Building your own water barrel is one method for harvesting rainwater that is sure to lead to a more sustainable urban homestead.
PHOTO BY FOTOLIA/ALISONHANCOCK
Written for city dwellers by city dwellers, The Urban Homestead (Process Media, 2010) is an illustrated instruction guidebook for the homesteading movement. Kelly Croyne and Erik Knutzen show how to grow and preserve your own food, clean your house without resorting to toxins and raise animals in your own backyard. This excerpt from “Be Your Own Utility” gives six of the best methods for harvesting rainwater, as well as instructions on how to build your own water barrel.
After conservation, the second step toward water independence is harvesting rainwater. The number of ways you can go about this might surprise you.
Six Methods for Harvesting Rainwater
Rainwater harvesting is an easy and positive course of action for people in nearly every climate in the world. Living in a dry place such as the desert southwest may make it seem more urgent, but no matter where we live, rainwater harvesting is a positive step toward changing our attitude toward the water that falls for free from the sky. Rainwater can be sent to where nature intended it to go — to the soil.
The most important step in formulating a rainwater harvesting strategy is careful observation of present conditions. Where does water flow when it rains? Rainwater harvesting expert Brad Lancaster suggests working from the highest point in your yard to the lowest point. For most of us the highest point will be the roof of the house, but other high points could include sidewalks, decks, outbuildings, or your neighbor’s driveway. Observe where water goes in a rainstorm or when the neighbors overwater their lawn and ask yourself if there is a way to direct this runoff to where it will percolate into the soil and water your plants.
Rainwater Harvesting Technique 1
Become A Radical Depaver
Our first concern is to minimize the impermeable surfaces that prevent rain and earth from meeting. Your initial step in harvesting rainwater has nothing to do with barrels or pipes. Instead, you’re going to pick up a sledgehammer. In so doing you will eliminate, as much as you can, every impermeable surface that prevents rainwater from getting into your soil where it belongs.
Paving is convenient, but not healthy for the earth. Consider alternatives for any concrete or asphalt that is on your property: wood chips, un-motored brick, decomposed granite, anything that lets water seep through. These surfaces are more pleasant to walk on and look at than concrete, and they free up soil for planting. For instance, a driveway needs only twin tracks of stone, brick or concrete for the car wheels. The rest of it can be gravel or low-growing plants, and the edges of the drive can be lined with garden beds or trees. Less hardscaping in your yard means more water will percolate into the soil, and down into the water table.
Most concrete work will yield to a few swings of a sledgehammer. For densely-poured concrete you may need to rent an electric-powered jackhammer from a tool yard. A jackhammer is an easy tool to use despite its intimidating looks. Cradle it lightly in your hands (keeping it in a death grip will vibrate the hell out of your joints) and direct the chisel end at a slight angle so as to dislodge the outermost portions of the concrete that you are trying to remove. Using either a sledgehammer or a jackhammer, work from the outside of the concrete inwards towards the middle. Loosen broken concrete with a crowbar and pull it aside. If you have asphalt paving to remove, follow the same technique. It is softer, and so easier to pull out.
If you’ve got concrete poured next to your foundation you will want to leave some of it in place to prevent water from getting under your foundation or into your basement and causing expensive damage. To make a clean break between the concrete you are removing and a portion you may want to keep, you’ll need to cut a line in it. To cut concrete you have to rent a gas-powered concrete saw fitted with a diamond-edged blade. Your local rental yard should have one of these in either a hand-held or walk-behind version. You have to be careful to make sure that the blade does not go all the way through the concrete and into dirt. Dirt will strip off the diamonds and the rental yard may end up billing you for the replacement of the blade that can run into the hundreds of dollars. A concrete saw is a noisy and aggressive tool that needs to be hooked up to a hose to keep the blade cool. It makes a big mess and you’ll need to make sure to wear plenty of protective clothing — including eye and ear protection. There’s no shame in hiring someone if you don’t feel comfortable cutting concrete.
Chunks of broken concrete, sometimes called “urbanite,” can be used to make excellent raised beds and retaining walls. When breaking up your concrete, think about what projects you would like to use the urbanite for, and size it accordingly as you break it out.
One reason you should consider recycling your concrete is that it is expensive to get rid of it. You’ll have to pay to have it taken away in a special dumpster called a “lowboy.” The other reason is that the company that carts off the lowboy will do one of two things with your broken concrete: either stick it in a landfill or recycle it into yet more pourable concrete, exactly what our cities don’t need.
Any depaving at all is a step in the right direction. Nothing is more depressing than the millions of acres of concrete and asphalt that cover our urban environments, but at least we can deal with the little bits of concrete that we are responsible for.
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– By Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen at Mother Earth News