Harvesting Rainwater

When it comes to resources, it’s small wonder that the rest of the world thinks of America as spoiled. We’ve parlayed the New World’s natural abundance in water, forests and farmlands into becoming the First World, replete with new, manufactured abundances. Our relentless progress towards the future, found in such historic products as the moon lander, the computer chip and the laser, has made us the envy of the world.

This has made us a beacon for any and all wishing to participate directly in the world’s largest economy. That, in turn, has spurred continuous population growth, a growth that is straining to the breaking point one of the original resources that made this all possible: water.

We’ve always had an abundance of riches when it came to water. The Great Lakes alone contain enough water to cover the entire contiguous United States nine feet deep. That said, our population has doubled in the last 70 years, which, combined with our lack of water reuse, means that we’re hitting the limits of what our systems can sustain. This is causing us to examine where our water comes from, and reevaluate how we use it on a municipal, state and national level.

For many, this takes the form of water conservation and, more often than not, it is landscapes that are feeling the squeeze. However, this is not a sustainable water solution (our population growth will eventually outstrip our lowered water usage) and many fail to account for the ecological effects of letting lawns die.

The flooding in Texas last year is just one example of the environmental disasters that can result from letting landscapes go thirsty.

Fortunately, conservation isn’t the only way we can adjust our total water usage. Over the past few years, we’ve developed new technology for reusing potable water. More importantly, we can also embrace an old technique that was unnecessary when we were water-rich. This old trick stretches back to antiquity, and can provide a property with enough water to cook, shower and water a landscape without breaking the water bank. All by recapturing rainwater.

Mother Nature provides us with trillions of gallons of water every year, free of charge, in the form of rain. Just consider that the storms which recently clobbered the Carolinas dropped—by themselves— enough water to stop the drought in California, cold. Yet very few of us take advantage of learning how to recapture this water; instead, it flows off our clients’ lawns to streams, then rivers, then oceans.

Instead, we can build cisterns to harvest that rainwater, giving our clients manna from heaven, and at the same time, help build the water infrastructure of the future. Not only does this capture water that would otherwise be wasted, it helps our customers prepare for the future, and offers you an additional revenue stream.

So, how do we get started? “It’s not that hard to start installing catchment systems. Quite the contrary,” says Paul Lawrence, president of Texas Land & Water Designs, LLC. Lawrence’s company provides landscape, LED lighting and irrigation services in the Austin area.

He’s been installing rainwater harvesting systems for the past seven years, and he’s a big proponent of the practice. Lawrence feels that not only is it a good revenue stream, but startup costs are low for the contractor. “Licensed irrigators already have many of the skills that are required for rainwater harvesting; it’s a real natural fit for them,” he says.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to recapture rainwater. It starts with what virtually every house and commercial building already possesses: roofing, gutters and downspouts. Normally, gutters capture the water that runs off of roofs and directs it to the downspouts. The downspouts then direct rainwater into the street or onto a planted area.

Usually, gutters and downspouts have previously been installed on a building. Our job is to take the rainwater that now flows down the street and store it for use at a later date.

There are several different options for storing this water. One type of reservoir is the above-ground storage tank; another is the below-ground cistern. The downspouts can also be directed to send water to bioswales. Smaller systems that capture less than a hundred gallons can use rain barrels for storage.

One important piece of knowledge is that if a storage tank is not properly sealed against pests and bacteria, the water inside it can become toxic. Every storage tank needs to have an overflow device to prevent backup in heavy rain situations. The device, in turn, needs to be fitted with a flapper valve that will close up immediately after excess water has stopped flowing out. Otherwise, rats and bugs can crawl up the spout, attracted by the water inside the tank.

Some property owners find the design of traditional storage units unattractive, possibly even detrimental to their property values. A more aesthetically-pleasing storage solution for harvested rainwater has been refined by Aquascape, Inc., based in St. Charles, Illinois. The company offers a catchment system called RainXchange, which combines a recirculating, decorative water feature with an underground storage basin.

Something like RainXchange could be a more elegant option, and yet offers the same functionality of other storage systems. It makes use of modular storage basins, stackable blocks that are somewhere between milk crates and Legos, which can be arranged in different shapes to fit a variety of application settings. They sit inside a rubber membrane to form a single, water-tight unit underground.

“We’ll put our RainXchange system under turfgrass, but it’s very common for us to do it under a patio made of permeable pavers,” says Ed Beaulieu, director of field research for Aquascape. “This way, the pavers act as a catchment area that prefilters the rainwater before it enters the blocks. It’s very, very efficient.”

Before the water goes into whatever receptacle you choose, sanitation should be your first consideration. At the very least, a screen should be placed in the gutter over the downspout. This will help keep out large particulate matter, large solids and leaves.

Once you’ve got these basic components working together, you’re ready to stop wasting potable water on uses that don’t require it. At the same time, you’re reducing our dependence on the municipal supply and also helping to reduce soil erosion and stormwater pollution.

“You get a two-fer,” Lawrence says. “Intercept the stormwater that could cause problematic erosion, and store high-quality water to offset some or all of your landscape watering needs.” It’s simple, yet very beneficial.

Let’s take a look at the residential market. A simple project could run between $1,500 and $5,000, depending on a variety of factors. The installation cost on a 500-gallon system may be relatively low, but such minimal storage capacity will let a lot of rainwater go down the drain over the years.

Besides size, another factor is the excavation costs. If you’re doing an underground installation, but the client’s property doesn’t have room for heavy equipment to come in, doing all that digging by hand will increase the labor time substantially. If your client expects to use the recaptured water for drinking purposes, costs will be even higher, because you’ll be putting in more filtering stages.

We will limit this article to storing and using rainwater for the purpose of irrigating landscapes. You can choose between above-ground tanks, or storing the rainwater belowground. Whatever the decision is, when your client is ready to use this water, it may require a pump to get it out. Most pumps on residential systems are between one-third and one horsepower. That amount of power is sufficient to pressurize the water for either spray or drip irrigation. You (or your client) have the option to activate the pump manually, or use a controller to automate when the rainwater you’ve harvested will flow to the irrigation system.

If you’re working in the commercial area, a little more is involved.

In an HOA or office park—even a single office building—the system doesn’t need to be much different. Say a property owner wants to convert part of his water supply, taking advantage of using rainwater for irrigation. Because of the size of both the landscape and the catchment area, you would need a space with a larger capacity, probably below-ground. If you’re going to install a highercapacity system, water collection from the roof of the building is very do-able.

When handling larger quantities of water, proper filtration becomes even more important. The water needs to be filtered to at least a minimal degree before it enters the tank. There are additional stages of cleansing that aren’t always necessary, but at the very least, rainwater has to be aerated and free of large particulate matter. If not, harmful bacteria will grow in the tank.

Now that we know the basics of how to install a rainwater harvesting system, let’s talk about the types of clients who might be interested in having such a system installed. Typically, they are concerned about the environment, so they are looking to conserve water and help protect local waterways from pollution. They may have heard that capturing rainwater is a tried-and-true method of simultaneously controlling runoff and withstanding drought conditions.

“In a residential setting, it’s next to impossible to show an ROI in three to five years,” Lawrence says. “By and large, those clients are doing it for environmental concerns.”

According to the contractors contacted for this story, conservation is the main motivator for property owners considering installing a rainwater catchment system. The installation costs them money, but these clients are more worried about the long-term consequences of water shortages, pollution and soil erosion.

Even in the case of commercial installations, the conservation motive can be quite powerful. Installing a catchment system can help a building receive LEED certification, and it looks good for the company to be making some effort to protect the environment.

Lincoln Perino, founder of Ethos Harvesting in Tucson, Arizona, says many of the companies that have hired him are installing harvesting systems with above-ground storage tanks, to have a visual representation of their commitment to environmentalism. “Even if that storage tank doesn’t meet all of the commercial site’s water use needs, the company wants to put on a ‘green face’ by having it there.”

David Crawford owns Rainwater Management Solutions (RMS), a nationwide company that gets 90 percent of its business from commercial jobs. “The kind of customer who wants a catchment system wants to save water and wants to be seen as running a green company. He also feels the pressure from EPA regulations that now require companies to keep water onsite,” he says.

Our clients and prospective clients in the commercial arena are all feeling the pressure to conserve water. Landscape professionals have seen a loss of business as municipalities have restricted the use of water for irrigation purposes. Crawford emphasized that rainwater harvesting can keep landscape contractors in business when the water supply is dwindling.

For example, a rose garden is doomed if the city has placed stringent limits on water usage. Catching and reusing what little rainwater does fall on a property can mean the difference between an attractive bloom and cobwebs on the sprinkler heads—and in your business coffers.

In reality, water is always going to be an issue. Even when the drought in various parts of the country breaks, the status of the water supply in the long term will still be precarious. What this means for us is that rainwater harvesting is not only a clever stop-gap solution to immediate water shortages, it is a viable permanent addition to our menu of services as landscape professionals.

As we become more aware of the need for reuse, rainwater harvesting becomes more important. In places abroad where the population already feels the pinch of water scarcity, catchment is a way of life. The island of Bermuda, which has heavy hurricanes and zero freshwater sources, mandates recapture systems on all homes.

It’s gaining traction here at home, too. Santa Fe County, New Mexico, now has codes on the books requiring all new residential properties to have some sort of rainwater catchment system installed. Tucson, where Perino does his business, offers up to $2,000 in rebate money to property owners who convert some of their onsite water use to harvested rainwater. As people rediscover the ancient practice of capturing rainwater, you will have more and more opportunities to offer your services for installation projects.

The skills necessary to get started with catchment system installations are easy to learn. Better yet, there is an abundance of resources that can teach you how to be successful with them.

The Irrigation Association offers classes on the subject. The American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association hosts workshops across the country for those seeking to pass their accredited professional exam. The workshops cover the basics of active and passive rainwater harvesting, plus design and installation for residential, as well as larger commercial systems. The information these classes teach can also help you avoid some setbacks.

The good news is that solutions and preventative measures exist, and they’re not all that hard to get a handle on. “This practice is not a new thing,” Crawford says, “although we have new products that can keep the water even cleaner than before.”

Learn what you need to know. Get up to speed on best practices. Then, rainwater harvesting can become a very profitable source of revenue for you, as well as a very desirable service for your clients.