Re-imagining The Water Supply

Getting freshwater supplied across cities and towns in a reliable and safe way is no simple task. Not only is a natural freshwater reservoir or other supply needed, but making sure the water is safe to drink and then shipping it out over a dense network of pumps and pipes can cost a surprising amount of time and money. It also hinges on a reliable power grid, which is something Texas resident [Suburban Biology] doesn’t have. But since fresh water literally falls out of the sky for free, he decided to take this matter into his own hands.

The main strategy with a system like this is to keep the rainwater as clean as possible before storage so that expensive treatment systems are less necessary. That means no asphalt shingles, a way to divert the first bit of rain that washes dust and other contaminants off the roof away, and a safe tank. This install uses a 30,000 gallon tank placed above ground for storage, but that’s not the only thing that goes into a big rainwater catchment system like this. A system of PVC pipes are needed both for sending rainwater from the roofs of the buildings into the tank and for pumping it into the home for use. With all of that in place it’s both a hedge against climate change, unstable electric grids, and even separates the user from the local aquifer which may or may not have its own major issues depending on where you live.

While Texas legally protects the rights of citizens to collect and store rainwater, the same isn’t true for all areas. For example, Colorado only just passed a law allowing the collection and storage of a meager 110 gallons of rainwater and forbade it entirely beforehand. There are some other considerations for a project like this too, largely that above-ground systems generally won’t work in cold climates. On the other hand, large systems like these are really only needed where rainfall is infrequent; in more tropical areas like south Florida a much smaller storage system can be used

48 thoughts on “Re-imagining The Water Supply

  1. Here on Hawaiʻi, water catchment has been the norm for generations for houses outside of town or more than a few hundred feet from the main roads. My last place had two 26,000 gallon tanks.

    1. name one! water tanks are extremely common in australia, and I’m yet to hear anyone charged. I have one at my holiday house in country qld as the rain water is much more drinkable than the town water – which is so chlorinated it feels like you are drinking from a swimming pool.

      Not sure why this is a HaD article though. It’s not exactly hard to put a tank in and get water into/out of it..

      1. Rainwater is almost a distilled water which isn’t drinkable. It may flush out all minerals, ions etc. from the body if you do so on a daily basis. Even worse, during falling and on the collecting surface like a roof it is polluted with bird or other animal feces, dust and can be infectious. Not mentioning the alga and other bacteria which are developing during the storage always. In this form even for your garden isn’t recommended. Without continuous analysis, it may be good for flushing purposes in the toilet (maybe, because it may develop a bad smell soon). Treatment is definitely required almost in all cases. The chlorine (usually in the form of sodium hypochlorite) is added to tap water for your safety. I really don’t see what’s free here.

        1. The few PPM of minerals in “mineral” water do basically nothing for you nutritionally, and do not make a difference in its solvent behavior in your body. This is a myth, stop spreading it. You get minerals from your food.

          1. The ppm of cheap retail “spring” water has been around 20-30 when I tested it, and my well which has enough minerals that it doesn’t taste particularly great is around 500-550. A quick search indicates that the range for popularly bought so-called “mineral” waters is about 40 to 1000 ppm, with significant variation. I believe that’s easily greater than “a few” ppm though. I’m not certain what the ppm of a typical electrolyte drink is, but I seem to remember it’s not more than a few times as much as that, counting only the minerals they have in common.

            When one exerts oneself in a hot climate, digestion slows and it can become difficult to absorb enough water to replace that lost to perspiration. While in general there is too much sugar in exercise/electrolyte drinks, the electrolytes replaced by drinking one of those for every few similar-sized drinks of water can be critical. If that’s the case, the needed concentration may well be within the range of mineral drinks, though that’s an expensive and bad-tasting way to do it in my subjective opinion. Typically they both have some of each ion, rather than emphasizing sodium chloride like some salty foods may do. In terms of how quickly you can avert some quite nasty and uncomfortable symptoms, only salty chips or the like are as fast.

          2. Picking up the one in my fridge, it says 0.13g salts but I’m not sure if that’s per 100 ml or the whole bottle. Some recipes for an “isotonic” drink would add about 1 grams of salt to a liter or 1,000 ppm.

        2. So, I’ve been living off roof-collected rainwater for >27 years. The roof is corrugated zinc-plated steel, and the storage tanks are also corrugated zinc-plated steel, with a thin, food-grade plastic internal coating.

          Not enough sunlight for algae growth. Well, there’s no algae in the tanks.

          The only processing it gets is a mesh filter to prevent leaves and frogs and mosquitoes getting in.

          Yes, there’s dust. Yes, there’s bird poop. That all settles to the bottom, and the pickup is a couple of inches off the bottom, so it doesn’t slurp that into the household supply.

          I get annual blood tests (for other reasons), but not once have I been told to take a supplement or adjust my diet for the lack of any mineral. It’s misleading to say that rainwater will leech minerals from your body. It’s misleading to say that rainwater is like distilled water. Did you think that raindrops don’t encounter dust particles on their journey?

          1. The WHO doesn’t agree with it, according their research it’s risky. The rainwater is almost distilled water, and yes it encounters particles and poo during its way. But that doesn’t make it better, it’s useful mineral content doesn’t change too much. I don’t see anything misleading here. You are really lucky if you live off on consuming water polluted with bird poo and never had any health issues connected with it. My comment is rather about the elevated risk of such a solution compared to means water. Of course I can be wrong.

        3. Youre thinking of DeIONized water.
          Distilled water IS drinkable.
          Sure. distilled water CAN lead to dehydration, if all you are doing is drinking distilled water, and sweating, and not consuming ANY food at all., then it can flush out vital minerals from your body. But thats also why its good for you under NORMAL day to day nonsurvivalist situations.

          Source: I developed kidney stones years back. My doctor advised me to STOP DRINKING HARD TAP WATER and start drinking DISTILLED WATER instead because your body NEEDS to flush minerals out. Ive been drinking distilled water for the last 7 years. No more kidney stones. Im 49 and my physical this year says Im in tip top shape despite drinking a gallon of distilled water or more every day. Its about all I drink, unless Ive got a stomach ache which always drives me to 7up.

          1. Thanks for describing your case. You have ( and your physician ) just confirmed what I have written, the point of my comment, the distilled water CAN flush minerals out from the body. And not just when one drinks such water alone, but by a normal diet as well. ( I guess you’ve eaten something during the last 7 years since you are free from the kidney stones. ) However I accept that critics, the distilled water IS drinkable, since it’s not poison, even it may save a life in a life-threatening situation. You may benefit by consuming the distilled water due to the higher risk of developing kidney stones, but I would rather say it’s not recommended for all. According to the WHO the slightly mineralised water is recommended ( all mineral content is between 200-400 mg/L ) for the majority.

        4. Besides water from roofs, you could always collect rainwater from solar panels in the yard. You merely add gutters along the bottoms of the panels. A valid issue with solar panels or roofs is that birds like to fly in formation (think geese) like a squadron of bomber planes and drop their guano in flight. And guano is a bioweapon.

          Also, there’s dust with god knows what spores. You’ll need a hepa filter, a way to pasteurize it (cranked-up hot water heater) then you add in the calcium hypochlorite as the disinfectant as you fill the tank.

      2. It’s not hard at all – except for the bit about keeping it clean and drinkable.

        I have a cistern under my backyard to collect rainwater for watering the flower garden. I would advise you to not ever drink the water from that tank. It stinks, and I really don’t want to know what all is in it.

        1. There’s a reason old sailing ships used iron-tanks for storing water since it helped stopping growth in the tanks. If your tank isn’t made from iron (or steel, preferably food-grade) it won’t stay potable for very long, especially if it’s rainwater. One simple treatment to keep the water potable longer is using chlorine/bleach (liquid sodium hypochlorite 6%), a teaspoon (5 ml/0.17 fl oz) for about 18 liters/5 gal takes care of most of the nasty stuff.

          1. As far as I can tell, rainwater is slightly acidic or on the lower end of neutral PH, which can lead to copper salts dissolving from the container and concentrating in the water over time, and those can cause liver and kidney damage if you get too much.

          2. I have a problem with chlorinating stored rainwater.

            You have (for example) 5000 gallons of rainwater in a tank.

            You dose it according to your formula, the bacteria die. Fine.

            What happens to the bacteria? They don’t disappear, they sink to the bottom. What happens then?

            My experience is that stored untreated rainwater develops its own ecosystem. There’s sludge at the bottom, consisting of dust & dirt particles, the solid part of bird poop, bacteria, and the rest of the tank contains dissolved minerals, and some floating bacteria. There’s no active circulation, but there is some convection going on – not enough to stir up the sludge, though – or my drinking water wouldn’t be clear. This stuff tastes fine.

            On the unfortunate occasions when I have to buy a truckload of chlorinated town water, not only does it make the water taste like a swimming pool, it turns the tank’s water smelly. Presumably the residual chlorine/chloramine initially kills the bacteria in the tank, but then anaerobic bacteria take over and produce a slightly sulphury smell. It doesn’t tkae much rainfall to get back to “normal”.

            I’d get it analyzed but that’s pretty low on the priority list. It hasn’t killed us yet, or made us sick, so I’ll leave it as is.

      3. Victoria, Melbourne. If they have a record that you have installed a rainwater catching system, they can send you a bill. It had happened after the draught crisis in Melbourne. People objected to that, they suspended the billing but the laws are still there. Please check carefully, the first time I heard about it in 1980, I was also surprised.

        1. I have 100,000L tank in victoria (metro melbourne), and no, I have never got a bill.

          And while I wouldn’t drink from that, the one in my holiday place – on the coast in qld – is the only thing I drink from.

  2. “With all of that in place it’s both a hedge against climate change, unstable electric grids, ”
    I’m pretty sure collective water treatment and distribution is more efficient and sustainable than having everyone equipped with their own collecting, treating, and pumping systems. I guess when the maker states that his water is free, he forgets to account for all of that.
    Also, I guess it’s true that it’s possible to have a well designed and maintained system, but most people would just connect a big barrel to their roof gutter and die from a random infection a few years later. Hence laws.

    1. No – the mains water I drink here in Melbourne, Australia, comes almost completely untreated (filtered for solids, fluride added) from the dam.
      The trick is not to have humans in the catchment area of the dam…

      And many many people in country Aus connect a big container to their roof (with a diverter for the first bit of rain that carries the dirt) and drink the result for their entire life..

    2. Collective treatment certainly can be way more efficient, but really that relies on dense populations where having your own tank of any size would prove next to impossible anyway – the longer the pipe from the water treatment works the more leaks it will have, the more powerful the pump required, and more resources needed to cover that wasteland between customers.

      The other big advantage to your own system is you are in control with much less reliance on the rest of the world. So any issues and you have nobody to blame but yourself, and you should actually know it is safe – can you really trust the tap water? You also probably built it so you can get maintenance access without causing traffic jams and inconvenience for everyone within 20 miles…

    3. You’re more likely to die from shortage than from a random infection. And you’re completely right, it’s easy to make a system that’s safe few weeks after completion, it’s much harder to maintain it one year or two in the future.

      1. Must be a paranoïa about water quality where I am then. Or maybe we are more susceptible of seeing these contamination due to various parameters. But I can tell you that any still water in a barrel here will make an inspector Scream “SALMONELLA!!!”

    4. Good points, I admit I had a restricted view on the subject (living in Belgium, basically densely populated everywhere around here). I 100% trust drinking my tap water, and I feel a lot of people do where I live, but I can certainly believe it’s not the case everywhere.

      I still think that the article meant self-sufficiency is the sustainable option. It’s really not, that’s just the only option for some people. Moreover, unreliable power grid is stil an issue for the pumping and last steps of water treatments.

      It’s basically another argument for the fact that densification of population is the sustainable option…

      1. Making a population more dense doesn’t magically equate to sustainable, and can easily end up much less sustainable if you take some of the worst but still realistic assumptions – as the cities that didn’t spring up with 1900’s tech, 1800’s tech or even earlier technologies as a baseline have so many decisions made for you by those folks hundreds of years prior that (probably) made sense at the time.

        For instance in the UK the Victorian sewers were really well built with excess capacity for the time, but a long time ago with the decision made to not separate excess rain runoff from the waste streams (which at the time makes a great deal of sense, what with the horse still being a major means of transport) – So now that infrastructure with the denser and larger population is not sufficient and can’t easily be made sufficient (not helped by greedy companies pocketing lots of the money rather than investing sufficiently, but even without that issue not an easy fix).

        However if you assume a relatively dense and suitably small population for the surrounding land area with all the right decisions made it is certainly possible for it to be sustainable. Maybe even on paper the most sustainable option – however the more you divorce the humans in their city from the natural world and their own life support generation the less they know about how it should be, thus the less they will notice or even care about when things get out of balance. So you can easily end up snowballing to a population too large to support in their current lifestyle with no comfortable way back.

        1. Indeed cities are slowly evolving things with a lot of contraints due to their past.

          But density doesn’t necessarily equate to enormous megacities of millions of people separated by hundreds of kilometers of near void. I go back to the belgian example: biggest city is 500k, second one is 250k, but we have ten times the average density of the USA. Yet you are never far from nice remote natural places.

          I don’t want to sound pedantic about were I live, I’m personaly convinced everything we do right is by pure luck and obviously the reasons big cities appeared are numerous and probably made sense to the past situations, but I think if we were to magically reorganize things it’s better to go for mid sized cities relatively close to each other instead of insanely huge cities hours of car drive away. That way you can have many urban centers were people can live with an acceptably high density, instead of lots of low density suburbs around over-populated centers, especially if you add a good public transportation system between the cities, which is potentially easier with mid cities not too far to each other.

          On that note, I think it is an exploit for Belgium to be able to sabotage their train transport system so efficiently. My dad took less time to go to Brussels from my hometown in the late 70s than what it would take him now.

          1. Relatively low density with small cities spread all over helps with access to resources, keeping the supply chains fairly short and land/logistics cheap.

            Big megacities form around areas with high trade activity, and the densest populations exist simply on the spill-off from the movement of value – by stretching the supply chains, extracting rents and adding more middle-people between the producers and the end consumers, which makes the logistics and land prices higher. That creates a lot of meta-work and meta-meta-work, and the trap is that those people who fall off that ladder become very poor indeed and have to subsist on menial service jobs for the rich.

          2. I also can’t comprehend why anybody would really want to live in a mega city, or see much in the way of gain for bringing that many people into a huge concrete jungle – if you can’t walk across it in a few hours it is definitely way too big IMO…

            But you could have a really sustainable mega city quite easily, as sustainable is much less about the area taken up by human constructions and much more about finding that balance between the population and surrounding land area and natural resources to support them – so the tighter you pack the people in the more land you have to support them which is a positive on the whole. But equally the larger the city population (for the same consumption levels) the greater distance resources will have to travel to get to the city and more transport complexity added by distribution inside the city => density isn’t a solution for sustainability in its own right, still need the population to be small enough or living in a lower impact way.

          3. ‘Yet you are never far from nice remote natural places.’

            I say it again. This is why Americans ignore eurotrash regarding urban planning and rail.

            There are no ‘nice remote natural places’ in Belgium. Not one.
            There is no place ‘in the middle of nowhere’ in Holland.
            The fact you think a park with castrated disneyfied nature is a ‘remote natural place’ says a lot about _you_ sprouts.

            We literally have parks bigger than your nation. To say nothing of national forests.

          4. @HaHa
            There are plenty of wild and barely if ever changed by humans places in Europe, some of Europe certainly is rather more managed everywhere outside the cities – The UK being a great example of that where most of the forest is managed or national park and almost everything else is agriculture. But real wilderness does still exist, though probably not quite on the same scale as you can find in the USA/Canada – areas of France spring to mind.

            I’d also point out that remote and natural places doesn’t have to mean entirely wild since the dawn of humankind and so far from any other people you need a week to stumble across the signs of another human ever having been there – a place can be justifiably called remote and natural when it is a long way from civilisation and the flora and fauna are mostly left to their own devices. Natural doesn’t precisely mean only untouched by human hands ancient woodland.

  3. Here’s the historical perspective. We’ve all heard about ancient aqueducts, but if you want a really detailed explanation of how the Romans did it from spring to sewer, there’s no better than this two part series from Spanish archaeologist Isaac Moreno Gallo. He was once a civil engineer, so he understands the challenges and how smart the ancient solutions were.

    The rest of the programmes in the series are also worth watching.

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