the barrel is full, runoff is directed through a spout near the top of the barrel called an overflow port. This spout can be made to flow into another barrel, increasing capacity. However many barrels are connected, though, a downspout must be attached to the last overflow port. This attachment directs overflow away from the building, preventing water from pooling around the barrel’s base.

With a few simple materials and a bit of ingenuity, a rain barrel can be built at home for well under $100. There are countless tutorials online on how to do this. Though buying a premade barrel is easier, it is also more expensive. Prices for these barrels range from $100 to $400, depending on volume and sophistication. Pre-made barrels can be purchased at nurseries and garden centers, or online at sites such as www.aquabarrel.com, www.cleanairgardening.com and www.rainxchange.com.

A world apart from rain barrels are the more complex setups that provide water for indoor use. These systems use cisterns that hold thousands of gallons, and have treatment systems to remove sediment and harmful organisms from collected water.

There are several methods for treatment, but one of the most common is a combination of filters and ultraviolet light. These very fine filters remove particles, some organisms, and can even absorb bad odors and tastes. After filtration, an ultraviolet light shines on the water as it flows through a clear quartz tube, killing any remaining pathogens.

The prices for these systems can vary widely depending on your needs, and are not do-it-yourself projects. Above-ground is generally cheaper. Prices for these setups can range from $1,500 to $7,500. The price of underground systemsvaries from $5,000 to $10,000. Unlike rain barrels, either option (on a large enough scale) can make a household totally water-independent.