As I type on my photovoltaic-powered desktop computer and consider the most important preparation I’ve made to “survive and thrive,” undoubtedly, it has been procuring sizable amounts of potable water. Think about it. Yes, you need defensive measures (got ‘em). Yes, you need food (got that too), but none of us can survive, let alone thrive, without a bare minimum of a gallon of water a day per person. That’s a lot of water if you are shooting for a year’s supply or more. For the average family of four, that’s nearly 1,500 gallons a year! That is just to survive. What about feeding animals or livestock, growing a garden, bartering, or simply bathing? Your needs will far exceed the menagerie of 2-liter plastic bottles you may be collecting and cluttering in your garage.
How it all started
My journey for a sustainable and renewable water source, coupled with substantial storage, began in 2006 when I moved to the country in Central Texas. I thought digging my own well (more than 400 feet before hitting a local aquifer) would suffice. No, it’s not publicly produced water, and yes, its drinkable (just barely) but if stuff does hit the fan and we are off line permanently, my limited solar power will not pump out water 400 feet deep. I needed a more cost effective and viable alternative. I found it. It came from above in the form of rain.
Yes, collecting and storing rain water is the easiest and most practical way to secure enough water to meet your needs, wants, and perhaps the needs of others who would trade a pound of gold for a gallon of drinkable water when none can be found. It is so simple; I can’t imagine why more people don’t do it. Maybe it seems too “green” or too antiquated. Perhaps it’s like the public library no body uses because its “free,” or maybe, just maybe, we’ve been conditioned to believe water has to come from the ground first before we can drink it up. I can assure you it does not. In fact, my family drinks rain water almost exclusively. Moreover, my young boys have become what I call “water snobs.” Rain water is so delicious, so pure in taste these picky kids of mine don’t even like the bottled stuff anymore. I have to agree. Nothing is more refreshing (and void of whatever God didn’t want in it) than rain water from on high.
Constructing Your Own System
So how did I do it? How did I make rain water collection and consumption part of my daily routine? It started simply enough. First, I determined where to store the water. Admittedly, this was easy for me. I live on nearly 10 acres of land with no zoning laws, permits or other governmental interference. God love Texas! Anyway, I needed a way to store as much water as possible. My family (four of us at that time) would require the bare minimum of 1,500 gallons of water a year that I mentioned, so I doubled it. I purchased two 1,500 gallon black plastic water storage containers from a local farming supply. Tractor Supply also sells these containers in different sizes as well. I paid $600 each for mine.
I was cautious to purchase black containers, not because they’d match my Texas limestone farm house (they do not), but because black keeps algae from growing in your tanks. Sun and water in a clear container will produce this unwanted green goo. Solid green containers will also do the trick, but again, whatever you do, stay way from clear containers even if you think it’s a practical way to see how much water you’ve collected. You’ll see more than water collecting. I promise.
Now before you conclude that you can’t possibly put a 1,500 gallon tank next to the swing set in your back yard (your wife would kill you) or you can’t afford such large containers, understand that water tanks come in all sizes and shapes. Start small. Consider a 50 gallon drum. Just be careful that the drums you procure weren’t used for storing anything other than water. It is best to get new water storage tanks if possible. Remember water is more important than anything else you may store. I prefer plastic containers because they are less expensive, lighter and don’t rust, but professional cisterns or storage containers can be galvanized metal which are less likely to be punctured.
When positioning your water tanks consider either back corner of your home. Yes, you can put a water container near a front corner of your home, but then everyone will see just what you are doing, and who knows if one day a stray bullet (or a not so stray bullet) doesn’t puncture your container and spew forth real liquid gold. Corners are good places for your tanks because they are close to the down spout of your gutter system. Keep in mind, plastic water tanks are meant for above ground. If you bury them they may collapse.
When I first built my home I didn’t care about putting in a gutter system, but collecting rain water requires it. I chose galvanized metal gutters because they are more durable than the plastic ones (which I’ve seen bleach and almost melt in the Texas sun). I don’t know that it’s an issue, but I also don’t want any plastics breaking down in my rain water. If you are putting in new gutters, make sure they are at a slight angle with the down spout being at the lowest point near your water tank. You want gravity on your side. Gravity is a major factor in ensuring water comes from the sky to your roof to your tank and to a smaller container for transport (more on that later). Think about clearing or cutting back trees that may hang over your gutters. Leaves, branches and twigs can clog them or even enter your storage tank(s).
The biggest difference between a standard gutter system and a rain water collecting system is where your water goes. Collecting rain requires you to remove your standard down spout. You don’t want the rain running down the pavement into the street. You want it going into your tank. To get the water from my gutter to the tanks, I used pipe strapping to connect approximately four feet of three inch PVC pipe directly under the corner gutter joint with the hole. Use an elbow joint at the top (larger than the gutter hole) and run the pipe vertically to a tee joint. The other side of the tee will connect to more pipe with an elbow down to the top of your tank. You will likely need reducer couplers to go from 3 inch wide piping to two inch. It depends on the width of the opening on the top of your tank. The length of your piping depends on how far away your tank is from the roof. Measuring and planning is key.
The vertical or bottom part of the tee joint (between your roof and your tank) will connect to another three inch pipe down to the ground (about six to eight feet). This piping is called a “first flush.” It looks like an upside down candy cane (or down spout). At the bottom (the crook part) is another elbow fitting which is threaded for a drain plug. When it rains the first flush is plugged. Its purpose is to catch some of the debris or dirt that collects on your roof when it first begins to rain. Once the first flush fills up, the water will continue into your tank where you need to use a threaded fitting, usually female on the pipe joint and male on the tank. Make sure you empty the first flush after every rain. You’d be surprised how dirty this captured water is. If it has been a long time since the last rain, leave the first flush unplugged for a few minutes to wash out the excess dirt and debris your roof has likely collected.
I use a T-post to secure the first flush PVC pipe to the ground. Because I have two tanks they are connected together at the top and at the bottom with two inch wide PVC pipes (my tanks have openings both at the top and the bottom). This allows the tanks to both be filled up at the same time and to remove water from them at the same time. In the middle of the 2 inch PVC pipe at the bottom I have another tee joint connected up to a pipe with an elbow joint and then connected to a copper faucet or spigot. I mentioned earlier that gravity is your friend. The weight of the water allows a decent amount of pressure to push water up the pipe and through the spigot. You’re not going to power wash a car, but you can fill a five gallon bucket or water jug in no time without the need for electricity. All pipes will need appropriate fittings where they are connected to your tank(s).
How much can I collect?
So how much water can I collect? There are three factors that determine this. First, how big is your roof? Second, how much does it rain where you live and third, what is the capacity of your storage container(s)? For example, I have a 2000 square foot home, but I only collect water off of one side of the house. That being said, one or two good inches of rain can totally fill my two 1,500 gallon tanks. It is amazing to see just how quickly they fill up from a good rainstorm. Even during the Texas drought last year, my two tanks were never empty.
My neighbor has seven 1000 gallon tanks and uses rain water exclusively for cooking, washing, drinking and all his water needs. He has yet to see his tanks empty. As long as it continues to rain and your storage tanks are relatively large (500 to 1000 gallons) you will be pleasantly surprised how much water you can collect and store. Again, you may have to start small as time and money allows, but as you add more tanks (and in my case more gutters) your capacity for storage will exceed your needs and may provide for others who are not as prepared as you.
Is it really safe?
Admittedly, we do not use rain water exclusively, but it does provide for all of our cooking and drinking water needs. Every day or so, my son retrieves five gallons from the tanks. The water is then poured into a Berkey Water filtration system (gravity filtered). Nothing tastes better. I assure you. My neighbor uses a UV light sterilization system that filters all incoming water to his house by passing by a UV light. From my research, the only possible contamination I am truly concerned with is bird droppings on my roof which could cause illness in untreated rainwater. If possible, and if you have more rain than storage ability, consider rotating your water before the big storm comes in. If not, you can also add appropriate amounts of bleach, iodine or water purification tablets right into your water storage tank.
Some have also asked me what kind of roof is safest for collecting rain water. Optimally, a metal roof is best, but my brother has the same rain water collection system I do (I helped him install it) with a standard shake roof. He uses a Berkey system as well. He contacted the roofing manufacturer and they said there was nothing unsafe in their roofing materials. Unless your roof is more than 15 years old, there shouldn’t be anything in the roofing material that would cause you harm. To be safe you can have your rain water tested, but in truth it’s probably much safer than what your local water company is brewing. In an emergency there would be no question about this.
Experience (daily use) has taught me some hard lessons with my rain water collection. First and foremost, glue all of your PVC pieces together. I was a bit on the lazy impatient side and thought, well there’s no water pressure on the feed pipes, so why not just hand fit everything? That was a bad idea. A few good winds knocked everything down, and all of my water leaked out of my pipes at the bottom. Also, consider placing a ball spigot between your tank and pipes at the bottom. This way if a pipe breaks you can turn off the water to your tank. Having two tanks in tandem allows you to fill them both up simultaneously, but it also allows them both to empty at the same time if a pipe breaks, or if one your children leaves the spigot open. Once they are both filled, I shut one tank off and use it as a back up.
Your PVC pipes are above ground, so they are subject to freezing if they are full of water. I shut both tanks off at the bottom with my ball spigots first and then let the remaining water out of the middle spigot. I wrap both ball spigots with old cloth diapers during the winter. Yes, it’s hot in Texas, but it can get cold too. As long as your pipes are empty, and the spigots at the bottom of your tank(s) are covered, they shouldn’t crack. However, nothing is fool proof. Keep extra PVC fittings on hand. I hate running into town (spending $10 on gas) for a two dollar fitting. In a true emergency, you will be the hardware store. I have extra elbows, couplers, (connects two pipes together) spigots and PVC pipe glue, not to mention extra lengths of pipe. Again, nothing is failsafe and nothing lasts forever.
Whatever you do, don’t install your rain water system, walk away from it and think it will be ready when you need it. It only takes a minute to visually inspect your system for cracks, loose fittings, clogged gutters or water puddles. If you have small children as I do, water play is a temptation and leaving spigots open is common. You’d be surprised just how fast water can drain out of a 1,500 gallon tank. Get in the habit of using your rainwater, so that it’s part of who you are now, not just when an emergency arises.
Five years after installing my rain water collection system, I couldn’t be happier. My wife no longer lugs in store bought drinking water, and I no longer pay for it. More importantly, if it does hit the fan, I see those full tanks outside my home and know I can irrigate my garden, put water in my toilets (I have a septic system), see to our bathing needs and most importantly ensure my family will drink and cook with water that is as pure as nature intended it to be. Hit the fan if it must. We are water prepared!