How to Conserve Water by Harvesting Rain or Snow

by Xin Lu on 3 August 2009 12 comments

When I was young many families in my town in China had a large jug or tank in the courtyard that collected rain water.  In my family the water is usually used to water plants or raise goldfish.  Some families also used the water to wash their clothes or toilets. In some areas the water is also used for drinking after boiling or other treatment.  Recently rainwater harvesting is becoming more popular in America and states such as Arizona and New Mexico are adopting laws that mandate rainwater harvesting for new buildings.  Here are some tips on how you can harvest rain or snow and conserve water.

The simplest way to collect rainwater is to just put large containers outside on the roof or in the yard.  This is basically what we did in China.  However, you would need a large surface area to collect enough usable water.  Another simple method to collect rainwater is to use some rain barrels.  These large barrels with a spigot are commercially available.  They collect the rain water that come from a roof's rain gutter or downspout and multiple barrels can be linked for more water storage.  If you are the do-it-yourself type, here is a great video from HGTV on how to make your own rain barrel. 

In areas with snow, it is possible to harvest quite a bit of water every winter by simply saving snow in large tanks or barrels.  Once the snow melts you will have a good amount of water stored up.  This is fairly simple to do as long as you have space for the containers.  If you have to shovel snow out of your driveway anyway then it does not hurt to save some of it for later use.

If you do start to collect rain or snow as a water supply then you should have some covering on these large containers so that pets and kids will not fall into them. Also, you should check with your locality to see the legality of collecting and using rainwater.  Apparently in Utah and Washington State, it is illegal to collect water from the roof unless the owner of the roof also owns the water rights on the ground.  In Colorado rainwater collection was just recently legalized.  In Portland you would need a permit for the indoor use of rainwater.

Generally, you should not drink the water you collect because there are various forms of pollution and dirt as rain falls onto various surfaces.  It is possible to set up a treatment system that cleanses the water to make it drinkable, but the systems could be costly.  The most economic use of collected water is probably gardening since plants thrive on rain anyway.  The collected water can also used for the following purposes:

  •  Washing vehicles or buildings
  •  Flushing or washing toilets
  •  Mopping the floor
  •  Laundry
  •  Recharge the aquifer by redirecting water from storm drains

Drinkable water is actually a very precious resource and Americans often waste it because it just does not seem very expensive. Having your own rainwater supply will probably not cut your water bills significantly unless you invest in a full treatment system and stop using municipal water all together.  Even if you do not go to that extreme, using stored rainwater is great for the environment and would definitely help in times of drought when water usage restrictions are in place. 

More resources:

The Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting

Harvesting, Storing, and Treating Rainwater for Domestic Indoor Use

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Guest's picture

What an interesting idea. I once did mission work in Cuba, and they also had a very interesting method of harvesting water. In Cuba there is no hot water, so in order to get hot water for showers they placed large metal tanks of their roofs, with a pipe leading down to the shower. Because it is so hot in Cuba, the sun heat up the water and the metal tank would keep it warm until it was used. I thought this was a great idea as well.

Guest's picture
Ken O

I have a 55gal barrel on my balcony. Since I didn't set up a tarp I couldn't save rainwater from this spring that way, but I did use pots and other containers and it was a lazy way of doing it. The barrel's half full.

I think this works best for suburban tract housing...large roofs, downspouts, room for storing harvested water.

Good post.

Cheers!

Ken

Guest's picture
Lisa

I think it is interesting that in Washington State, where I live, rainwater collecting is illegal. For a "green" state, I have noticed it does very little in the way of supporting eco-living. Public transit in Seattle is an absolute sham compared to Portland. Recycling is also more difficult, although this may be regional. I've lived in California and Maryland and both states had much better recycling programs than I've seen here.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

California's recycling rate is very high.  Right now it's around 70 or 80% I think.  There are also rainwater harvesting programs here since we have had drought issues pretty often.  There have been times in the last couple years when we were told not to flush the toilet too much.  I think in those times extra rainwater might help out. 

Guest's picture
JeanK

Loved you article. Great info which is very applicable here in Florida. I'm 70 years old and have lived in Ohio and Florida. Thankfully, both states allow rainwater harvesting. And, there is plenty of rainwater falling which can be harvested here in Florida. I've used rain barrels all my life, as did my mama and grandma!. Of course, their barrels where the good ole' wooden barrels.
One thing I would like to remind anyone participating in rainwater harvesting from their homes gutter system, is to be sure to keep those gutters squeaky clean. Granny always told me, "The water going into our barrel is only as clean as it is coming off the gutter!" That was her way of getting me out to clean the gutters, but how true it is.
Cleaning rain gutters can be a dangerous and dirty job, as many of you are aware. How would you like to see a brand new, American Made, durable, Gutter Cleaning Tool that actually vacuums out your gutters (wet or dry) while you stay safely on the ground. If so, I invite everyone to come and visit with me at http://www.GutterClutterBuster.com and see for yourself the various dangerous & dirty methods out there today and my newly invented, safer, cleaner, faster, and money saving gutter cleaning tool.
It saves you money first, as a "DIY Project." Don't have to pay someone else to do it! Its safer than any product on the market, so it saves on doctor/hospital bills should you fall off the ladder. It is a faster method of cleaning so you save "time" which IS money.
You can also dump your wet/dry vac container of leaves & debris into your compost pile or use for mulch around plants, bushes, & etc., and save more of your potable water. When the rain comes and your gutters flow freely you "save" more rainwater.
I could go on & on sharing money saving ideas when your gutters are cleaned with by this method. But most of all and most importantly, is the fact that, you don't have to drag ladders around or get up on them to clean your gutters.
So, Stay Safe, Stay Well, and "Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled." God Bless America! Keep On Saving Our Water!

Guest's picture

I always put containers outside during the rainy season, and save the rainwater for my outdoor plants. I also keep a small pitcher under my sink where I collect the water from cooking vegetables, the rest of my cat's water when I change it, the rest of the water from our drinking glasses, etc. for indoor plants. We have to watch our water use here in Southern California.

Guest's picture

I didn't know that rainwater harvesting is illegal in some states. Why is that so? Great post by the way, those are great ways to use collected rainwater.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

I'm guessing it is illegal in some places because rainwater is a natural resource and it is similar to mineral rights.  Other than that, it's just more government control. 

Guest's picture

Harvesting or recycling rainwater for your garden or to be used in the toilet is an excellent way to conserve water. Given that water is a scarce resource in some parts of the US including SoCal, spreading awareness on ways to conserve water is a great idea. You will find some useful tips on how to save water at http://www.bewaterwise.com/tips01.html

Guest's picture
Anza

As a new home owner, I believe this is a good idea. This water can definately used for different chores in and around the house. Currently my house has aluminium gutters which I believe will harvest less toxic water. I will have to do more research on the subject.

Thank you for sharing

Guest's picture
Dave

Excellent article! Thank you. Glad to see one more person in the world looking toward sustainability. We have been using rainwater from the roof here to water the vegetable garden for 2 years. It works and works well. A biological sand filter (often called a biosand filter or slow sand filter) in conjunction with a first flush diverter will produce pure water from most rooftop runoff. (There are some exceptions). A system can be put together by the average person that will make use of the water that runs off of their roof. As people begin to realize the advantages of capturing rainwater from rooftops, laws will change - they already have in Colorado. Our website (see homepage) has all the info. The water from our system has been tested by an EPA approved lab numerous times and checks out fine, plus it contains no toxic residue from chlorine or ozone, and no fluoride.
Dave

Guest's picture
Chris

First of all, I love the idea. But I find it ironic that so many are surprised that the act of collecting rainwater is illegal in certain states. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most people who see this for what it is, an effective way to collect precipitation to use in a more efficient, environmentally friendly way are in large part environmentally friendly liberals. What they probably fail to see is that if you assume 100% success rate of everyone collecting and using this water in this way, then hardly any water will make it into the water table to be harvested by the state and transported to places that have no rainfall or minimal rainfall. In other words, places like Los Angeles could not exist if every person in northern CA were successful at capturing their water. So those who tout the necessary role of the state to make sure everything is "fair" show their hypocrisy by supporting this practice. Current liberal ideology would hold that the state is responsible for distributing the resources...therefore they have every right to restrict you from collecting "their" water. Not standing up for so called "conservatives" here, just find the comments amusing :-)