Saturday, September 13, 2014

how to save water

A hard, steady rain fell earlier this month, and when I thought I couldn't take the sound of rain pounding on the roof anymore, I had the presence of mind to run out in the pouring rain and drag my clean 30-gallon bin next to the wood pile to catch the runoff from the tarp. It helps to have a new tarp, but an old one will get nicely power-washed by that much rain.

You can bottle and drink fresh rainwater right away. I filled three 2.5 gallon jugs that way, and stored the rest in the bin.

After a few days I knew debris would begin to affect the water quality, so I skimmed off the leaves, poured it through a colander to catch smaller particles, boiled the water, cooled it, and Brita-filtered it before decanting into the jugs. It took all afternoon, but I got another ten gallons of drinking water and did some laundry with the rest.

Why do I bother? Because I have to buy water. My main water supply comes from a one thousand gallon tank buried in the ground, and an electric pump that draws the water from the tank.  At least once a year, I have a water hauling service come and fill it up (at eight cents a gallon that's about $80). The tank is fairly old, and has about an inch of sediment at the bottom, which affects the water's color. I consider my water tinted rather than tainted: the water has no odor, and is kept at a fairly constant temp of about 40 F due to the insulating effect of the ground.  It's fine for doing the dishes or showering, but I won't drink that water unless I boil it. So I take my portable jugs to the local fill-up place, and I go through ten gallons of drinking water every seven to ten days--another $40 a year.

This is the deal if you live on permafrost-ridden ground: you can't have a sewer system delivering water to outlying areas--so most people here in Goldstream Valley just dig outhouses and leachfields and buy their water, either by the jug or by the tank. We do our dishes using as little water as possible (having a dog or two helps with the prewash stage, so I've been told) and we toss our dishwater from slop pails out on the ground. My sinks and shower drain into a leachfield (when Simon built this cabin two decades ago, he used a backhoe to bury a bus filled with river rocks in the yard, and connected the sink and shower drains to it), but by midwinter the drain reliably clogs up with ice so I just don't use it very much.  I can still take a shower in the winter as long as I stand inside my 30 gallon bin like Oscar the Grouch and catch most of the water before it backs up from the drain all cold and foul smelling. Those who have no such setup must take their showers in town. Tinted water or not, I'm grateful to have my very own hot shower in a place where I can still see moose from my window.


  1. I collect rain water too. However, I do it for a different reason. I collect rain water to give to my plants.

    Rain water is surprisingly acidic. The pH is usually about 5.5 in my area. This is great for plants that cannot tolerate lime, but it might not be so great for drinking. The blood in our bodies is slightly alkaline with a pH of 7.35 to 7.45. This is almost a 1000 times difference in H+ concentration. Adjusting the pH would undoubtedly improve rain water for drinking.

    When I have kept water for drinking in plastic bottles, I have noticed the key to keeping the taste from changing is to keep the bottle out of sunlight. Your cold underground tank would likely be perfect for keeping water if it weren’t full of sediment. There must be some way to remove this sediment before refilling your tank. Something to agitate the water should help get the sediment into suspension so it can be flushed from the tank. I used to use coffee filters to removed unwanted debris when I stored rain water in jugs to give to my house plants in winter. However, I found the coffee filters clogged too quickly and my plants did not mind a little extra organic debris.

    The rain barrel that collects water from my gutters is 85 gallons. Most years this amount of storage can easily last through a hot dry period in summer. Typically, two good spring rains will fill my rain barrel. It would be easy to add more capacity if I had the need.

    People in rural areas without wells often use cisterns. I have never used one and do not know much about them. A cistern might be a good place to collect and store water for the couple months the temperature in your location is above freezing. Another possible option would be to cut and haul ice from a frozen pond. The upside of using ice is you wouldn’t need a tanker truck to haul it.


    1. Hi James,

      I decided to look into the pH question, and it looks like rainwater is pretty safe to drink if it's not precipitating harmful chemicals (as in urban/industrial areas). It does tend to lack mineral nutrients which raise the pH.


      source: Newton Ask a Scientist, Argonne, IL

    2. I didn't mean to scare you by telling you about the acidity of rainwater. It is not dangerously acidic. In comparison, an apple has a pH of about four which is over 1000 times the H+ concentration of blood. I miss counted before. Rainwater is less than 100 times the H+ concentration of blood. I was just suggesting that adjusting the pH might improve it for drinking.