Interest in rainwater harvesting, in everything from rain barrels to huge underground cisterns, swelled in Charlotte before 2007 and ’08. That was when the area was enduring serious drought and real estate investing was sizzling, too.
Now, interest in collecting rainwater is growing again, thanks in large part to backyard organic gardens and suburban chicken coops.
The two trends are intertwined, said Matt Kokenes, who sells rain barrels and tanks through his Microfarm Organic Gardens at Atherton Mill. “Yes, (rain) is a free resource. Yes, harvesting helps mitigate what runs off your house. But the main thing is, it’s the best water for your plants.”
Growing interest in locally grown meat and vegetables promotes rainwater harvesting, too. Families visit farmers markets, then parents install barrels and tanks to reinforce lessons the kids learned on Saturday mornings.
“It all fits in with the culture,” said Bud Stewart, who owns Rain Barrel USA in Waxhaw. “As demand grows for fresh vegetables, interest in rainwater harvesting will grow.”
“Preppers,” those who want to live entirely self-sustaining lives, also harvest rain. But there are lots more raised-bed gardens than hardcore preppers.
If you want to try your hand, Kokenes said, start small. Consider an 80-gallon rain barrel, or perhaps a 165-gallon tank such as the one in his backyard off Central Avenue. Choose one that you and a friend can roll into place and that you can maintain.
A diverter connects to your gutter. When the tank is full, any excess is released. When you need more flow than gravity provides, add a small pump, Kokenes said.
Barrels and small tanks are easier to manage and camouflage in the landscape. You can hide them with strategically placed shrubs. If you’d like to keep more water, you can connect smaller tanks.
Overwhelmingly, harvested rainwater is used for irrigation.
“You can’t drink it (without treatment),” said Jennifer Pippin of Pippin Home, who designs houses in the Lake Norman area.
You can flush toilets with it, but that requires additional expensive plumbing, and such systems have fallen out of favor as homeowners watch their budgets more closely.
Businesses and institutions spend lots of money to manage rainwater, but that’s because regulations say they have to mitigate runoff. There are huge cisterns at Duke Energy and at Queens University, for instance. Homeowners don’t have the same financial incentive.
Robert Newman got into rainwater harvesting sort of by happy accident. Through his church, Fairview Methodist in Mount Mourne, he learned of some 250 gallon tanks that were available for free. These are commercial polyethelyne tanks inside a steel reinforcing cage. They’re used for shipping all sorts of liquids.
“I took four of them, so I have 1,000 gallons,” said Newman, who lives in Mooresville. “A month worth of rain in Mooresville gives me the 1,000 gallons.”
He uses the water mostly for washing his car and for watering his flowers and shrubs. He waters the plants through a simple drip irrigation system that uses about 50 gallons an hour.
In the winter, he empties the tanks, disconnects the pump and brings it inside to protect it from freezing.
He calculates that he has about $300 invested in his system, and that’s for piping and the pump, since the tanks were free.
He also calculates that he pays about 2 cents per gallon for municipal water from Mooresville, counting both the water and sewer fee. So that 1,000 gallons is worth about $20.
Business moves online
Much of the rainwater harvesting business has moved online. That’s a change shaping the industry as it rebounds from the recession and housing market downturn.
Joshua Runion operates North American Rain Systems in Spartanburg, S.C. He ships tanks and supplies all over the country.
Runion also sees customers from Charlotte. “They drive down here to get some free instruction, along with the supplies,” he said. Those customers also choose tanks that will fit into pickups.
Some homeowners start small and later decide to add more barrels, said Stewart, who shared a story to make his point.
“At a (municipal) sale in Charlotte, an older lady approached me in the parking lot. She said she was buying a 60-gallon barrel because her daughter wanted her to. She’d never be able to use all that water.
“At the next sale, she came back and bought four 80s. She told me, ‘Son, that 60-gallon barrel will fill up with dew.’”
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