Environmental Benefits of Rainwater Harvesting + Free Webinar

Enjoy a free webinar on this topic!

Learn the whats, whys and hows of rainwater harvesting with BlueBarrel's founder and owner, Jesse Savou. Live webinar was hosted by Daily Acts on April 21st, 2020, the eve of Earth Day's 50th anniversary, and the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic. Click the image to play the recording:

Environmental Benefits of Rainwater Harvesting

April is Earth Month. What if you could make a big difference just by installing a few rain barrels?

You've heard rainwater harvesting is good for the environment, but if you're like most, you can't explain exactly why.

Here are a few quick points followed by some key details for why rainwater harvesting is absolutely vital for making local ecology and the global water cycle thrive.

Environmental Benefits of Rainwater HarvestingRainwater harvesting is a great way to: 

  • Protect your local watershed;
  • Make your garden more resilient in the face of droughts, floods, and fire;
  • Restore the hydrologic cycle;
  • Recharge groundwater;
  • Reduce your carbon footprint;
  • Maintain healthy soils;
  • Keep your garden lush and healthy (which, in-turn, enriches habitat and helps to regulate local temperatures and precipitation);
  • Lessen the effects of wet and dry spells;
  • Mitigate impacts of climate change;
  • Utilize recycled materials (a given, if you choose BlueBarrel!)

Environmental Benefits of Rainwater Harvesting Explained

Most of us know that rainwater harvesting is good for the environment, but we need a little help articulating why. Here are five major ways you align with Mother Earth when you capture rainwater for on-site use:

 

1. Reduce your Draw on Stressed Systems

drought
(Conserve Water)

Aging water infrastructure is expensive to update; and groundwater and reservoirs are often overdrawn. When you supply a portion of your own water from the rain that falls on your roof, you reduce your draw on these stressed systems.

 

2. Restore the Hydrologic Cycle (a.k.a Water Cycle)

(Reduce Stormwater Impacts & Recharge Groundwater)

Environmental Benefits of Rainwater HarvestingIn a natural landscape, approximately 50% of stormwater infiltrates into the ground, hydrating soils and recharging groundwater. About 40% evaporates, and only 10% runs off.

In developed landscapes, by contrast (e.g. our neighborhoods); only 15% infiltrates and a whopping 55% runs off! This is because water can't penetrate hardscape (roads, rooftops, parking lots, etc...).

When you collect rainwater to use in your garden, you reduce stormwater impacts by holding water on-site rather than letting it run off. As you release it later (when the ground is no longer saturated), you allow that water to sink back into the ground where it belongs, hydrating soils, nourishing plants, and recharging the groundwater beneath us. In other words, you restore the broken infiltration link in the hydrologic cycle.  If you've heard the mantra: Slow it, Spread it, Sink it, Store it! that's what we're talking about here (as opposed to Pump it, Pipe it, Pollute it!).

 

Stream ecosystem

3. Protect your Local Watershed

(Reduce Pollution & Erosion)

When rainwater infiltrates onsite, it is filtered naturally by the earth, and is prevented from entering storm drains and surface waters as polluted runoff. Left unmitigated, rainwater sheets off roofs and paved surfaces, collecting contaminants along the way. When stormwater runs heavy, it causes stream banks to erode as well, causing further damage to our sensitive waterways and wildlife habitat. According to the EPA, stormwater runoff is the number one source of pollution in the USA. When you Slow it, Spread it, Sink it, Store it on your site, you prevent this from happening.

 

4. Reduce your Carbon Footprint

Footprints on beach(Mitigate Climate Change by Reducing Energy Use)

There is a strong nexus between energy and water in our modern world. In the state of California, for example, heating, treating, and transporting water accounts for over 20% of per-capita energy use! When you reduce your reliance on pumped and treated water sources, you contribute to a collective savings in energy at the same time.

Better yet, if you pair your rainwater catchment system with a user-friendly gravity-fed drip irrigation system, you don't need any electricity at all to run your irrigation.

 

5. Increase the Health of Your Garden 

Butterfly in Garden

(Mitigate Climate Change with Healthier Plants & Soils)

It's no coincidence that plants love rainwater better than any other water source. Not only is rain free of the salts, chemicals and minerals found in other water sources; by nature's design it has the perfect pH balance and nitrate delivery, ready for uptake by your thirsty garden.

Benefit from the beauty of a healthy plant and soil ecosystem, while the earth benefits from all that a healthy garden provides... including cleaner air, carbon sink, pollinator habitat, temperature and precipitation regulation, and more!

 

The Deeper Why: How Rainwater Harvesting Heals the Earth

We just threw a few biggies at you, so let's break down some of these environmental concepts a little more. What do we mean by temperature and precipitation regulation? Here's where we can really start to understand the interconnected nature of Earth's vital systems, and why carbon reductions alone do not address the deepest roots of climate change.

Have you heard of the urban heat island effect? Temperatures in urban areas are significantly warmer than in immediately surrounding natural areas because dark rooftops and pavement absorb extra heat that then radiates back into the environment. The more we can vegetate our towns and cities, the more we will regulate temperatures. Vegetation in urban areas also helps to improve air quality.

And precipitation regulation? Believe it or not, a lush garden will actually make rain. Get this: plants evapotranspirate, meaning they uptake water from the soils, and emit water vapor into the sky, which contributes to cloud formation. Plants also release bacteria that form "water nuclei" that attract water molecules to form rain drops. Plants ask mother nature for a drink, and she provides. Between adding more moisture to the atmosphere and sending up water nuclei to ask for rain, a landscape of lush gardens will summon more rainfall than a parched one.

Just imagine: by tapping into the otherwise-wasted water source that comes from your roof, you can create abundance in your own backyard. If others do the same, we collectively have the power to bring vitality back to an ailing environment.

 

So What Are You Waiting For?

No need to imagine any longer. With a full understanding of the environmental benefits of rainwater harvesting, you can align with Mother Earth and start collecting rain today. Click here to get started!

BlueBarrel Logo - Earth Day

Everything You Need to Know (and More!) About Doing Laundry with Rainwater

And exploration of laundry with rainwater, by guest blogger  Linda Holliday

Economy of using rainwater in the laundry room

Whether our goal is to save money or the environment, most of us detest wasting anything. Many folks may not realize, however, how much soap is squandered in the laundry room when washing clothes in hard water — rather than naturally soft rainwater.

These jeans will stand by themselves after being washed in hard water!

As most homesteaders rely on water pumped from far below ground to fill their washing machines, and hard water is prevalent in vast regions of the United States, soap-wasting is widespread. I hail from the Missouri Ozarks atop a karst (limestone) terrain. Our water is exceedingly hard, meaning it contains a considerable quantity of dissolved minerals, mainly calcium and magnesium. Iron and manganese are also often present in hard water.

Those minerals, while safe to drink, make soap less effective, smearing into a grayish cream with no lather. Because soap does not dissolve in hard water, much of it will remain in the materials being washed, leave scum in the wash basin, or simply go down the drain. Here, jeans laundered in well water can stand on their own after line-drying on a breezeless day.

Hard water can even shorten the life of fabrics. Over time, this buildup of soap makes clothing grimy, drab and discolored. Sadly, pretty garments often end up in the rag bin far sooner than necessary.

Municipal water, in most cases, also comes from drilled wells or reservoirs of hard water that is then chemically treated to reduce hardness.

 

Laundry with Rainwater

Hard Water Map

U.S. Geological Survey Hard Water Map.  General guidelines: 0 to 60 mg/L (milligrams per liter) is soft; 61 to 120 mg/L is moderately hard; 121 to 180 mg/L is hard; and more than 180 mg/L is very hard.

Rainwater, on the other hand, contains concentrations of sodium and potassium ions that dissolve soap and lift soil. Just a few generations ago, folks would bathe and wash clothes in rainwater with no soap whatsoever. Great-grandma knew the cleaning properties of rainwater and always saved enough to wash her hair.

In the 1906 classic, “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, protagonist Jurgis Rudkus finally eliminated months of slaughterhouse and fertilizer plant grime from himself by scrubbing his body and clothes with sand in a stream. Hard Chicago water couldn’t get the poor fellow clean.

In many countries it is common to see families bathing and doing laundry in local rivers and streams.

 

Soap vs. detergent

We often use the terms, “soap” and “detergent” to mean the same thing, but there is a vast difference. Soap is basically made of an alkali (historically plant ashes) and a fat or oil (animal or vegetable). By itself, the alkali substance is corrosive and injurious to cloth and skin. Combined with fats in soft water, it is safe to use on skin and fabric. Detergents, as explained below, are manufactured with petrochemicals and/or oleochemicals.

The original reference “The Laundry Manual; or Washing Made Easy” of 1863 states, recommends soaking heavily soiled clothing and linens overnight to loosen dirt before washing, thereby reducing wear to fabrics by vigorous rubbing and scrubbing. Rainwater, of course, is best for presoaking.

“Soft water is of itself a good solvent, even of the oily materials that collect upon the linen worn in contact with the body,” the book states.

For years, I have collected such books as I have found them to be the source of much wisdom. For those who prefer learning in an electronic format, Open Library.org has thousands of old-time books in the public domain to download for free. Search for household cleaning or laundry work for information on rainwater uses. Remember, these books were written when every home had a rain barrel beneath the downspout.

Besides relearning old-fashioned skills in my antique books, occasionally I am amused and more appreciative of living in modern times. Consider this bit of housework advice at the onset of the Civil War:

“We have found by experience that the use of the above recipe [presoaking and then boiling laundry] is the best friend to the washer-woman ever invented. By it one person can do the washing for a family of ten or fifteen persons before breakfast, have the clothes out to dry, and the house kept in good order, and the gentlemen of the family, as well as all about the house, free from washing-day annoyances, and all without rubbing or machinery. Who would not wish to have such comforts?”

I suspect there are not many 15-person households in the United States these days, and of course the “gentlemen” are doing plenty of laundry themselves!

 

Potions needed for hard-water laundry

When animal and vegetable fats and oils became scarce during World Wars I and II (as they were needed for making bombs), scientists developed petroleum-based detergents to replace soap and make cleaning more effective in hard water, according to the American Cleaning Institute. At that time, petroleum was found to be a plentiful source for manufacturing detergents.

Today, there are a host of chemical laundry aids available to contribute to the effectiveness of detergents, particularly in hard water:

Bleaches – to whiten and brighten fabrics

Bluing –to counteract natural yellowing of fabric

Boosters – used with detergent to enhance stain removal

Enzyme presoaks – to remove stains and boost a detergent’s cleaning power

Fabric softeners – added to the final rinse to make fabrics soft and fluffy, decrease static cling, wrinkling, and drying time, to impart a pleasant smell and make ironing easier

Prewash soil and stain removers – to pretreat heavily soiled or stained garments

Starches, fabric finishes and sizing – used in the final rinse or after drying to give body to fabrics, make them more soil-resistant and make ironing easier

Water softeners – added to the wash or rinse cycle to inactivate hard water minerals and increase cleaning power.

 

Rainwater laundry methods

Amish Wringer Laundry

Open-top wringer washing machines can still be found at farm auctions and are easy to fill with rainwater.

While making your clothing smell like a springtime meadow, such supplements add more time and expense to laundry day – and are completely unnecessary if doing laundry with rainwater and natural soap. Incidentally, one needn’t have a washtub to clean clothes in rainwater. If a washing machine is in a basement, a hose can be routed from the rain barrel to gravity-feed water to the machine. A valve at the discharge end makes filling the machine easier, although it must be monitored to prevent overflow.

Or, for the more physically ambitious, the machine can be filled more quickly by bucket. Depending on load size, the wash and rinse cycle each require about 15 gallons of water. Wringer washing machines from the 1950s work especially well like this.

 

Testing water for hardness

Generally, it is obvious by the rigidity of line-dried garments and by scum or scale left on tubs, sinks and toilets whether the household’s water is hard or soft. For a quantified result, inexpensive water test kits are available in hardware stores. Also, many county health departments will test well water for impurities and hardness for a small fee.

Hard Water Test

The glass on the left is filled with rainwater, clearing dissolving soap and forming suds. The soap did not dissolve in the glass on the right, filled with hard water.

For the do-it-yourselfer, “Household Discoveries” of 1909 explains an easy way to discern if your water is fit for laundry purposes. Simply dissolve a dab of good white soap (not detergent) in a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol. Put a few drops of this in a glass of water. “If the water is pure, the soap solution will be dissolved and the water will continue limpid, but if it is impure the soap will form into white flakes which will tend to float on the surface.” Results will be readily apparent.

For comparison, I filled two glasses of water – one from our drilled well and the other from the rain barrel. I mashed up a small chunk of my favorite homemade goat milk soap in rubbing alcohol and put equal drops in both glasses. The soap disappeared immediately in the rainwater, but never dissolved or formed suds in the well water. After an hour, the well water glass had a scummy ring on top. The rainwater glass never did – even after sitting overnight.

 

Softening hard water naturally

“Household Discoveries” lists numerous ways to soften hard water, such as by boiling with baking soda or wood ashes tied in a woolen bag or adding chalk, potash, borax, soda lye or quicklime and then incorporating air by repeatedly pouring the modified water from one container at some height to a tub at length.

All of the above water-softening steps and aforementioned chemical cleaning agents can be avoided by simply collecting and using rainwater. As an added plus, doing laundry with rainwater will also save money – and the environment.

 

About Linda Holliday

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, LLC, a company that designs and builds devices – including the WaterBuck Pump – to help people live more self-sufficiently, especially regarding water. Linda is a Mother Earth News blogger, former newspaper editor and reporter and has been featured in national publications such as “Grit” and “Farm Show Magazine.”

 

To First Flush, or not to First Flush

An exploration of the first flush diverter by Jesse Savou, ARCSA A.P., Founder of BlueBarrel Rainwater Catchment Systems

To First Flush or not to First Flush: It's a topic of much discussion in the rainwater harvesting world. A first flush diverter (also known as a roof washer) is a simple contraption that diverts the first flow of water away from a rainwater catchment system. The first pass of water in any storm essentially washes your roof of all the sediments that have collected since the last rain. The idea is that diverting the first flush can help ensure cleaner water in your rain tanks or barrels.

Sounds like a good idea, right?
It turns out many rainwater harvesting professionals don't think so.
As a case in point, all 5 panelists at the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association's national conference in 2013 agreed that they prefer not to use first flushes. In a separate session of the same conference, keynote speaker Barnabas Kane of TBK Design also highlighted his distaste for first flush diverters, noting that over the years he's been hired to remove more of them than to put them in.
First Flush Diverter
In this photo, the straight-pipe to the right of the tank is a first flush diverter. Water enters the straight-pipe first, and as sediments sink to the bottom, additional water spills over into the rain tank.

So why wouldn't we use a first flush diverter if it's so easy to do?

In fact, there are many reasons:

 

1. First flush diverters need to be sized correctly for optimal performance, and this is difficult if not impossible to do.
There are many variables that go into determining the optimal size for a first flush diverter. These include rainfall intensity and duration; length of time between rains; roof size, slope, and material; gutter size; wind direction and speed; and air quality. Since most of these factors can vary tremendously even in a single location, you may find that the "optimal size" for your first flush diversion is different for every storm.  And yes, a mis-sized first flush is a bad thing:

If your first flush is too big, you limit your ability to fill your collection tanks. Rainfall abstraction refers to the amount of water that is prevented from reaching your rain barrels or tanks. You can use a rainfall calculator to figure out how much water your rooftop generates, but you'll have to subtract the amount that a first flush diverts... every single time it rains.

If your first flush is too small, the unit will be overwhelmed and sediments will enter your primary storage anyway. In fact, if you have accumulated sediments in your first flush diverter from prior storms, you may even introduce extra particulates to your rain collection system. And this leads us into the maintenance issue...

healthy plants and soils
The organic matter that accumulates on your roof between rains is actually good for your plants and soils. Why divert what amounts to a light application of fertilizer? (See #5.)
2. A first flush diverter is the only part of a rainwater system that requires significant maintenance, and if neglected, it can worsen the problem it aims to solve.
Luckily for most of us, non-potable rainwater catchment systems are amazingly low-maintenance. However, first flush diverters must be cleaned out regularly in order to serve their purpose, and in fact should be emptied prior to every storm event to prevent mixing diverted ("dirty") water with fresher flow. Professionals have witnessed that even the most well-meaning user will neglect this maintenance and reap the consequences.
First flush diverters can be designed with a continuous drain to eliminate the need to empty between rains, but with so much "bleeding," this can be a liability, especially in climates with light rains and/or long dry seasons. It is like having a constant leak that draws water away from your rain tanks or barrels.
3. First flush diverters create a weak point in the conveyance system.
A first flush diverter is usually made of exposed pipe material. This makes it more vulnerable to physical impacts and freeze-cracking than other parts of the rainwater catchment system. Since a first flush device is "upstream" of the storage tanks by design, a damaged first flush will divert too much water—and potentially all water—from the storage vessels. This will result in slow fill rates, or even empty tanks.
4. You have to screen the water anyway. Does a first flush diverter provide additional benefit?
Many states have adopted code to establish simple standards for building safe and effective rain catchment systems. In the state of California, for example, one key requirement is that systems must be equipped with a "debris excluder" (e.g. a leaf eater), and in fact all openings must be protected by 16th" mesh, including the inlet.  This mesh keeps particulates from clogging the system, and also prevents the entrance of insects and other small creatures. If the code requires screening as the preferred method for rough-filtration at the intake, what we're left to determine is whether there's significant additional benefit to adding a first flush diversion.
Leaf-Eater-Installed1
This photo shows a debris excluder ("leaf eater"): the white screened box that prevents debris from entering the rain barrel system. These rain barrels are used for garden irrigation, so there is no need for an additional first flush. The clear plastic inlet hose can be manually detached if the user wants to divert the first rain of the season.
5. It turns out plants actually like the organic matter that the first flush of rain delivers.
If you are harvesting water for irrigation use (as most of our customers do), the plants actually benefit from the organic accumulation that the first flush delivers. Why go to the effort to divert what amounts to a nice fertilizer mix? In the case of non-potable rain catchment systems that are used primarily for garden irrigation, a first flush may be attempting to solve a problem that's not really a problem.
6. It may be easier to divert the first flush manually.
You may find that only the very first rain of the season is dirty enough to justify diverting. Rather than losing all that water in subsequent rains, take the control into your own hands and remove your downspout diverter while the first storm washes your roof. This may be one of the world's greatest ironies, but if an automatic first flush requires manual emptying after every storm, the manual first flush method described here requires less manual input than the "automatic."

Decide for yourself, but all in all, at BlueBarrel we find that first flush diversions are just that: a diversion. With the benefits so questionable, why not focus on what really matters: collecting the abundant fresh water source that falls on your roof. You have no time to lose!

Summer Inspiration: Why Summer is the Best Time to Install a Rainwater Collection System

Summer is upon us and depending on where you live, rain may be the last thing on your mind. In the arid western United States, skies can be dry from May to October with only the occasional off-season storm.

In the rest of the country, however, rain falls much more regularly throughout the year, with summer storms recharging rain barrels at intervals – perfect for irrigating during the short “droughts” between rains.

USA Climate Precipitation Graph

The red line on the right shows precipitation in the arid west (San Francisco, to be exact!), with the green band showing the more even distribution of precipitation throughout the USA on average. The graph on the left shows those soaring summer temps!

 

Ice Cold LemonadeBut regardless of where you live, this article makes the case that summer is your absolute best bet for seeing your rainwater harvesting project through to completion.

Just imagine pitching your shovel at the end of a warm summer evening, drawing up a glass of cold lemonade (or brewed beverage of choice!), and admiring a rainwater catchment system that’s ready for the rainy season…. and every cell in your body exclaiming: Ahhhhhhh that feels good!

Knowing you’re protecting the environment, getting prepared for emergencies, increasing self-sufficiency and resilience in your garden, providing the highest quality water possible for your plants, and saving money on your water/sewer bill are all part of the equation; but finishing a well-thought-out summer project just plain feels great. With long days to think, plan, and play in the garden, now is your chance.

 

Why is summer the best time to build a rainwater catchment system?

 

1. You’ve got time to plan

It doesn’t need to be complicated, but some folks like to do a careful job sizing and siting a rain collection system. Find the perfect spot, figure out how much water is available from your rooftop, think through your layout, and order your materials! We surveyed our customers this year, and found that most spend 30 – 90 minutes on our website customizing their BlueBarrel System, so it’s best to get a head start. Summer days are long, and many of us have lighter work and school schedules during the summer holidays.

2. You’ve got dry ground to build on

Even though this project is all about rain, the truth is, nobody wants to be rained on while

Summer Garden Work

Summer’s the time for garden projects!

they’re working. Installing a BlueBarrel System is an intermediate-level DIY project. If you have any leveling to do, you’ll want dry ground to work with.

3. You’re all set and ready for fall’s first catch (in the west)… or the next summer storm (for the rest)!

At the solstice, summer can feel like a long lazy road stretched out in front of us. But as June turns over to July, suddenly August is near and it’s almost time to resume the busy autumn bustle. Once those fall rains return, you’ve lost your chance to harvest autumn’s first rainfall. Remember that cold lemonade (or brewed beverage of choice)? It’ll taste better in the summer after you’ve triumphed over this incredibly worthy project.

3. You won’t have to wait in line

Many folks contact us right around the time of the first autumn rain hoping to make the best of the year’s capture. The truth is by that time, once you figure your sizing, siting, budget, and path forward, you’ve missed the first set of storms. Then you have to find some dry days to install the system when everybody in the rainwater world is scrambling. If you’re opting for a professional installation, you might find yourself in line as many hopeful rainwater harvesters compete for winter’s dry days. Summer’s slower pace offers a much more spacious experience for rainwater-harvesters-to-be.

So why wait? Here are a few simple steps to get you going. Click the image to get started…. and remember that cold glass of lemonade awaits you!

Plan your rain barrel system

Rainwater for Gardens: Why Plants Love Rainwater Best

by Jesse (Froehlich) Savou, ARCSA A.P.

It might not come as a surprise that there's no water plants love better than rainwater. Imagine your thirsty plants doused in droplets fallen fresh from the sky, their leaves expertly channeling the bounty down stalks and into the soil—right to the root zone where it is needed most. Read on to learn about rainwater for gardens!

Plants Love Rain—It's Just Natural!

YoungPlantsLoveRainwater

Why is rainwater such a preferred water source? There is more than just one reason—in fact there are four!:

1. Rainwater is 100% soft water. Free of the salts, minerals, treatment chemicals, and pharmaceuticals that are found in municipal water, groundwater, and surface water, rainwater is pure hydration. Salts and chemicals build up in your soil over time and these residues are tough on plants. This effect is exaggerated in potted plants where the accumulation is more pronounced.

2. Rainwater is slightly acidic—naturally! Green gardeners know that most organically grown plants prefer soil pH levels between 5.5 and 6.5. This is on the acidic side of the neutral pH 7, and by nature's design, it is the exact pH range for rainwater. City water, on the other hand, is treated to be alkaline to protect metal pipes from corroding, and can have a pH level upwards of 8.5. Greywater (once-used household water from a laundry machine, shower, or bathroom sink) will start with the same pH as your tap water, but can have a pH as high as 10.5 once it gets to the garden depending on the types of soaps and detergents that are in it. Irrigate with rainwater to flush out your soil and help keep your soil pH in perfect balance ongoingly!

3. Stored rainwater contains some organic matter. If collected from your rooftop, rainwater contains traces of organic material. While the water is very clean and should run clear, it has been exposed to anything on your roof. We're not talking about chunks (these get pre-filtered out on their way into properly-designed rain barrels)--we're just talking about contact exposure to leaf litter, pollen, bird droppings and the like (which perhaps not surprisingly are great for your plants). A rain barrel hosts a beneficial biology to keep the water alive - literally. It's like a light application of fertilizer every time you water!

4. Rain contains nitrates—an important macro-nutrient. Rainwater contains nitrate - the most bio-available form of nitrogen. Nitrogen is one of the three key macro-nutrients that plants need to thrive--necessary for the development of lush foliage. Many forms of nitrogen are not actually absorbable by plants. Nitrates, which are made up of nitrogen and oxygen, are formulated by nature for maximum uptake by your plants. Plants typically absorb most of their nitrates from the soil. And where do those nitrates come from? Rain!

Plants have very unique ways of gathering moisture from the air and delivering it to their root zones. Nature's design!
Plants have very unique ways of gathering moisture from the air and delivering it to their root zones. Nature's design!

On a personal note, before I discovered rainwater, I doubted I would ever be able to keep a house plant alive. I had somewhat better luck outdoors in the garden, but little did I know that the potted plants were really suffering from the salt, chemical, and mineral buildup of tap water. Then I learned about watering with rainwater.  Rainwater straight from my rain barrels into a watering can is what I use for my potted plants and nursery starts. A gravity fed drip line allows me to apply rainwater directly to my in-ground garden with no effort at all. And what a difference it makes. Suddenly I have a green thumb... but (shhh, don't tell.... rather, tell EVERYBODY!) : the secret is the water.

Our friends at HarvestH2o provide more detail about appropriate uses for rainwater, greywater, and city water here.

Plant health is just one of the many benefits of harvesting rainwater. Click here for a handful of great reasons to collect the rain that falls on your roof!

Rainwater vs. Greywater

Rainwater and greywater are two terms we’re hearing more often amongst the eco-conscious—especially when it comes to do-it-yourself (DIY) water conservation for the home and garden.

Rainwater collection and greywater reuse are wonderful ways to nourish a garden while making the most out of every last drop of water. But it’s important to understand that rainwater and greywater are not the same. Their applications are complimentary, but they are different.

The difference between rainwater and greywater

Rainwater is fresh precipitation straight from the sky. Completely free of salts, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and minerals; it’s naturally pure, and the cleanest water our hydrologic cycle offers. Of course to get that water into rainwater tanks, most of us collect from the roof, which means there’s some accumulation of organic matter. But by all accounts, this water (organic cooties and all) is universally appreciated by a thirsty garden. In fact, rainwater is the absolute best water for your plants. To your plants, those cooties are fertilizer!

Greywater is once-used household water, discharged from washing machines, showers, tubs, and bathroom sinks. This can also be a great source of irrigation water if the household uses greywater-safe products. You’ll notice kitchen sinks aren’t on the greywater list. By most standards, kitchen sink discharge is considered blackwater because of the bacterial load (think raw meat!), so in sum, you can think of greywater as “everything but the kitchen sink” (and of course the toilet).

 

How do I irrigate with rainwater vs. greywater?

Rainwater/Greywater Oasis

This Santa Rosa home uses rainwater for the drip-irrigated edibles, while greywater serves the fruit trees and medicinals around the perimeter.

 

Because rainwater is relatively clean, it can be stored safely for long periods of time and released at the gardener’s discretion. Particulates are filtered out on the way into the tanks, cisterns, or barrels, so the water doesn’t contain anything chunky that might lead to growth or clogs.

Many people use stored rainwtaer to hand-water potted plants (which are particularly sensitive to salt and chemical buildup from other water sources); or to irrigate garden beds—even edibles!—through a simple gravity-fed drip irrigation line.

Greywater, on the other hand, is not recommended for storage and is best distributed directly onto the landscape (released a couple of inches below the soil’s surface). Complex greywater systems may be designed with surge tanks to gain a little more control over distribution rate, but an automatic pump is used to keep that water cycling out at least every 24 hours—lest it become blackwater!

The Laundry-to-Landscape (or L2L) setup is one of the more popular systems for DIY greywater gardeners, and in many areas can be done without a permit. Laundry discharge is diverted through a pipe that leads out of your house and directly into a series of mulch basins in your garden.

Because greywater contains lint and suds, it is not recommended for potted plants or for drip irrigation lines (that’s what rainwater is for!). That said, it’s a wonderful water source for less sensitive perennial plantings, shrubs, vines and trees—even fruit trees. In sum, greywater is great for plants that can handle the irregular flood-load of water that comes when you do laundry, and that won’t suffer from the stuff in the water.

What about showers and sinks? Whereas laundry discharge can be intercepted without cutting into any potable plumbing lines, sinks and showers are a different story. Many people collect greywater from sink and shower drains but these systems require a permit in most jurisdictions, and often require the help of a professional.

 

 

How can I incorporate rainwater AND greywater in my garden?

First of all, if you’re asking that question, you’re awesome. Bravo!

You can and should incorporate both rainwater and greywater into your eco-paradise. In fact, they are ideal in tandem (see the photo example above).

Since rainwater and greywater have different properties and are suited to different kinds of plants and irrigation strategies, you can maximize your efficiency by using both—but we recommend you think of them as two separate systems.

For example:

Imagine an edible garden served by hyper-efficient drip irrigation, surrounded by a gorgeous border of perennials, medicinals, pollinator attractors, flowering vines, and fruit trees. Potted plants bring life to the inside of the home. (Perhaps this sounds like YOUR garden!)

Now add a series of rain barrels (ahem, a BlueBarrel System!) to service your drip irrigation line clog-free (yes, rainwater is suitable for edibles!), and for hand-watering those sensitive potted plants.

Next, redirect your laundry discharge (a.k.a. greywater) around the border of your garden where you have all those wonderful shrubs and perennials that will handle the flood-load. The greywater gets a push from your washer’s pump, so it can make it around the border.

 

 

THE “GREY” AREA: shower warmup water

If I dare mix metaphors (and colors), it’s worth mentioning that shower warmup water (i.e. the potable bounty that us water-geeks collect in buckets while we wait for our showers to warm up…) is in a category on its own.

Many think of shower warmup as greywater, and it certainly is greywater once it hits the drain. But if we intercept it in a clean container, this is actually potable water with many potential reuses. I personally use my shower warmup to flush the toilet, only because it’s right there.

But shower warmup water can be stored along with your rainwater, and we’ve had quite a few BlueBarrelers do just that. Shower warmup water can be directed out the bathroom window through a hose that connects directly to a vent on your BlueBarrel System; or you can use a funnel to pour this extra water in by hand.

 

In conclusion…

You should do rainwater, and you should do greywater, but you probably shouldn’t combine them into one system… unless you REALLY know what you’re doing. But then again, if you recognize that the ideal uses for rainwater and greywater are so compatible, you may still achieve your best and most sustainable design by employing the two systems side by side.

 

 

HOW TO:

Check out the DIY resources for rainwater at:

And for greywater:

 

 

Meet BlueBarrel on Video!

BlueBarrel is a resource for do-it-yourself rainwater catchment. This video introduces you to the BlueBarrel Rainwater Catchment System™ and the environmental benefits of capturing rainwater on your site. We offer all of the tools and resources you need to build your own rainwater catchment system.

Check out our 2-minute video – and share with your friends to spread the word about BlueBarrel!