Slow it, Spread it, Sink it:
Anyone can build an independent water supply
By Gabrielle Reed, managing editor at the homesteading blog Finding Country
Jesse Savou, the founder and owner of BlueBarrel Rainwater Catchment Systems, says DIYers come to her company for a simple, but effective way to collect and store rainwater. The unique online retail store specializes in rainwater catchment systems made from recycled 55 gallon plastic drums.
During a stint with AmeriCorps, Jesse worked with a community farm in Novato, California, about 30 miles from San Francisco and surrounded by thousands of acres of nature preserves. The farm needed a 1500 gallon rainwater catchment system, but on a budget, so no pricey materials or fancy equipment would work for the job.
An organic fertilizer producer out in the country held her saving grace: fields of barrels as far as the eye could see. She asked the owners if they’d be willing to donate those otherwise underutilized barrels and they were more than happy to have her take them off their hands.
Blue Barrels and Beyond
Now, Jesse Savou's company, BlueBarrel Rainwater Catchment Systems, partners with plastic recyclers, food producers, and other manufacturers across the country to source standard food grade barrels so she can replicate the design she created for the farm for others who are interested in saving water.
“The principle of rainwater harvesting is that you are catching the water that is falling off of your roof,” Jesse said.
With just 1,000 square feet of rooftop surface, you can generate over 600 gallons of water for every inch of rain that falls on it.
A Step Towards Self-Sufficiency and Sustainability
In Tennessee, we get an average of 54.7 inches of rain a year, which translates into approximately 32,820 gallons of water we have the potential to collect off the same 1,000 square-foot surface. That means a family of four could get more than 10 gallons per person per day for daily water usage and have enough water leftover for an 800 square-foot garden like the one belonging to local homesteader Nicole Sauce.
Nicole has lived on a 3.2 acre homestead for 14 years. For the sake of self-reliance, she has developed a system that allows her to take control of her water supply and quality.
It helps that she has a year-round spring at the base of a hill on her property, which she has pumped into a storage tank that then circulates that water to her house. Although she could connect to city water, she hasn’t hooked up to it for several reasons including superior water quality, cost savings, and the instability of public utilities in rural areas.
For Jesse Savou, however, rainwater harvesting is a step towards both self-sufficiency and sustainability. She’s from a drought-prone area with long, hot, and dry summers. In developed areas, much of the landscape has been paved over so that water washes off the surface and collects pollutants before getting dumped into waterways.
“What would the water be doing if your house weren’t there?” Jesse asked. “It would be falling on plants and bare soil, infiltrating into the ground, and recharging the groundwater.”
It’s a principle she refers to as “slow it, spread it, sink it,” and it’s a natural process we as humans can encourage through rainwater catchment.
“Without hardscape, that is what water would do,” Jesse said.
Whether the prospect of saving more money or the idea of controlling your water source and quality appeals to you, a water catchment system is a core piece of crafting a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
If you’re in an apartment or on multiple acres of land, you can start saving water and using it more efficiently today.
Take a Step Forward:
Beginner to Extreme Levels of Water Collection, Storage, and Purification
Pick a number of days as a goal (we recommend 7 days to start) and store one gallon per day per person. Devise a way to catch rainwater, even if it’s as simple as a pan on a deck railing. Use the water to wash ceramic dishes and metal utensils, clean your floors, flush your toilets, do your laundry, and water plants (if you have any). The water you catch will be non-potable, so avoid drinking it at this stage of your learning.
Try only using your stored water for a week for all your non-potable water needs, as listed above in the beginner section. Determine how many gallons are needed per person per week for these purposes based on your experiences from the 7-day experiment. This is your new goal.
For collection, build a rain barrel.
Jesse Savou reminds beginner rainwater collectors to focus on basic infrastructure first. Do you have gutters and downspouts you can pull the water into one place from?
You also need a surface, like a rooftop or even a shed, to collect rainwater off of. Lastly, you need stable and level ground to place your rain barrel on.
If you are renting, contact your landlord and ask for permission before installing a rainwater catchment system.
Store enough water for all of the non-potable uses for one week (washing dishes, cleaning non-food surfaces, laundry, gardening, etc.) and add 7 gallons per square foot of garden space you have or hope to have.
Nicole stores water in half gallon glass jars.
“Four gallons suffice for this purpose and I keep them in the house, but there are as many gallon stores as we have glass containers and this number grows each month,” she said.
Your rain barrels should be able to collect enough during an average month’s rainfall to meet these needs. Figure out how much water you can collect off of your roof with this handy rainwater catchment calculator. Buy a portable water filter.
Lastly, consider storing water for consumption. Trent Nessler, managing director of Baptist Sports Medicine in Nashville, recommends as a general guideline that people consume a half ounce to one ounce of water for every pound of body weight. Calculate how many ounces of water you and your family might need based on this guideline and add that amount to your storage goals.
Find out the longest period of drought in your area. This number multiplied by the daily amount of water your family needs for consumption, cleaning, showering, and gardening is your total storage goal.
Unless you have access to running water outside of the municipal supply, make sure you can collect enough from a roof. Create a catchment system to provide enough water to keep pace with your total projected usage. Blue Barrels Rainwater Catchment Systems might work for your needs, or you can find several DIY options through a quick Google search.
Finally, buy or build a large scale purifier that can handle that volume. Since we're adding drinking water to the mix at the extreme level, it's important to ensure that water you consume is safe. Get the water tested, and also use a purification system to ensure bacteria aren't lingering in it.
Nicole had the water in her creek tested before they started drawing water from it. She discovered she was in danger of coming into contact with E. Coli, a common inhabitant of spring water in rural America. Equipped with that knowledge, she bought the Berkey Water Filter so she could collect and purify the amount of water she expected to use from the creek.
“It [the Berkey Water Filter] leaves the trace minerals in our water which is great for health while filtering out the nasties. We are adding an infrared filter this year at the pump house so that people can drink the water from the tap should they wish.”