Make use of all that rain

Retired physician Jerry Block has taken an extreme path to save water.

Last month, he had four gravity-fed, 5,000-gallon polyethylene water tanks installed on his Monte Sereno, Calif., property. The system will harvest raindrops to provide irrigation for an extensive food garden.

Block sees it as a patriotic as well as an environmental statement.

“Collecting rainwater locally and growing food locally will reduce our dependence on foreign powers,” Block says. He spent $24,000 on the 20,000-gallon system, which he calls a long-term investment.

The scale of Block’s system is out of reach for most homeowners, but rainwater collection – even on a small scale – is an ancient idea gaining new life. Old-fashioned rain barrels and cisterns are hot items. Vermont-based Gardener’s Supply says sales are up at least 30 percent this year, predominantly on orders from the West and South. And some water agencies are offering rebates to offset their cost.

“A rain barrel is a place to start. It’s part of people becoming aware of the issue of a finite resource,” says Tim Pope, president of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, based in Austin. “Rain harvesting is growing tremendously in the United States.”

Simple rain barrels made of recycled food-grade plastic or polyethylene that store about 50 gallons of water at a time from roof downspouts can be purchased for as little as $50 at retail outlets and online. There are do-it-yourself videos and instructions on the Internet for building them from plastic drums, wine barrels and even trash cans. To boost capacity, multiple containers can be linked with pipe or hoses and placed in unused spaces, such as along the side of the house.

“If you don’t do a lawn, it’s surprising how much garden you can have with a relatively small amount of water,” Pope says. About 600 gallons of water can be collected for every inch of rainfall on a 1,000-square-foot roof.

“Jerry isn’t installing the system to save money, because his water bill will only reduce by about $65 a year for saving 20,000 gallons of rainwater,” says Robert Lenney, co-owner of Rain Harvesting Systems, the Northern California company that installed Block’s project. “He’s doing it to help the Earth by reducing the carbon footprint from the electrical company and the water agency because they won’t have to pump that 20,000 gallons of water to his home anymore.”

The system also keeps all that water from coursing through water treatment plants as landscape runoff, and it provides an on-site source of water for emergencies such as fires and earthquakes. It can’t be used for drinking unless it’s treated with ultraviolet light or a reverse osmosis system, and potability rules and standards vary.

Lenney’s company – and others like it – also install more modest setups. The price, which depends on the size and complexity of the installation, ranges from $7,000 to $10,000. On some sites, pumps must be added to deliver water from downspouts to collection tanks.

The key to the system at Block’s place is the patented Gutterglove Gutter Guard, invented by Lenney and his business partner John Lewis. The stainless steel mesh filtration device is attached to existing roof gutters and keeps debris – even particles of sand – from gumming up the works.

For Block’s installation, the downspouts are connected to a network of trenched-in PVC pipes that carry the water downhill, under the rear deck and into the tanks. Once one tank is full, those farther downhill will fill up.

“On this job, the owner calculated how much water he would need for his garden, and we designed the system based on that,” Lewis says.

Block’s backyard already has a variety of fruit trees and some small raised beds where he is growing such garden staples as broccoli, sugar snap peas and spinach. But the garden he envisions, adjacent to the water tanks, will be big and bountiful.

“We will put in as much as we can using mounds to plant intensively,” Block says. “We’re into the whole locavore movement.”

Paying for the water system was a “sacrifice,” he adds, “but it was a lifelong dream.” Block also has a 10-kilowatt solar array that supplies all of his home’s electrical needs, and then some.

Adding a simple rain barrel to supply some water for landscaping is something anyone can do, Block says: “We can’t all be Navy SEALs, but we can all be heroes in small ways.”

What Americans need is a role model, he says. “Michelle (Obama) needs to take the next step and install a cistern to water that White House garden,” Block says.