Harvesting rainwater has a very long history. The Bedouins practiced it in ancient Israel as was detailed by Michael Evenari in his book, "The Negev: The Challenge of a Desert." I read that book 35 years ago, and it has been one of my favorites ever since. Evenari describes the various methods the Bedouins used to harvest rainwater for domestic and agricultural use - by digging extensive canal systems on the slopes of hills to bring rainwater runoff to the cisterns that they had dug. In other cases in the Middle East, a channel system was used to divert water onto agriculture fields. The Bedouins are even one of the first people that used mulch to conserve water in their fields.
We modern people have it a lot easier than the Bedouins that lived more than 2,000 years ago. We have modern construction methods and equipment to make the installation of rainwater harvesting equipment easier. Moreover, we have a backup. When we run out of rainwater, we can supplement with municipal water or water from a well.
Unlike the Bedouins who dug a hole in the ground for their cisterns, we use a different material. As was predicted by Mr. McGuire when he told Ben in the 1967 movie, "The Graduate": "Plastics ... There's a great future in plastics ...." We store our rainwater in plastic rain barrels and cisterns. Cisterns are usually larger and are either buried or tucked away out of sight. There are various types, ranging from big tanks to a system of what looks like milk crates covered by a plastic liner to keep water in. Water from cisterns is used for irrigation, the washing of vehicles and in some cases to flush toilets. One of the more innovative uses that I saw was when geothermal heat exchangers were buried in the hole next to the cistern. That was a great innovative way to save energy and water. Cisterns are usually installed by professionals and are way too big for what I was looking for in my yard.
Over the past years I have received many gardening catalogs selling rain barrels, but being somewhat handy I was looking at them thinking, "I can do that." So a friend and I went to our local military surplus store and bought three old plastic 55-gallon drums that, according to the label, once stored pimento olives (yes, you want food-grade barrels). We also went to the local hardware store and bought a copper spout. The biggest challenge was connecting the spout to the rain barrel and making it water tight. After some trial and error, we finally got it to work. We drilled an overflow hole in the top, cut off the downspout and were ready to collect water. We also built a small pedestal so we could put the bucket under the spout coming out of the barrel.
The first rainstorm showed we made a few mistakes and miscalculations. The barrel filled up in no time and the overflow hole was too small. Water came out of the top of the barrel and ran down the side of our home. The second issue came to light when we wanted to water the plants. Since there is no water pressure in the barrel, when we opened the spout, water came out very slowly. In other words, we needed to make some adjustments. After some research, we finally came up with a design that we liked. I'll share that with you in my next post.
Jan-W. Briedé is a stormwater outreach manager for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. He coordinates the erosion and sediment control training and certification program. Jan has worked in the environmental field in countries all over the world, including Uganda, Nepal and North Yemen.