Harvesting water

14 December 2007

Leanne in New Zealand asked if I would write about how we collect water for the garden. It's an important subject this one, especially as Australia is the driest populated continent on the planet. We've been going through the longest drought in our recorded history, many local councils have restricted the amount of water to be used in each house and Australians are looking for ways to cut back on the amount of water they use.

The shires closest to ours are now on level 6 restrictions. That is 140 litres (37 gallons) person per day, with heavy fines for non compliance. That 140 litres includes all water used for drinking, cooking, showering, cleaning, animals and outdoor use. We've never had water restrictions where I live and our dams are usually almost full but we decided a long time ago that water was precious and we shouldn't waste it.

When we moved into our home ten years ago we installed a corrugated iron 5000 litre (1320 gallon) tank. That cost us about $650. We have always used that water on the garden, to wash the car and the dogs and for watering the animals and chooks. I felt comforted knowing that in an emergency, we could also used it as drinking water.

Two years ago, when the drought had settled in and we had emptied our existing tank a couple of times, we installed a larger 10000 litre (2641 gallon) poly tank. This tank cost $1800 but our State government gives rebates and we claimed $1000 cash back. Hanno did our installation which saved a lot of money.

We put up some trellises and we're growing grapes and passion fruit near the poly tank. The pipes on the side of the shed collect water running off the roof. The one at the side of the tank, going into the ground, is the overflow. When there is too much water, it flows through this pipe into an underground drain and into a creek that runs at the back of our property.

We use the water in both tanks to keep our vegetables and fruit going, to wash the car and the dogs and for all drinking water outside. We also use the rainwater in the tanks exclusively in the aquaponics tank, which constantly recycles 3000 litres of water. This water is topped up from the tanks.

The water that goes into the tanks is collected on the roof of our house. The rainwater runs into gutters connected to downpipes which flow into the tanks. The iron tank is at the south-westerly side of the house and collects water from the back of the house. The poly tank is on the south-easterly of the property, behind our large shed. It collects water from the front of the house and the shed roof. According to Irrigation Warehouse "1mm of rain on every square meter of surface area results in 1 litre of water into the tank. Let's say that your house roof is 12 meters long by 10 meters wide - 12 x 10 = 120 square meters. If you had a very brief storm that dropped 1mm of rain on the roof, you would receive 1mm x 120 sq m = 120 litres of rainfall into the tank. A larger storm comes through and drops 25mm of rain, 25mm (of rain) x 120 (square meters of roof area) = 3,000 litres of rainwater into your tank. This calculation works for any roof area, all you need to know is the length x the width = square meters." We are blessed with good rainfall in our area and in this past year we've been having good storms and fairly frequent showers. This has allowed our tanks to remain between half full and full most of the time, even though we're using the water every day.

Below is the best photo I could get of our back roof. This, my friends, is the roof of people who are trying to do their best to cut back to the bare essentials while living a comfortable life. On our roof at the very top there are two whirlygigs that extract hot air from the roof space simply using wind power. Those grey bumps in the roof - there are three of them, are skylights. We installed them nine years ago so we wouldn't have to turn lights on during the day in dark rooms. On the right - the black ended round tank attached to the sloping panel is our solar hot water system. That went in about five years ago. The gutters on the roof edges are used to collect rainwater. And last, but by no means least, on the left, is a satellite dish for our pay TV. We don't have that service anymore, we gave it up to save money and so we could use the time we were wasting watching TV. I don't want that dish to be removed as it reminds me every day how far we've come and that everyday we have to consciously focus on saving water and electricity.

At the moment, Hanno and I use just over 100 litres of water each a day. We have a 5 star front loading washing machine, I wash dishes by hand, using a sink full of water and a small sink to rinse. We each shower once a day, we do about 3 or 4 loads of washing a week, we drink 2 -3 litres of water each a day. We are now in the habit of only turning on the tap half way, we turn off the water when we're brushing our teeth, we have 3 minute showers and a low flush toilet. Every one of these small measures helps.

Like much in this simple life, water conservation takes a plan and a focused effort. Sure it's a pain to do it at times, but it would be much worse if we had no water.

I'd love to hear your ideas on saving water. What do you do at your place?


Making the most of used water
Saving water in the home
Level 6 water restrictions


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Rhonda Jean. I'll come back later and re-read.

  2. It's great to see your water system, and it's made me wonder how something like that could work here. I don't know what your winters are like there, but here it gets very cold. It's -2 celcius here now, and that's almost considered a pleasant day! Do you have to worry about your system freezing in the winter?

  3. As desert dwellers in the SW US, we do many of the water-conserving measures that you do. As renters, we don't have the option of installing a cistern, but we did add some elbows and pipe to the downspout on part of the roof. Water from just over 1/3 of the roof is now diverted to two citrus trees. They are much healthier as a result.

    I've gone into a lot of detail on my blog about how we save water. Just clicking on the water label will pull those up. Here's a quick list off the top of my head:
    - short shower every other day
    - sponge off other days
    - use valve to turn off shower water while soaping up
    - collect water in bucket in shower that runs from tap while showering (5 gal/shower)
    - use this water to fill toilet tank (not as low-flow as we'd prefer)
    - "if it's yellow let it mellow; if it's brown flush it down" in practice
    - use camping portapottie for some urination saving many flushes
    - wash dishes by hand
    - dish rinse water goes to garden
    - save veggie washing water for garden
    - use hot canning water to wash up dishes
    - wash the car once or twice a year only
    - heavily mulch garden to hold water
    - water garden early on hot days
    - use energy efficient front-loading washing machine
    - wear jeans until they need washing (generally at least 3 days of wear)
    - don't wash sheets as often as they need it
    - in summer, drain washing machine water into 5 gallon buckets and haul out by hand (Will be plumbed in our own house!)

    That's all that's coming to mind right now. Gotta get back to my tangerine marmalade. Thanks for a great post and pictures!

  4. jacran, our lowest winter temperature, would be around the 2 - 3C mark. It never freezes here. But it would freeze at many places in Australia where people would have these types of tanks. There are also tanks that people put underground. I reckon they'd insulate the water.

    chile, thanks for your list. I'll be over later to look at your water section. : )

  5. Hi Rhonda,

    We're hoping to get tanks put in within the following year.

    We've had the home water wise plumber around to fix our leaking taps, install low flow taps and a low flow shower head and we replaced our geriatric toilet with a low-flush option.

    I only water the garden using greywater, and I wash my car with greywater and rinse it with rainwater that I collect in a bucket.

    I've put one of those big camping water coolers on the end of the kitchen bench to stop everyone turning on the tap and letting the pipes cool down before filling their glasses.

    The kids are still young enough to shower together or with one of us to save water and we time our showers with a 4 minute timer (we aim to get out as quick as possible though). Oh, and taps are always turned off to brush teeth and I wash up in a round tub, it uses less water than the sink.



  6. Rhonda Jean
    Believe it or not but posts like this are why I originally came to visit your blog. I live in southern New Mexico and for the past 2.5 years the water restrictions have been substantial.

    I have taken stock of the situation and researched the internet and found many ways to salvage all sorts of water. In our community we have persons that sole job is to observe the usage and misusage of water. I could not afford the fines and decided that we could really use the brains effectively.

    We are moving 15 miles south this month and will be converting the house to utilize even the gray water more effectively. In the city where I live the things we will do may look to another as an eyesore, such as your holding tanks, therefore we decided to move more rural to maximize all the water without wasting.

    I am running on, but I wanted to say that your tips have been quite useful even across the globe.

    Thank you very much.
    New Mexico USA

  7. Wow--very impressive. We haven't experienced water shortages where I live, but I would still love to have one of those big tanks!

  8. I am absolutely fascinated and envious! Is it common in Australia to collect water like this?

    How long has Australia been in a drought?

  9. Shell, you're doing some useful things there. keep up the good work. Will you get a rebate when you buy a tank?

    Jennifer, I'm fascinated by the practical aspects of living too. I love knowing how others do their chores and make life easier for themselves.

    Jo, we also have 200 litre containers under two of our downpipes. They collect enough water for me to water my pot plants. Maybe you could find similar containers. Put it on the side of the house no one sees. ; )

    Krista, yes, it is quite common. In the old days we commonly had tanks on houses here. In the past 50 years they've been phased out but are making a come back. If we had a good sized tank on every Australian house, we'd have far fewer water problems.

  10. I hope the rebates are still around by the time we can afford a tank, Rhonda.

    We should be eligible for our local council and the Qld state government rebate. We've got a problem that I'm sure a lot of people have. If there was a way of getting the rebates upfront, say when you purchased the tank for example, we could have gotten one ages ago, as it is on a single income with 3 kids we don't have that sort of cash lying around.

    Hopefully the tax man will be kind to us at the end of the next financial year :-) and we will be able to get a tank then.


  11. shell, I hope you get enough back in your tax return to invest in a tank. Often, if you get a council rebate and the State government rebate you don't end up paying much at all, but as you say, you have to pay up front and claim it back. Good luck with it, love.

  12. Rhonda,
    Thanks for sharing with us how you save/collect your rain water. Here in Ontario we obviously are not facing drought conditions but what we are facing, and have faced for a while now, is aging water treatment plants and polluted water. Just take a look at Walkteron several years ago -- E. Coli infested water got into the water system and several people died.

    Many first nations communities/reserves have been on boiled water advisories for years due to bacterial contamination. Just this past year a reserve was evacuated because of all the health issues arising from bad water. Even public beaches have had to be closed to the present of bacteria and green algae. Not a pretty site in the least. And I'm sure something the Tourism board doesn't want to advertise.

    But as for water conservation, I would say I try to eliminate showering everyday, and wearing pants, shirts, sweaters several times. Any bottled water that comes into the house, i.e. I bought some while out or picked up at a function ( i know! Bad habit, must learn to stop that!) goes into my jug for plant water, same with kettle water that has been sitting around for a day or so.
    I wash dishes by hand, and if possible do those every other day. That's more of a case of hating to do dishes than water conservation. lol

  13. The freezing issue isn't something I'd thought about in regards to water collection, but had in terms of the aquaculture setup. Don't think raising fish is something for us after all and I appreciate your thorough presentation of it. Need to do more thinking about the other.

    I know our neighborhood wouldn't approve of the rainwater collection tanks and am always trying to come up with a way I could disguise them -- and trying to figure out a place where they could be housed on a lot with limited land space and no privacy. Also balk at the cost.

    Right now I collect rainwater in plastic trash bins set at downspouts, but of course, this is still unslightly and comes no where to catching and storing our winter downpours for summer use. I also bottle rainwater into plastic milk jugs -- but at some point in summer, I get overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of these and toss them into the recycling bin -- so at a lack now when the sky is providing so generously.

    I haul my bathwater and dishwater out in summer and have a barrel set up with soaker hoses to re-use our laundry water along the south side of our house. However, reading the links provided, I see again I should be concerned that even those products labelled "environmentally friendly" really might not be. But what if it is labelled "safe for greywater use" ??? Should I trust it? It seems I need to.

  14. very informative ! We just recently saw a similar system here in texas.

  15. Thank you for taking the time to post so much information. Here in the north Georgia mountains we're at a level four drought (the highest level here). We have a private well that we're sure hoping doesn't run dry so we're always looking for ways to conserve.

  16. I know I am sharing this late, but I am unsure if this is something you have to deal with not living in the US. I know that here in Colorado (and I know other states) it is ILLEGAL to collect rainwater. Basically, by collecting the rainwater (even the runoff from your roof) you are preventing it from getting into streams and groundwater which might prevent the water from getting to someone elses, hence, you are stealing someone else's water). There are also laws in some states that say you can only have an above ground collector. I would just encourage your readers to check out city/state laws regarding collecting rainwater. I know you have a lot of readers in the US, and the only reason I even know about the law is because I was encouraged on another blog (long time ago) to collect rainwater, and someone mentioned it to me that it broke Colorado law. Saved me a $500 fine. We are currently working on saving to move to land and hope to get land where we can collect rainwater. :D Thanks again for your blog and ALL the encouragement I get from it!!!

  17. Hi Paula. It's perfectly legal to harvest rainwater from your own roof here. Governments give rebates when you buy a tank here. The water we collect is used in our backyard, therefore it eventually gets back into the ground to replenish the water table or flows off into the back creek.

  18. I am sorry, I did not mean to imply that you were doing anything illegal. Just wanted to make sure others here in the US (United States) checked with their local government before collecting rainwater. I think it is ridiculous that it is illegal in my state. I did read about the rebate you got for your watertank. I think it is fantastic that your government gives rebates for that. I wonder if any states here in the US do? That might determine where we move once we get enough money. :) I am sorry if I came across in a negative way, that was not my intent. I love your blog and get so much encouragement from it. I just wanted to make sure that US (United States) readers knew to check before collecting rainwater. Please accept my apologies for any discontent I caused.

  19. Paula, you caused no discontent whatsoever. I was doing the same as you and making sure Australian readers didn't think it was illegal here. Your post was not negative in any way - just questioning, which is a good thing.
    Our government also gives rebates on solar panels and solar hot water systems, water saving washing machines and shower heads etc. Hopefully your enquiries will reveal a forward looking state that you can move to. It is a real help when you have legislation that supports these initiatives. Hugs RJ

  20. I came upon this post while browsing your lovely blog and thought I'd contribute... although it's only to say that we do all of the things that folk have mentioned. We have no choice as we are not on mains water, and so have built a 24,000 litre cisterna (water tank) to complement the 5,000 litre one that was here when we arrived. The washing machine water is collected in plastic 1000 litre cubes and is used on the veggies. The downside (although it isn't really one) is that we forget to flush the toilet when we're visiting relatives in the UK!



Thank you for your comment. They are an important part of my blog because they help build the community here. Please don't add links or email addresses to your comment. This is a family-friendly blog and I don't have the time to check all the links before I publish them.

These comments are moderated so yours won't appear until after I've read it.