How to Set Up a Rainwater Collection System

There are many ways to make your home and garden more sustainable parts of your life, from adding solar panels to generate more of your own electricity to choosing plantings that need less water. These are both pretty involved processes and can require a lot of research and time to get just right.

You know what isn’t difficult to do on your own and that you can accomplish in a weekend? Setting up a simple rainwater collection system. Since so many homes already have gutters and downspouts, a simple rainwater collection system can be a great weekend project that you can grow over time to meet expanding water needs.

Why Choose Rainwater Collection?

Rainwater collection used to be a fringe thing that a few gardeners and environmentalists did, but it’s growing rapidly in popularity as average homeowners realize there are real benefits. Increasing issues with drought across the West and Midwest are also driving interest in the practice, since it can help reduce the cost of watering, as well as help contain seasonal flooding.

“There are a number of reasons that someone may want to collect rain,” explains Jay Womack, senior project manager at Huff & Huff, a subsidiary of GZA Environmental in Geneva, Illinois. “At a personal level, it is often a choice to simply reduce their reliance on potable water, which is one way they are helping to conserve water. They may also want to collect rain to solve an issue, such as isolated flooding on their driveway or in their backyard.

“For others, it may be a way to reduce their water bill if they use a significant amount of water outdoors in a garden. Or it may just be a practical way to have water at a location so that they don’t have to drag hoses half way across their yard. Rain is also nonchlorinated and untreated so it can be a more natural and beneficial choice for plants.”

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Setting Up a Rainwater Collection System

The most simple rainwater collection systems are rain barrels, which are exactly what they sound like: barrels for collecting rain. They are generally moved into position beneath existing downspouts, so water from the downspout goes directly into the barrel. A lot of different materials can be used — and reused — for rainwater collection, but the choice should be based on where and how you’re using your rainwater.

Water simply intended to irrigate gardens doesn’t need to ultimately become potable; it can be used, more or less, as-is right off the roof, for example, but if you’re using rainwater collection for a larger or more frequent purpose, that calls for more permanent materials.

“Stainless steel corrugated tanks are the ideal holding tank for rainwater systems,” says Ben Neely, president of Riverbend Homes in Spicewood, Texas, which frequently installs rainwater collection systems with new home projects. “Because these tanks are mostly held outside, the steel won’t fade like a plastic holding tank and are better at resisting bacteria growth. If you’re just using the rainwater for yard irrigation, a plastic tank will be fine.”

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How Much Does ‘Free’ Water Cost?

Collecting the water that’s falling from the sky, in theory, costs nothing, but everyone knows that’s not entirely true. Everything has a price, including a rainwater collection system. Pricing can vary widely, depending on materials, how much water you’re collecting and what you’ll be doing with it. These factors help determine how much additional equipment like pumps, filters and decontamination systems you’ll need.

For a simple system, though, you won’t be in too deep.

“The most common configuration is to connect a rain barrel to a downspout. After that, rising in popularity, are water features that include underground rainwater storage,” says Davin Eberhardt, founder of Nature of Home, based in Antioch, Illinois. “Pricing depends on how elaborate you want to get. For example, you could build a rain garden for free with a shovel or purchase a $10,000 underground tank system. Most commonly, homeowners spend around $200 for a rain barrel system.”

More complicated systems may be priced by the gallon, since they require a lot more parts and labor.

“A general rule of thumb for an entire rainwater collection system professionally installed is between $1 and $1.50 per gallon of water you’re collecting,” says Neely. “This should cover the gutters, the trenching, the tank, the filtration and all installation labor.”

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Improving Property Sustainability Can Improve Desirability

Sustainable features are becoming more popular among homeowners. Although rainwater collection systems are simple tools, they’re still a sustainable element you can add to your home to help make your property more green.

“Collecting rain can certainly boost the sustainability level of a property,” says Womack. “Using a free natural resource that falls on a roof, collected and used to water gardens can significantly reduce a person’s reliance on potable water outside the home.”

But not every rainwater collection system will be a winner to a potential buyer. It’s important to see the system you’re installing through their eyes, especially if you intend to sell your home in the near term.

“Rainwater collection does increase the sustainability of a property, however, the value will depend on the system installed and how well it’s done,” says Eberhardt. “Homeowners will want to design a system that is as low-maintenance as possible. It could hurt resale value rather than benefit if it requires too much work.

“Start small and simple. Think about digging a rain garden, strategically directing slopes to the proper drainage areas, and adding a rain barrel. If you can hire a professional, install a system underground that is out of sight.”

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