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Uses For Harvested Rainwater
One of the most important factors when designing a rainwater harvesting system is what you plan to do with the water. Almost everything depends on this aspect. This decision affects tank size, delivery method, water quality, and total system cost. When making this decision, carefully consider the changes that may come in the future. If there is a possibility that the rainwater could one day be used for drinking purposes, parts of the catchment and storage facilities will need to be approved for this use. It is not a good idea to install a system for secondary use and then push it into potable use. In this case, it would be better to add another discrete drinking water system. If you plan to use any water indoors, it’s probably best to make the system potable, even if you never expect to drink the stored water.
Water efficiency experts, who monitored data from three watersheds for two years, concluded that a rainwater collection system that is used only for irrigation and replaces 40% of the water needed for this purpose will pay for itself in about 4 years. Indoor water-saving techniques, including low-flow faucets and showerheads, high-efficiency dual-flush toilets (HETs) or ultra-low-flow toilets (ULFTs), water-saving devices, and composting toilets were also accompanied by different results. The bottom line is that integrated systems cost more and take longer to pay back. External use alone has the best ROI, but lacks versatility. You have to decide what is important to you.
Irrigation and other external use
Irrigation is among the first things that come to mind for most people when they think of rain harvesting. It makes a lot of sense not to buy potable water for irrigation. In fact, there is some evidence that chlorinated water harms the biological health of the soil and thus reduces production. Other uses of outdoor water that work well with rain are vehicle washing, as it is soft and does not leave scale deposits that harm delicate finishes, and water features such as fountains and ponds that do not benefit from chlorination.
If your water district enforces outside water use restrictions, these do not apply to collected rainwater. Using rainwater does not incur sewer costs or strain on aging infrastructure, which in some parts of the country and the world is reaching maximum capacity. We can all contribute to extending the time our government entities have to address this issue by using less tap water for purposes that don’t need it.
Secondary use indoors
Flushing toilets and washing clothes account for about 40% of indoor water use and do not require tap water quality. Again, softness is a plus when it comes to these fixtures in the home. Less soap is needed for the same level of cleaning, and clothes are not damaged by the deposits that form when using hard water. Toilet valves and siphons stay cleaner when you use soft water. A sewer bill is based on consumption, so your water bill is reduced in two ways when rain replaces tap water for secondary indoor use.
Bathing, cooking, washing dishes, and drinking are considered potable uses in most cities and watersheds, and some states restrict the use of collected rainwater for these purposes, especially if the property is connected to a public water supply. Check local codes and ordinances before attempting to use indoor drinking rain. If your property is not connected to a public supply, then several university studies have been published confirming that rainwater is safe for human consumption if it is carefully collected and stored. Approximately 30,000 years of human existence on the planet supports these studies with historical data. The quality of rainwater depends on the quality of the air, so there are areas where heavy industrial facilities, livestock or volcanic activity can cause problems, but they can be eliminated with proper treatment. If you suspect that something like this is happening in your area, have the water in your tank checked and repaired if necessary.
Rainwater is slightly acidic; averages about 6.5 pH in most areas. This can be mitigated by adding a small amount of USP grade calcium carbonate. You can use the less desirable sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), but it also adds sodium to the water. If you have an unlined concrete tank, the calcium present in the concrete will moderate the pH to some extent. Most people don’t bother adding anything to their tank, and it’s very important not to add disinfectants like chlorine unless there’s an unusual event that contaminates the water with toxic microbes.
Homeowners fished drowned raccoons out of their cistern without disinfecting the water and saw no problem. There is a limit to how much of this kind of thing can be tolerated, but a minimally maintained tank develops a healthy biofilm inside that contains a colony of beneficial microbes that control the less desirable ones that enter with every rain or wildlife appearance. However, if rats enter the cistern, they carry disease-causing microbes in their urine and may need to be prevented.
For safety reasons, it is recommended that the potable rainwater system use some method of tank disinfection or cleaning. This can be as simple as a point-of-use or faucet-mounted device, or as sophisticated as a whole-house ultrafilter or UV water treatment unit. The most popular choice is a UV system with a carbon filter. These units are easy to install and maintain, but it is important to ensure good water permeability and replace the UV lamp once a year to ensure their effectiveness. Ultra filters do a different job, cleaning the water by filtering microbes out instead of deactivating their DNA and leaving them in the water, but they can’t reproduce like UV. The effect is the same, but the difference is significant for some people. Adding chlorine has several effects beyond disinfection, such as reacting with other elements that may be present in the water and leaving byproducts that may be harmful. Few homeowners use chlorine for anything other than cistern and pipe cleaning before first use. This ensures that there is nothing in the system that can thrive in untreated water. After that, adding chlorine should be considered a dramatic measure reserved for drastic circumstances.
A holistic approach
An integrated system combining potable, secondary, gray and black water recycling is the ultimate in water efficiency and self-reliance. A few of these systems exist, but more are coming online every day. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and Living Building Challenge movements are driving more and more people to reevaluate the way they choose to live on the planet and how they interact with society. The integration of all aspects of life beyond mere survival needs is contemplated.
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