Answering Your Questions About Rainwater Catchment

Installing a rainwater harvesting system can be as simple as catching gutter runoff in a barrel hooked to a hose for your garden, or as high-tech as the above image of a complete residential harvesting system.
After I spoke last week at Moving Bergen!'s local climate change event in Wyckoff, N.J., I received a flurry of questions related to rainwater harvesting, which I was promoting in my lecture as one of five extremely easy ways to be more sustainable.

Whether these are the most commonly asked questions about rainwater harvesting I can't say, but anyone who's been in doubt about when and how to get started might find the following information helpful:



  • Isn't it illegal to harvest rainwater in parts of the United States?

Unfortunately, yes. As insane as it seems, laws restricting property owners from diverting water falling on their own homes have been on the books for a long time. And with record droughts seen across the United States and globe, all falling water now has a premium on it. Utah, Colorado, and Washington each have their own sets of collection restrictions, which vary among regions and legislators.

To see what the deal is in your state, you'll have to check up-to-date guidelines. But in general, if you're installing a small system on your home, you're in the clear. If you're going to be outfitting a larger system for, say, a business (i.e. carwash) or a more expensive residential setup (for your showers, sinks, and toilets as well as your lawn a la the above illustration), then you definitely want to check with your local zoning enforcement officer to make sure you're in compliance.

  • Where can I get rainwater harvesting supplies?

A basic rainwater harvesting system can be created using totally upcycled materials, like an old gutter and downspout that was discarded, and any sized drum (at Better Farm we used old iodine tanks from a dairy farm that we thoroughly cleaned out). If you want or need to buy new, the National Tank Outlet has a great selection of tanks. You can get any gutter system from your local hardware store. If you're not much for DIY work but would really like to get involved, Loomis Tank sells full systems—just make sure you check with your local zoning officer before you invest a bunch of money in something that might not be allowed in your town.

  • How do you filter the water you collect?
The simple answer is, in the case of water you're using for plants, you don't. The rainwater system we have at Better Farm is extremely basic: water runs from the gutter to the downspout to the holding tank. The tank is outfitted with a spigot, which we hooked onto a hose that runs into the garden or greenhouse, depending on the day. For other uses with your rain water, you might want to look into filtration systems. Check out Rain Harvest Systems for a look at cutting-edge filtration components.

  • What do you do in the winter? 
Above-ground rainwater tanks have to be emptied in the winter (generally done simply by opening the spigot on the barrel) or outfitted with a heater. Larger installations may have underground tanks, filters, and water-carrying pipes that are laid below the frost line. For smaller setups, you can simply leave the spigot open during the warmer daytime hours to flush your barrel. Winter ice melt is nitrogen-rich and excellent for indoor plants, so be sure to catch what you flush in a watering can! But don't forget to let the cold water reach room temperature before feeding indoor foliage. Just make sure you have barrels that can withstand the extreme temperatures.

Please send any more questions or comments to me at nicole.caldwell@betterfarm.org.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.