By Wayne Robertson – In my grandparents’ day, rain water harvesting was one of the best ways of conserving water. My grandmother collected rainwater in a barrel at the corner of the house for decades. She used it to wash clothes when she had a washboard and a big tub and then later when she had a wringer washer. It was easier to dip the water out of the barrel than to draw it out of the well. She also said the water was softer and made the clothes come cleaner. A chemical analysis of rain water will show that it does not have dissolved minerals that much of our well water has. Grandma also used rain water harvesting to collect water for her houseplants.
Here are 7 uses for the mineral-free water rain water harvesting produces:
- Watering transplants in the yard or garden.
- Humidifying the air in your house. Fill a pot with the rainwater and put it on the wood-burning cookstove. Unsightly minerals do not collect in the pot.
- Flushing the toilet in an emergency. (When the electricity is off and the well pump does not work.)
- Drinking and cooking. Be sure to boil the water. Your local health department can give the details for your area and altitude.
- Washing windows and windshields—with fewer streaks.
- Filling the car radiator for engine cooling. (My grandfather did this for his old cars and trucks.)
- Watering animals. Your rain barrel may be near the chicken shed, but your chicken shed may not be near a spigot.
Here are some practical tips for rain water harvesting:
- Be sure to clean the barrel well before using it. If hazardous materials were stored in it, look for another one.
- Angle the barrel so that any overflow will run away from the foundation of the house or building.
- You may want to cover the barrel with an old window screen to keep out any leaves or other debris. (Ed. Note: You may also want to cover any barrels in close proximity to the chickens. Some fowl haven’t learned their feathers aren’t waterproof, and will fall in and drown when reaching for a drink.)
- For washing or engine cooling, you may want to filter the water through cheesecloth to keep out litter, like my grandmother did.
- Once a year or so it is a good idea to turn the barrel over and clean the inside. A broom is good for this, since it has a long handle.
- Plastic barrels do not rust as metal barrels can. Both last through the winter, at least here in southern Virginia.
- When cutting the top out of the rain water storage barrel, be sure to leave the ring in place since it gives strength to the barrel.
Here is a reason to be cautious when utilizing rain water harvesting if you are homesteading today. Some locations have acid rain, which may not be good for your purposes. Some coal-fired smokestacks spew out sulfur dioxide. Locations downwind can get the acid rain when the sulfur dioxide reacts with the rainwater and produces sulfuric acid (the kind used in car batteries). Other pollutants may be a problem too. If you are suspicious, you may want to have your rainwater tested.
It has been many years since my grandmother used rain water harvesting, but today a rain barrel is still a good idea, even if you have running water. If you are interested in harvesting your rain water, we encourage you to learn more about solar water heaters and DIY grey water systems, which are great for watering your garden.
Originally published in Countryside 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.
BONUS: How to Make a Rain Water Storage Barrel
By Don Herol
• Electric drill fitted with 15/16 drill bit
• Saber or hand saw
• Plastic drum
• PVC cement
• 3/4-inch male thread spigot with slant head
1. Drill a 15/16-inch hole at the first even part of the barrel (6–8 inches from the bottom).
2. Screw a 3/4-inch spigot about half way into the hole. This is going to be a very snug fit.
3. Apply the cement to the exposed threads and finish screwing the spigot into the drum.
4. If using a downspout, use the saw to cut a hole the size of the downspout into the lid so that the downspout fits snugly. Caulking can be applied where the downspout meets the lid.
5. If your home does not have a gutter system, you can remove the lid and place the screen material over the top, then screw on the black band over the screen to keep it tight.
6. Elevate the barrel on two or three sets of concrete blocks. This will allow easier access to the spigot and provide additional water pressure.
7. If using the downspout method you will need to provide an overflow downspout near the top of the barrel to direct the overflow into a specific area. If you are using the screen the overflow will come out of the top, so an additional hole will not need to be cut.
• Be sure to use food-grade barrels.
• A 45-gallon drum can be filled with just a half inch of rainfall.
• White barrels will disintegrate quickly in warm climates. Colored barrels hold up better.
• It is easier to clean out debris from barrels with removable lids.
• Be sure your barrel is on a flat surface, so it doesn’t tip over.
Originally published in Countryside 2005 and regularly vetted for accuracy.