Water harvesting isn’t a new idea. For centuries, it has been relied upon to supply water for households and other uses. As far back as Roman times, large cisterns were built to hold rainwater. In fact, under the city of Rome an enormous cistern still exists. In the U.S., one of the earliest water harvesting systems can be seen at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Jefferson was interested in learning how to “shelter oneself effectively and economically from the weather,” so he designed and installed extensive gutters and four rainwater cisterns to contain 15,000 gallons of water. He used the harvested water in his home for drinking, brewing ale and watering the surrounding gardens.
Today, the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District notes that rainwater harvesting continues to offer a, “simple, sustainable, alternative water supply for indoor and outdoor use, and it protects waterways from the detrimental impact of stormwater runoff.”
Although rainwater capture has been around for centuries, it hasn’t become mainstream in the U.S. because water is still very inexpensive and is perceived to be in abundance. However, there are signs that we are beginning to run out of water.
As our population continues to grow, more people are using the same sources for water. We’re depleting potable water at an ever faster rate, and water purveyors are getting concerned. When water supplies are low, one of the first items to be regulated is landscape watering.
As keepers of the land, we should bear in mind that property owners have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in plant material, and that now we need to protect their plants from the stress, wilt and death associated with a lack of water.
“Progressive contractors have a unique opportunity to help their current and future customers become ‘more sustainable’ while increasing revenue opportunities for themselves,” said Mike Ray of Bushman Water Harvesting Systems. “The formula is really simple; it provides a turnkey system to harvest and store rainwater, incorporated with an ET-based controller and rain gauge.”
Many landscape contractors began offering rainwater harvesting into their landscaping services.
Buz Ireland of Aqua Features in Tallahassee has been designing and installing ornamental water features in Florida for more than twelve years. “Initially, I learned how to install a water harvesting system because I was interested in water conservation and was building my own backyard sanctuary.”
“I installed my system and it enabled me to water my plants, wash my car, save money and educate my neighbors,” says Ireland, who frequently teaches water conservation techniques to high school students and residents in Tallahassee, Florida. “With water prices starting to rise and weather patterns changing, I tell my clients that they need to pay attention to conservation and protect themselves from future cost increases, droughts and supply demands.”
In addition to helping clients and students realize how much water they are using, Ireland will be helping Tallahassee’s Sail High School install a rainwater harvesting system this spring. The system will be used to water the school’s agricultural practice gardens and landscaping.
As water supplies become more precarious, “counties across the United States are enacting new legislation encouraging water conservation,” says Ron Harris, owner of Darco Sales LLC & Free Water Systems. “Some drier regions are exploring rainwater to be recaptured for use in watering the landscape.”
Santa Fe County, New Mexico, now requires that a water harvesting system be installed in any new home construction. Homeowners of existing structures must retrofit according to the home’s square footage.
EcoScapes Landscaping is headquartered in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When Michael Nelson started EcoScapes, it was a full-service landscape company. Building landscapes, designing them and maintaining them were the focus.
Working in Santa Fe proves to be an exciting challenge. “The city is very progressive and on the cutting edge of ‘green,’ ” says Chris Hollis, an irrigation technician with EcoScapes. “A couple of years ago, the county introduced an ordinance that requires all new homes to recapture their rainwater. The way the company was headed, it made sense to get into rainwater harvesting as well.”
As more municipalities mandate harvesting rainwater, there’s an opportunity to offer these services to your clients. It puts you on the cutting edge and adds to the list of services your company offers.
“We’re seeing a tremendous growth in our business in regions like New Mexico, from clients who are looking for ways to live ‘off the grid,’ ” says Harris. In states where homeowners own their water rights, “clients can have total control over where their water comes from, the quality, how much they harvest and use . . . something that can’t be said for well and city water, which are highly regulated,” Harris added.
But legislation and conservation are just two of the reasons people are installing rainwater harvesting systems. Water quality, sustainability and individual style preferences are also coming into play.
“Because of the vast array of sizes and styles available, I can customize a client’s system to meet their unique water and budget needs,” says Ireland, who notes that rainwater harvesting “actually enhances most landscaping designs, as you can readily incorporate a waterfall, add an urn on top, or have it feed into an ornamental stream or pond.”
There are a number of options when it comes to installing rainwater harvesting equipment. It all depends on the size of the structure, and how much water you want to recapture. From underground tanks that can hold as much as tens of thousands of gallons to 50-gallon rain barrels, the concept is the same.
One of the easiest ways to begin is to check the roofs of your clients’ buildings. Many people don’t realize that their roof is a watershed. Most have rain gutters already installed on their roofs, so the beginning of rainwater recapture is in place. The next move is to retrofit the downspout so that it will funnel the water into a tank, wherever that tank is— underground, aboveground or into a rain barrel.
“The way to measure the amount of water an end-user can collect is easy. Calculate by measuring the footprint of the structure to estimate the square footage (multiple stories or pitch have no bearing on the calculation),” says Ray. “The quick formula for contractors to use is: Every one inch of rain on 1,000 square feet of roof yields approximately 600 gallons.”
A 2,000-square-foot building in San Diego, California, can capture 1,200 gallons for every inch of precipitation. On average, San Diego gets about 10 inches per year, and that 2,000-square-foot building could harvest 12,000 gallons annually. This water can go a long way, and be used multiple times, when drip, micro or subsurface methods are used.
After calculating the potential yield, you will need to determine the number of downspouts to be used as collection points. “Downspouts can be directed to tanks or holding units using standard PVC pipe,” Ray said. “Many people think they are limited to having tanks next to the building, but you can redirect multiple downspouts underground and offer the property owner the option to place tanks yards away from the building. Fill pipes are then run to a strategically hidden tank system behind landscape or a structure.”
Usually, a pump is installed within the tank to pump water out on demand; there are also filtration options available. Filtration is important, so drip or micro irrigation systems don’t plug up. Proper precautions early on can reduce costly callbacks.
“We began looking at rainwater recapture a few years ago,” said Brian Quill, district operations manager for John Deere’s Green- Tech. “Since then, we’ve installed quite a few systems and they’ve proven to be very effective.”
Every day in regions around the world, people survive on less water than you’ll use taking a shower or flushing your toilet. “Water in the U.S. seems endless,” notes Harris. “After all, you turn on the tap and it just flows and flows.” But in reality, there isn’t an endless supply.
Population growth and usage demands mean that water is becoming a scarce commodity.
Collecting rainwater also reduces stormwater runoff. So your rainwater harvesting system should incorporate overflow methods that direct stormwater to rain gardens or bioswales on the property. This allows nature to clean the water and redirect it back to the subsurface aquifer, where it was originally intended. Adding rain gardens and bioswales also provide unique design opportunities, and cities like Seattle, Washington, are offering incentives to residents who choose to redirect stormwater through these systems.
Rainwater harvesting has also become an integral part of designing buildings—like the Richmond Olympic Oval, a venue of the 2010 Winter Olympics—that meet LEED and other green building certification requirements.
“Thanks to permeable pavers and advanced collections systems, not only roofs but an entire corporate parking lot can be utilized for water harvesting, leading to incredible water and financial savings,” notes Quill.
According to the people we spoke with, harvested water is superior to city tap water for watering plants. “Rainwater is full of nitrogen and minerals that plants love. It’s like free fertilizer,” says Hollis, who
notes that even the smallest project can incorporate aboveground cisterns for collecting rainwater. “But the nice thing about underground collection systems is that they can be added into almost any existing building and landscaping project, regardless of size, budget or the site. Say your client wants to put a water feature in their backyard— it’s only a few more steps and some planning to have the water in that pond come from the home’s roof and be re-circulated with a pump,” Hollis adds.
Since water harvesting is a longterm investment, it pays to incorporate the service into your daily operations rather than try to sell it as a singular service, according to Hollis. “I don’t have to sell it, because it’s an integral part of how we approach landscape design. We don’t just put in a tank. It is part of a comprehensive design that includes xeric plants, irrigation, and swales and berms that mimic the natural contouring found in nature. You have to design these systems so that they not only cater to what your clients want to do with the water, but do it naturally, in a way that all the workings and natural elements work together.”
“We’ve been designing water harvesting systems for seven years.
There are hiccups and details that you have to work out, because it’s such a new idea, but it’s gaining in popularity with people who are looking for ways to save water or are more mindful of what they use,” says Hollis.
“The cost effectiveness of these systems is similar to solar. There is a payoff period that customers have to be willing to accept, but in the future, I expect to be installing a lot more of these systems,” says Ireland.
“In the future, it’s very likely that the use of potable water will be banned for outdoor landscape irrigation, so water harvesting will become an incredible opportunity to grow your business,” says Quill. “People are starting to seek out these systems and so for the right contractor, water harvesting will be the best thing since the introduction of landscape lighting. It’s a service that can be easily added on to current offerings.”
Remember that rainwater harvesting can be a win-win situation for all involved.
The planet has a finite amount of water, only three percent of which is drinkable fresh water, and we keep adding people. Something has to give. Harvesting and recycling water will have to become a way of life in the U.S. or, in the words of Mark Twain, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”