Rain Barrels


Constructing a cistern large enough to supply potable indoor water is an ambitious project involving pumps, filters, UV purifiers, and very large and expensive tanks. We don’t want to discourage anyone from making an attempt at it, but for most urban homesteaders it won’t be economical or practical given the space requirements and weight of thousands of gallons of stored water. Thankfully, there are simpler strategies for harvesting rainwater.

Rainwater used for irrigating plants does not need filtering or purification, and since outdoor watering accounts for the number one household water use, you’ll be using that water where it is most needed. Now, once again at the risk of sounding like a broken record, our strict rule around the SurviveLA homestead is that all irrigated plants must be useful, i.e. you gotta be able to eat it or make tea with it. Priority in our plantings goes to useful plants that don’t need additional water once established. But it’s still nice to have citrus trees, salad greens, rapini, beets, and other fruits and vegetables that do need supplemental irrigation. For these types of plants it’s possible to supplement municipal water with rainwater collected in barrels.

You can purchase commercial barrels made of this purpose, but it’s also possible to construct your own using surplus barrels with the same improvised bulkhead fitting we described in our post on washing machine greywater harvesting. In fact your rainwater collection barrel is pretty much the same as your washing machine greywater surge tank, but instead of being connected to the washing machine, it’s connected to your gutter downspouts. Depending on how much rain you get and how many loads of laundry you do, it may be possible to double up and use the same barrel. And, just like your greywater surge tank, it’s best to elevate the rain barrel to let gravity do the work of getting the water where you need it and thereby not have to deal with the cost and complexity of pumping water.

Some precautions–your rainwater barrel should have screens over the inlets to prevent mosquitos from breeding and it’s wise to rig an overflow pipe at the top of the barrel to channel water away from your homestead’s foundations. You will also need to clean the barrel periodically, and where it freezes it may be necessary to turn the barrel upside down for the winter.

Sizing your rain barrel system, or determining if using a rain barrel is worth the effort, requires going back to the formula we discussed earlier. But instead of figuring out how much water per year your roof can collect, you need to consider the amount per month. Monthly rain data for cities in the US can be found here. Rain barrel harvesting makes the most sense in places where it rains throughout the growing season, with the barrels providing additional water to bridge gaps between rains. In a place like Los Angeles where all of the rain is concentrated at one time of the year, rainwater barrels may not be practical.

To size up your rain barrel collection system it’s possible to daisy chain several barrels together using yet another bulkhead fitting towards the top of the barrel and pvc pipe to connect them together. There is also a commercially available kit for this purpose. Remember that bulkhead fittings are notorious for leaking, so be precise with your improvised plumbing work.

SurviveLA believes that all greywater and rainwater harvesting systems should be kept as simple as possible since most folks are lousy at doing any kind of maintenance (when was the last time you drained your water heater?). And, with the low cost of municipal water, even a simple system built with surplus parts probably won’t make sense from an economic standpoint. But, aside from being just generally groovy, rain barrel water collection could be an insurance policy for the uncertainties of global warming. Someday water may be more valuable than oil . . .

Clever Canadian Shitter

Way back in 1998 the Canada Mortgage and Housing association sponsored a “Healthy Housing Design Competition“. The winning house included this novel waste composting system as shown in this thrilling video. OK, so SurviveLA has a weakness for industrial video, but you just can’t beat the combination of rotating shit and peppy music–we just wish he’d drink the water in that glass.

The Survivor

We interrupt this dull series of articles about rainwater harvesting for important breaking news at our urban homestead–the development of the SurviveLA signature cocktail–the Survivor.

For a long time we’ve cursed the previous owners of our compound for their useless, inedible landscaping. One of the plants they left us that we’ve lived with for all these years is an ornamental pomegranate tree (Punica granatum) that, while attractive, we had previously assumed was useless due to the very small fruit. We’ve tried to eat them, and found the flavor a little too tart, and the seeds difficult to extract. Thanks to a tip on the internets, we discovered that the answer to using ornamental pomegranates is to juice them.

The fresh juice was surprisingly sweet and flavorful, leading us immediately to grab the cocktail shaker and develop the long overdue SurviveLA cocktail:

3 oz pomegranate juice (from your own tree, of course)
1/2 oz Triple Sec
1 oz citrus vodka

Now, we’re more the stern gin drinking types around here, but the citrus vodka seemed to provide the right note of tartness to balance out the sweet pomegranate juice. The name, Survivor, is in part a dedication to the plant itself. Pomegranates can survive with little or no water in terrible soil and never seem to need to be fertilized.

As a symbol the pomegranate can be found in all of the cultures of the Mediterranean. From the Wikipedia entry:

In the sixth century BCE, Polykleitos took ivory and gold to sculpt the seated Argive Hera in her temple. She held a scepter in one hand and offered a pomegranate, like a royal orb, in the other. “About the pomegranate I must say nothing,” whispered the traveler Pausanias in the second century AD, “for its story is something of a mystery.”

We propose that Hera ditch her scepter and instead grasp a cold martini glass containing the newest cocktail of 2007, the Survivor.

Rainfall Harvesting Math


Our next step in designing a rainwater harvesting system is to figure out how much water your rooftop will provide.

To do this measure the outside perimeter of your roof–you need not take into account the pitch or slant of the roof, since this does not affect the amount of water collected. Next, use the following formula:

collection area (square feet) x 0.6 x collection efficiency factor x rainfall (inches) = gallons per year

The collection efficiency factor is basically how good your roof is at shedding water. Metal roofs are the best and have the additional benefit of reflecting the heat of the sun and being less prone to leaks. Figure on a efficiency factor of .95 for a metal roof. Pitched asphalt shingle roofs are next with a efficiency factor of .9. Tar and gravel roofs are the least efficient with a factor of .8. Both tar and gravel and asphalt shingle roofs retain a fair amount of water after a rain, but they will still work fine for rainwater collection.

Data on both yearly and monthly average rainfall can be found on the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration website.

For our house here in Los Angeles, we have a collection area of 992 square feet, a pitched asphalt shingle roof and an average of 15.06 inches of rain a year. So the average amount of rain we could collect in a year would be:

992 x 0.6 x 0.9 x 15.06 = 8,067.34 gallons.

If we lived in Atlanta, where the average annual precipitation is 48.6 inches per year we could theoretically collect 26,034 gallons of water a year.

With these numbers in mind we can begin to answer a few questions. Does rainwater collection make sense for your climate and living circumstances? If so, what kind of system will work?

In the Gutter

Our roofs, of course, are another impermeable surface that prevents rainwater from going where it should go–to our edible landscape. We can minimize the surface area by living in as small a house as possible and trying to maximize open ground. At our own compound we’ve even gone so far as to remove some previous resident’s bad addition and reduce the footprint of our house. So called green roofs, which have soil and plants growing on them our an option for the wealthy, but at present are still rare in the US. Most of us will still be dealing with conventional roofs.

Now assuming you’ve got a roof we will hope that you have gutters. Gutters have two purposes, to channel water away from your fragile and very expensive to repair foundation, and to channel it to where that water can be useful, to your edible landscaping. As much as we support self-sufficiency, putting on gutters is a job we think is best left to professionals, specifically professionals who produce seamless gutters with a machine like the one pictured above. Putting up gutters yourself can often be a frustrating experience that you must perform while balanced high atop a ladder. Gutters must have the correct slope or water will stagnate and create the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. If they leak you run the risk of rotting out your fascia boards. By all means, if you can afford it, hire a professional for this job. If you can’t afford it go sell some crack on the street corner until you have enough money. The do-it-yourself gutter systems available at home centers, especially the plastic kind, look like crap even in the off chance that you install them correctly.

While we’re big believers in sloth and idleness, one task that absolutely must be performed at least once a year is to get up on a ladder and clean out the gutters. Otherwise, you will be attempting this task, as we have on several occasions, during a downpour at midnight, after the downspouts have clogged up sending a cascade of water over the damned up gutters.

Two simple bits of technology can make gutter cleaning easier. We have inexpensive strainer baskets made out of 1/4 inch hardware cloth in each of the downspouts to keep them from clogging up. Some may wish to consider leaf guards which run along the top of the gutter to keep out leaves and other debris. The problem with leaf guards is that in order to clean out your gutters you must tediously remove the guards along the whole length of the gutter while, once again, balanced precariously on a ladder. While leaf guards catch large leaves, smaller stuff can still get through, so you might as well just stick with the strainer baskets in most situations.

Gutters are just the first step, however. Downspouts must be incorporated to carry that water from your gutters to where you can put that rainwater to use.