Our farm actually provides several options for water.  There is a good well, but because it is only around 50 feet deep and our property is located high up on a bluff, anytime we have a drought, the well dries up with overuse–especially with our family of 7 plus animals.  The second option we have is city water, however, in order to actually connect our house to the main water pipe at the road, we have to run it down our 1/4 mile driveway at a cost of about $10,000.  After that, it costs about $50 in monthly fees just to be connected, plus whatever cost for usage that month!  That’s a little steep for us, not to mention we have a fear of city water anyway due to JR’s water-related seizures as a baby.  So, our third and preferred option was to install rain-water collection cisterns, and that is just what we did.  For the record, the actual rain-water collection system install will run us close to the same price for initially connecting to city water, however, we will have no monthly charges after that, so it begins paying for itself right away.

In our case, we opted to install two, customized, 2,000 gallon, concrete cisterns into the ground, giving us a total of 4000 gallon storage capacity.  Our family is fairly frugal with water, and we have calculated a current monthly usage of about 2000 gallons.  Of course, that will go up slightly as the kids get older, plus it’s always good to have some to spare.  With our short time frame, we had to hire it done, but it was great to get to watch and have a say in how the pipes were all connected. 

First, they had to dig a gigantic hole, roughly 20 feet long by 10 feet wide by 17 feet deep.  Then a massive truck carrying our cistern pieces drove in and began to unload one piece at at a time.  Each cistern was divided into 3 units–the bottom half, the top half, and a lid with several holes.

This is just the top half of one cistern.

The cisterns were assembled and sealed, a 6 inch PVC pipe installed to connect the two cisterns at the bottom to allow water to fill both equally using gravity pressure, and then a water truck was called in to pump in 2000 gallons.  We immediately noticed a few leaks and had to pump all the water back out.  After the leaky areas were re-sealed and checked, another load of water was brought in, the dirt filled in around the cisterns, and the rest of the unit assembled. 

S (front) standing on top of one cistern.

Next, they lined up and sealed the entry points, which consisted of a concrete “donut” ring that really served as a riser/spacer to fill the gap between the ground-level manhole entry point and the top of the buried cistern.  This ring was covered with the actual man-hole entry piece, which allows us to check the water level or enter and clean the tanks periodically.  There is a vent pipe on one lid to allow air to exchange with water as needed, as well as a 6-inch well casing where we will eventually attach a manual water pump.  In addition to these, there are two other holes, one on the upper side of each cistern.  One is the entry point, where the rainwater will pour in from the gutter pipe system, and the other is the overflow exit point (when we have seasons with lots of rain!).  Unfortunately, I completely forgot to take pics of the customized set-up, so I am going to offer you a sketch in the event it actually interests you…

Inside, the house was re-plumbed somewhat to allow the house’s primary water to come from the cisterns.  By using rain water in our copper pipes, toilets, sinks, tubs, and appliances, we eliminate problems caused by mineral deposits that well water causes.  Because of the benefits of those same minerals, the well water will service the kitchen drinking system only, serving as our drinking water and water for our ice maker.  In addition, the water pipe leading from the well to our barn was destroyed before we bought the place, so we had that pipe replaced such that the well will also service the 2 hydrants in the barn.  As a back-up plan, however, the plumber set our house system up such that, with a simple flip of a switch, we can reverse the water flow so the barn can also be served by the cisterns in a dry year. 

You may be wondering by now how rain-water collection cisterns can be of much use in a drought year.  We actually aren’t quite as dumb as we seem.  You see, once the entire system is in place, we estimate that 1 inch of rainfall on our 1200 square foot roof will provide us with about 748 gallons of water.  If that rain is 1 inch per hour, then we will be collecting 748 gallons per hour.  So, essentially one good solid rain could possibly fill our cisterns, and provide enough water for an entire month of drought afterward.  Of course, there are such things as droughts that last multiple months with no rainfall (though highly uncommon in our area).  Should that happen, we can have city water trucked in to fill the tanks, which is still far cheaper than connecting to city water permanently.  The previous owner of the property used to fill the well with this city water when it dried up, but of course, if the soil is dry, a good portion of that water will simply be absorbed into the ground rather than be available for household use.  So, by having the cisterns, we have the option of trucking in water on an as-needed basis (which we hope will be very rare), filling the cisterns, and having none of the precious water leach back into the soil.  It will all be available for household use. 

Before closing, I want to add a side note about collecting rain water.  The water is only as clean as the surfaces it comes in contact with.  A shingled, leaf-covered roof, while probably cleaner than city water (believe it or not!), is not as great as a debris-free tin roof.  This should at least be considered when going this route.  Our roof is currently shingled, but because we aren’t drinking the rain-water for now, we aren’t too concerned about it.  However, our roof is way overdue for replacing.  So, we have spent the last couple years having any overhanging limbs and trees cut back to prevent debris collecting on the roof, and we will soon be replacing the roof with some type of metal roofing.  Furthermore, our gutters will be replaced and re-directed at the same time to allow all gutter downspouts to be easily connected and diverted into the cistern’s entry pipe.  There are also several layers of different sized plastic and screen filters connected to any openings to prevent large debris, insects, and varmints from collecting in the cisterns themselves.  The only thing that will get through is small sediment, which will collect at the bottom of the main cistern for the most part.  An every-to-every-other-year cleaning will take care of that issue.  Then, we simply have to clear the screen filters on occasion to keep everything flowing smoothly.