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Life on Rachel's Ridge: Rainwater Harvesting from the start
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Life on Rachel's Ridge: Rainwater Harvesting from the start
by Barry Churchill
Let's just say I'm a strong advocate of rainwater harvesting. Probably because I've been living off of it for 36 years.
You see I decided to build my home on a ridge top 250' above sea-level. I figured that's where the sun shines the most, for solar panels. It is high enough for great winds, for a 1000 watt wind generator. And I don’t want to forget to mention the other plus factor up here, the view! But what about water?
Initially after moving up here with my wife and one-year-old baby, we lived in a tent. I covered all with a 20' x 20' tarp and was totally amazed at the amount of water pouring off it when it rained. So I started filling a 55 gallon food grade barrel with the rainwater. Soon I had two, then three barrels, and I mounted them all just above my sink. I had running water after the first storm! On the West coast of British Columbia, it rains almost 16 feet a year. I live on a smaller island between Vancouver Island and the mainland. We get around 3' a year.
After building my house, I constructed a stand for a row of ten 250 gallon tanks higher up the ridge, 8' higher than my counter top, 200 feet along the ridge to the North. I chose to collect the drinking water away from the house because I burn wood to heat my house. I do collect off the roof of the house and use that water for gardening, but I've noticed after collecting rainwater for 36 years that on one side of my roof the rain goes through the smoke from the heater. The bottom of that water storage tank is black with creosote and I don't collect off that roof anymore. The upwind roofs are clean and I have no fear of using them to collect water for the garden; I just wouldn't want to drink it. This is something to be aware of if you burn wood for heat.
Up the ridge I use two collectors for the 10 tanks, one 24' x 22' (528 sq. ft.) and an odd shaped one that's 260 sq. ft. The one is oddly shaped because they're built as close to the ground as possible with drilled anchor holes in the ridge rock and bolted to the bluff. I used heat reflecting white, baked-enamel, painted roofing as the surface, screwed onto 2 x 4 rafters, crossing 2 x 6 beams on the anchor saddles. They are still there, after all these years and even after recent 71 mph wind gusts. One of the reasons I'm using 10 tanks instead of just one 2000 gallon tank is because of safety. If the main line pops apart at a coupling or a tree falls on the line and breaks the pipe, all your water is gone! Or if you're a week-end cabin dweller and you don't turn off the taps completely when you leave, all your water is gone! With more than one tank, you'll always have water. My tanks are joined together with couplers, so only one needs filling, as they all overflow into the next. I like to use the 'K.I.S.S.' theory (Keep It Simple Stupid) and siphon from each tank separately. I start the siphon with a small hand bilge pump on the main line at the tanks, which can stay in-line permanently. Basically, there's only one moving part, the tap at the sink.
As for filtration, two common stainless steel bug screens for the intake and a silk stocking stretched over a sturdy plastic bottle with large holes cut out and clamped on the main line for the outflow. I understand that rainwater is nothing but distilled water and is the cleanest, next to artesian well water.
Believe it or not, I'm still using the same 3/4" black poly pipe for the last 36 years. It's been frozen many times over the years and has never split, probably because I've got such low head with only 4 psi. Even at that, I have good shower pressure.
So, as I've mentioned before, I'm a strong advocate of harvesting rainwater. Now I know why in ancient times people worshiped the rain gods, the wind gods and the sun gods, they are the basics of a self-sustaining life.
Learn more about Barry Churchill
Q: What possessed you to go "off the grid"? Was it purely your location or are you naturally a "live off the land" sort of guy?
A: Back in 1975, when I was 28 years old, I built a small sailboat in Vancouver B.C. and was set to head north along the coast. I was going back to the land to try to live a simpler life. I was drawn to a small island in the center of the Strait of Georgia, now called The Salish Sea (an intricate network of coastalwaterways located between the southwestern tip of the Canadian province of British Columbia, and the northwestern tip of Washington). This small island has always been 'off the grid' with everyone creating their own water and power sources.
Q: How did harvesting your water begin?
A: At that time water came from lakes, ponds or wells (hand dug or drilled). So after I arrived, I followed suit. I didn't know of anyone catching rainwater back then. I hand-dug an eight foot well. Soon after it had filled, I found a dead deer in the bottom. Not only was there a decomposing deer in the well, but several mice were floating face down too! That was when I decided to catch rainwater. A simple catchment of recycled aluminum printing plates was built on a pole frame with a couple of recycled plastic food grade 55 gallon drums, to store the water. During the first big rain storm, I was totally surprised at the rate those tanks were filling with pure rainwater. Fortunately, I had the catchment and tanks 20 feet up a small bluff above my place, which gave me great water pressure.
Q: Can you give me an estimate of the cost savings of harvesting your own water?
A: If I had a well drilled and a pump installed with 400 feet of pipe to the top of the ridge, I would have had to take out a sizable loan; not to mention the maintenance it would involve. With a rainwater harvesting system, there is only one major moving part, the tap at the sink. The water is free so I have no utility bills.
Q: How do you treat the water so it is suitable for drinking? Do you disinfect in any way?
A: I've never felt the need to treat my rainwater; after all, it's just distilled water from the sky. I use two screen filters going into the tanks and a stretched nylon stocking over a bottle going out to the house to keep out bugs and fir needles.
Q: Can you detect a taste difference from well water?
A: Of course drilled well water can be cleaner, but it can also have undesirable minerals and heavy metals in it. Again, I live on a small island surrounded by salt water, so deep wells or wells dug by the coast can seep salt sea water in, making it non-potable.
A: Any more thoughts to those who are thinking of harvesting all their own water?
Q: I'm writing this article as a 36 year rainwater harvester and want to stress that it's not for everyone. You must follow your weather patterns and learn which way your storms travel. If you are living in an area downwind from a smelter or some industrial work place, the rainwater will pass through the pollutants on to your catchment and make it non-potable.
Storage is another important factor. There should definitely be enough water to get you and your family through the dry season. My area is dry for about 2 1/2 months in late summer. A larger catchment area will have a faster recovery time. I've been using white baked enameled roofing, 24' x 22' in size for one of my catchments and another one slightly smaller. So, I can catch over 600 gallons with a one inch rain fall.
Another important fact is that rainwater doesn't store well after about a year, so you don't want to store drinking water for much more than that. Water for garden and fire safety is fine to store longer. It's a good idea to flush out the tanks during the beginning of the rainy season every year. I've lined my 15 - 250 gallon tanks with woven tarps, so they're easier to change and clean.
To me, rainwater harvesting is a 'no-brainer'. You can get as complicated as you want with filtration systems, but my simple system has worked fine for my family. I've brought up two very healthy children in the last three decades. My daughter's a fashion designer and my son races mountain-bikes.
Feel free to contact Mr. Churchill at
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