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According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of Wyoming is currently experiencing a severe to moderate drought. About half of the United States ranges from exceptional drought to abnormally dry. Living in a semi-arid high desert region, we’ve strived to make the most of our annual precipitation by harvesting rainwater combined with other water conservation methods.
I firmly believe if you live somewhere you can legally collect unlimited amounts of water, you should. If you live somewhere you can legally collect a limited amount of water, you should. If you live somewhere water collection is illegal…move. Just kidding. Mostly.
While there aren’t any federal laws that prohibit collecting or harvesting rainwater, some states do limit or otherwise regulate rainwater collection.
The Basics of Harvesting Rainwater
At its most basic, collecting or harvesting rainwater starts with a large flat surface and anything capable of capturing and holding water. Being able to direct the water into your collection containers is essential.
Our water collection system is incredibly simple, consisting of vinyl gutters and a couple of food-grade recycled IBC totes along with several 55-gallon barrels installed at the downpipes. One of these days we hope to upgrade to seamless gutters, but for now, we’re making do.
If you’ve priced rain barrels lately, you may have a case of sticker shock. I know I do! The “fancy” style barrels we bought for the front of our house for $30 each are at least three times that much now. We bought large garbage cans with wheels for extra water storage, and even those have gone up in cost. I guess it makes sense considering most of these water collection items are plastic, which is a petroleum product.
During our three and a half years of off-grid living, we didn’t have running water. In fact, for the first two years, the only water we had was either hauled from town or harvested from the sky. Even in our high desert region, our spring, summer, and early fall water harvesting were enough for our goat herd, chicken flock, and small garden. We even had a dedicated barrel that we used for washing dishes and laundry.
Many people throughout the world harvest rainwater for drinking and cooking. The CDC cautions that rainwater may not be safe for drinking, cooking, or bathing unless treated by filtering, chemical disinfection, or boiling. A first flush diverter, used for removing the pollen, bird droppings, and other debris, plus screens is helpful.
While the cautions are warranted, be scared of harvesting rainwater. Check out this amazing and informative video from Off Grid with Doug & Stacy showing their amazing system.
Getting Started With Harvesting Rainwater
There are many videos and articles on how to set up a water harvesting system. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’m going to direct you to a few resources we found helpful when starting our system.
Guidelines on Rainwater Catchment Systems for Hawai`i is a very informative PDF that covers everything from the type of roofing to storage tanks. They also have lots of information on how to calculate your possible harvesting and how to keep a clean system so it can even be used for drinking water.
The Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting is also full of info (here’s a direct link to the PDF). Some of it is a repeat of the Hawai’i info, but it’s still worth looking over.
Here is a very detailed article on catching rainwater and shows a few different systems. The info is good and worth reading.
Sectional gutters can be made out of metal or vinyl. They’re lightweight and easy to install yourself. But the metal gutters can rust, and the vinyl gutters can take a beating from snow. Each spring, my husband does a repair job on our vinyl gutters, caulking or even replacing sections. Even with this care, we still have leaks at the joints, which means we lose some of the water.
Professionally installed seamless gutters are, well, seamless. No seams mean no leaks. They’re available in different metal materials.
On our small shed, we have a gutter made from a leftover piece of PVC pipe my husband made in an afternoon to replace a broken vinyl gutter. I’d envisioned something like this with a slit made in the pipe and it fitting on the roof. I got something different, but it does seem to work.
Harvesting rainwater doesn’t have to be fancy!
If you aren’t in a position to add gutters and barrels, consider setting up a semi-permanent system using t-posts and a tarp. The posts stay in place, but the tarp and collection containers can be removed. When rain is in the forecast, quickly set up your system.
Here’s an even more temporary tarp version using a canopy stand. You could even set up some tarps over your yard furniture and direct it toward a bucket! Easy-peasy and hardly any cost.
If you use a tarp to collect water, keep in mind the wind may flap that tarp around and make your collection efforts difficult. If you have the space and a slope, you may want to consider a ground tarp collection.
Tarps can also be a great idea if you have a specific area, such as near a garden, to collect water for that use. Another idea is building a roof just for collecting water… a rain roof.
While I love the idea of a rain roof by a garden or food forest, I’d prefer to have it do double duty as an outdoor kitchen or picnic area. Check out this amazing outdoor kitchen with a rainwater harvesting system. Be still, my heart!
If you need water in a specific spot, harvesting it can provide it. A little imagination can go a long way.