Rainwater Harvest Makes Sense

Those of you who have been with me for a while know that I have a thing about rainwater. It’s free, it’s clean (until it hits the ground and becomes problematic stormwater), and it’s “passive”, meaning that it comes to us all on its own.  It’s becoming increasingly common to take advantage of this passive resource by using rainbarrels as a source for outdoor water use, but some of us crazy people take it up a notch by harvesting rainwater for our homes. 

For the last four years our family has been well served by the cistern on what we affectionately refer to as the “boat house” (a glorified garage which houses our canoes, kayaks, and small sailboat), using the water for outdoor solar showers (the best!), clothes washing, hosing down boats, watering plants, and (after filtration) drinking and cooking. It’s worked so well, that when we started to plan for a cottage we knew that we wanted to incorporate a rainwater harvest system. This immediately caught the imagination of our architect, David Day of Charlottesville VA, who conceived a roof patterned after an over-sized skate with its wings turned up to capture water and funnel it down its back into a 1,000-gallon (3,800-liter) cistern below.

Neither David nor our builder Ed Larkins of nearby Kinsale had ever incorporated a rainwater harvest system into one of their projects, but by teaming up with Rainwater Management Solutions we were able to capitalize on their 17+ years of pioneering experience to have a state-of-the-art system that my husband and I, neither of whom are very technically adept, could manage. Though rainwater harvest systems are becoming somewhat more common in areas like Austin TX, they are still the anomaly in most parts of the country.

While ours may be the only rainwater harvest system for potable use in the Northern Neck of Virginia (does anyone know of others?), it’s really  pretty simple once you understand the components. Click through the slides below to get a sense of how it works.

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This is what it looks like behind the scenes, but when you’re in the house taking a shower or getting a glass of water it all works like a conventional home water delivery system. The user doesn’t know the difference.

But you’re probably wondering what it cost.  All told, the system cost $8,290, a price which will surely come down if these practices become more widely adopted.  That seems like a lot of money until you compare it to the alternatives. Our well and pump, which the state required us to install as a redundancy, was just about the same price: $7,900.  While most people would just drill a well and leave it at that, someone who is faced with drilling a replacement well (perhaps due to contamination or low performance) might look very favorably on a rainwater system as a very reasonable option.  It becomes especially attractive when you factor in the environmental benefits (reduced depletion of groundwater, reduced stormwater runoff), and health benefits. Well water, especially in agricultural areas, may be contaminated with high nitrates, agricultural chemicals, or disease-causing bacteria and viruses, not to mention naturally occurring minerals like lead, copper, or arsenic. The filtration and UV disinfection provided by the rainwater harvest system protects families from these concerns.

I’ve also wondered whether rainwater harvest systems might be good alternatives for some urban dwellers, especially those faced with the cost of replacing a lead service line. Between the avoided cost of replacing the service line and the savings on monthly water bills, in some communities I have to believe it would pencil out financially.  Water utilities aren’t likely to be too happy about it unless they can find a way to provide this distributed water service themselves. And that, my friends, is another topic for another day.

 

 

 

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