Throughout history, people have captured the rain that fell on their rooves and stored it for later use in cisterns below grade. These days we turn on a tap, and water comes out. It’s made our lives easier, but how do we know how much water we’re using when there seems to be an endless supply? We can check our water bills monthly and try to use less, but when the water is so readily available, it’s easy to take it for granted. We even flush our excrement with water that is clean enough to drink.
That’s what I love the most about only using rainwater in my house. It makes every use of water an intentional choice. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy an extra long shower now and then, but I do view it much differently than when I was hooked up to a municipal water source. It becomes a conscious choice to indulge, not merely a mindless habit.
On our farm in Southern Saskatchewan, my partner, our four boys, eight chickens and three rabbits all rely on rainwater for all our drinking, household and irrigation needs. We don’t have city water. We don’t pump it from a lake or from a well. We simply hold what naturally falls on our buildings. Yes, sometimes it gets tricky when there is a drought, but this just makes us more aware of our water consumption and habits. It’s amazing how little water we can get by with when we use it wisely.
Permaculture principles teach us how to use the water on the land as many times as possible before it leaves the property. For example, when rain falls on the typical house, it washes off the roof, into the gutters, and down into the sewers (or pools in one specific location before soaking into the landscape). When efficient design is applied, that same rainfall can be used a number of times in a sequence such as this:
- Rainwater falls on the roof of a building
- It gets collected into a cistern beneath the ground
- It gets filtered and used for drinking water, and other household practises
- The water then goes back out onto the land as greywater (this excludes water from toilets which is called black water) to hydrate gardens, trees, and replenish groundwater.
It really isn’t too difficult to reroute the water to serve more purposes in this cycle.
The greywater that we put on our land from our house is safe since we use homemade cleaning products or those which are carefully sourced so they do not contain any harmful chemicals. If I wouldn’t put it in my mouth or on my skin, then it doesn’t go on my land. Our septic (for now) goes straight into a holding tank. This will be replaced soon by a composting toilet which makes the septic system obsolete, and requires zero water.
Here are just a few of the benefits of using rainwater instead of municipal water:
- It’s free!
- There is no need for a water softener – it’s already soft
- It tastes so fresh compared to city water
- It doesn’t require a giant plant to process the water
- There is less risk of contamination
In our specific situation, we collect rainwater from the roof of our garage and our house for a total of 2288 ft² of catchment area. This provides us with all the water we need. Granted, there is usually one load of water that we get hauled in the winter months to get us through the 6 months of freezing temperatures, but it really is a tiny price to pay for having free water the rest of the year.
First, the water lands on our roof, where it is sent to the downspouts that converge under ground into a large filter (to remove leaves and other large debris). It then collects in the cistern which is located 15 feet below ground so that the water doesn’t freeze. The water is then pumped (on demand) into our home where it enters both a 5 micron and 1 micron filter (for particles) before passing through a UV light (to eliminate bacteria).
From this point, it runs through a charcoal filter to get rid of any odour or smell, then straight into our drinking glasses!
Since a large source of water usage is toilet flushing, many people will have a system that recycles the greywater in their home to their toilets for flushing. I prefer the use of a composting toilet that doesn’t require any water at all to operate.
Even if you don’t use rainwater inside your home for washing dishes, or doing laundry, you can still use clever design techniques in your yard to utilize every drop of water efficiently. This is done by designing your yard in such a way that it is watered passively (that is, without human effort). A great resource for learning how to do this is the book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster. He is a magician when it comes to making desert locations look lush by using smart design.
This picture from his book does a great job of showing how you can divert the rainwater in your yard to where it’s most needed – without the effort of carrying watering cans from your rain barrel each time it rains. Notice how the rain is diverted to the plantings in the yard, instead of onto the street and into the sewers.
If you wish to retain that moisture where it is directed, thick layers of mulch (leaves, bark nuggets, etc.) keep the water from evaporating while also suppressing weeds and creating habitats for insects.
For a fascinating video by Geoff Lawton on how permaculture design techniques transformed a desert into an oasis with only a minute amount of rainfall, check this out:
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