Rainwater collection dates back at least 3,000 years, and is still used in many remote areas worldwide. In South Australia, for example, more than 50 percent of homes rely on rainwater for some or all of their water needs. Throughout Australia, 16 percent of households use rainwater tanks, with 13 percent of households using tanks as their main drinking water source from 1994 to 2001. According to a 1994 survey, many Australians said they use rain tanks as a means of independently collecting a relatively pure product and using it without treatment, particularly without adding chemicals. The general public perception is that rainwater is safe to drink. In remote parts of Australia, using rainwater tanks to supply drinking water has been a long-standing and often essential practice. I recall rain barrels at a few neighboring farms as a youngster in the 1970s, but they were used mainly as a nutritious treat for houseplants. Rainwater collection on a large scale fell out of practice in the United States when rural electricity made windmills, hand pumps and rain barrels relics of the olden days.
Like many traditional country ways, however, rainwater collection is back in vogue. No longer a wooden barrel, tanks today are often plastic and can be purchased in an array of colors to match the house trim or blend inconspicuously into the rhododendrons. It has been so many years since I was connected to city waterlines, so I cannot even guess the cost. But I know they don’t just give water away. Rainwater collected from rooftops can significantly reduce household water costs and conserve this precious, dwindling resource. During spring and summer, 60 percent of the water Americans use is for watering grass and gardens. Among my all-time favorite birthday presents is the 425-gallon tank my husband bought for me at the start of our 2012 drought. Of course, we had no way of knowing we would not see water of any measure in the tank for months. But, oh, boy, when that tank filled for the first time, I was positively giddy. Our tank is food-grade polyethylene, made to fit in a pickup truck bed, and translucent for easy viewing of the water level. Darren caught it on sale at the local farm supply store, so there were no shipping costs. We easily managed the tank ourselves, setting it in place after creating a level spot under a downspout.
Since we like doing things on the cheap and keeping materials from the landfill, we made the tank mosquito-proof by fitting a circle of window screen fabric in the inlet hole. In the woods, I found an old aluminum flour canister that Darren drilled with holes to set on top of the screen, holding it firmly in place. It amazes me what people throw away – and where they chuck it.
The downspout is a piece of green 6” PVC pipe. Because there were no dark colored tanks to choose from, which greatly reduce algae growth, I made a tank cover from two thrift store bed sheets and leftover latex paint. I laid one sheet on top of the tank and drew around it with a marker. After cutting that out, I used my trusty treadle sewing machine to attach a skirt made from the other sheet, basically cut and sewn into a long, skinny rectangle. I left a seam open by the spout just so we could pull the flaps back and watch the rainwater fill the tank after a dry spell. I know, pretty exciting stuff for us hillbillies.
To weatherproof and darken the cloth, I put the cover on the tank and simply painted it with a wide brush. We’ve had the cover on the tank continuously for the past 18 months and it shows no signs of rotting or tearing. For protection from sun damage, we keep the cover on the tank even in winter, lengthening the plastic’s lifespan. The total cost was about $2 and four hours – about 250 times cheaper than the tank.
Instead of a cloth cover, I assume the tank itself could be painted. With the heavy downpours we sometimes get, however, I suspect I’d spend much time repainting it. Most algae are not a human health risk, but growth can adversely affect the smell and appearance of rainwater. Light-colored piping should also be painted a dark color to reduce algae growth. Also, rainwater tanks should be installed in a shady area whenever possible, but away from trees that could drop leaves onto it.
The Australian government has prepared an excellent online 72-page article explaining how to install, clean, maintain and use rainwater collection systems. Several useful charts in the document also detail identifying and eliminating sources of water contamination.
For instance: “Entry by small animals and birds to rainwater tanks can lead to direct fecal contamination, even if the animals escape from the tank. In some cases, animals become trapped in tanks and drown, leading to very high levels of contamination. In the case of larger animals, such as possums and cats, this will almost certainly have a distinctive impact on the taste and odor of the water.”
The article even discusses the care of roofs and gutters and advises against burning certain wood that can contaminate the water with toxins. Here is the link to the article.
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.