Pseudo Cisterns To The Rescue


When I read about the resurgence of rain barrels going on these days, I think of them as part of the urban scene for some reason, not something popular out here where the corn grows tall. So I was more than a little surprised when our local Soil and Water Conservation District began selling them. Fifty bucks.  Here in my neighborhood, more people have farm ponds and cisterns than rain barrels, and those of us who do catch roof water in small amounts have managed to equip ourselves with barrels without, God forbid, spending money for one. If you can’t beg a free barrel, you just ain’t real country yet.

Actually, I would buy a rain barrel if I had to. We’ve always kept one or two  around the place, even back when we lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I’ve  used them mainly so that I don’t have to carry water to the chickens. A barrel is certainly cheaper than a pipe line, well, cistern or pond. What I finally did in the suburbs so as to have water handy throughout winter, was to partially bury a galvanized steel stock tank of about 30 gallons behind the chicken coop and rabbit pens, a sort of cheap, tiny cistern with boards over it for a cover, and ran a length of roof guttering from the coop roof to the tank.

I wonder if the resurgence of the rain barrel is just a step on the way back to more cisterns. That’s what a cistern is— a glorified rain barrel. The Soil and Water Conservation District is pushing rain barrels as a way to lessen the flow of runoff water into streams, storm sewers and (here) Lake Erie. Surely cisterns would be more effective. With the recent panic over the contamination of public water out of Lake Erie in the Toledo, Ohio  area, the situation is now dire enough to make the cistern more worthy of attention. Knowledgeable cistern owners know how to keep roof water surely as clean as Lake Erie water and it would be most comforting not only to have your own water, but to be able, with a simple hand pump, to have water when the power goes off. Rain water is very soft, great for washing hair or clothes. With a full-sized cistern you wouldn’t need a water softener, you’d use less soap, and as an alternative to public water, save lots of money. The downsize is that you’d have to train your teenagers not to take hour long showers.

But rain barrels might be a way to have the best of both worlds— an adequate emergency water supply without the cost of a full-sized cistern. Jandy’s  market farm (Jan Dawson and Andy Reinhart who, I am honored to say, comment on this website) maintain a sophisticated rain water irrigation system for their gardens— large recycled plastic tanks with piping to various crop plots, catching the water off several large sheds.  They believe that warmish rain water used for irrigation makes plants grow better than well water or tap water and I am inclined to agree. I can sprinkle well water on our gardens for several hours at a time and not get the response of even a mild rain shower. I’ve heard (don’t know for sure) that rainwater has more nitrogen in it than ground water.

So let’s say we go one step farther, a little more towards a cistern but far cheaper. Let’s bury several barrels, or one larger plastic or masonry receptacle in the ground to provide year-round emergency water— with a hand pump on top to get the water out. Once I buried two barrels at our barn under the downspout, and just dipped the water out with a bucket. A wooden cover with an old rug over it kept the water from freezing. My mistake was in using steel barrels, which rusted in a few years.  (Now, with only a few chickens and no livestock, I just use a couple of five gallon buckets insulated with old rugs and sometimes snow.) In old barns in Wisconsin and Minnesota I’ve seen “cisterns” in hay lofts that in olden times were buried under hay in winter. With the cows in stanchions below for more warmth, these tanks did not freeze enough to present a problem. Since they were on the floor above the animals stayed, no pump was needed to deliver the water to pens and stalls.

As long as we’re brainstorming, let’s go one more step. Let’s stock our large rainwater storage tank(s) with fish. That has been done often, in various ways. When I was a child, our concrete watering trough for the horses and cattle, about four by ten feet in size and five feet deep, always had catfish in it, some of goodly size. We kept the tank from completely freezing with a thick sawdust cover over half of it. Since Dad brewed his own beer on occasion, and since we grew lots of wheat and corn, we might have been the first beer-battered fish farm in the nation if we had only known.


Excellent post, I am so glad to see awareness of catching rainwater rising. When I was in my early 20’s I helped care for and elderly lady who lived the home in which her husband was born. There was a cistern in the laundry room at the back of the house. I didn’t really know what that was then, but now I look back and I am jealous! We are working to have guttering on all outdoor sheds to catch and save rainwater.

This post seems to have brought a fair number of readers from Australia/NZ out of the woodwork, so I’ll dive in too!

As David notes first flush filters are really effective. Here in Australia even the Federal Health Department – usually very cautious about such things – gives it the tick. Their advice: a roof kept clean of debris (like seasonal build up of leaf litter) with an adequate first flush device is able to supply safe drinking water without additional treatment.

Document here:$File/enhealth-raintank.pdf

Tastes better too…

Jan, I was the “little one” that had to climb down into the emptied cistern to scrub down the walls and scrape up the last little puddle on the floor. You are probably right that your Mom’s family did not drink the cistern water— we did not because we had a well too. The cistern water was for washing. Dad talked about dead mice in the cistern, but I never remember seeing one. Gene

Here’s my Mom’s story. They had 2 cisterns at their farm house growing up. Each year they would clean out one of the cisterns and then let it fill up to be used the next year. She was the little one they sent down into the cistern to clean it. She said they would usually find a dead bird or two. She’d have to scrub it out. It’s beyond me how she could go down into that dark cavity, toss out dead birds and still drink the water again…. Of course, maybe they didn’t drink that water. They also had a well. I wish she were here to ask … but perhaps they used the cistern water for washing and cleaning, not drinking? They only had an outhouse so it couldn’t have been used for that…. This is probably how stories evolve. Once some of the memory is forgotten and the original story-teller is gone, one has to make up new “facts” to fill in the blanks!

I have an 1100 gallon underground plastic cistern to catch rainwater off my roof. It collects water off just one side of my gabled roof. I’ve set up an ABS pipe downspout that allows me to separate the first few gallons of water off the roof before it goes into the cistern, essentially washing the roof before I start collecting in the cistern. After the rain, the few gallons are vented. I pump from the cistern for my kitchen and drinking water (a filter gives me pure delicious drinking water since there is a lot of Roundup and 24D spraying around here). This amount of water serves my year round needs well and with the minimal water I use in my house, spring rains and the odd rain shower during the season can serve these needs. Other water tanks set up to collect from roofs of various outbuildings serve for irrigating gardens and we also have ponds we pump out of with solar powered pumps for larger scale ag irrigation.

I live at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in northeastern Missouri and we as a community try to use as much caught rainwater as possible. Our common house, where we have shared showers, has a larger concrete block underground cistern, and some people have these larger capacity cisterns for their houses. In recent drought years we have had to resort to county-provided water (not me in my house though) because we have a lot of visitors during the season and so demand goes up. We do take shorter showers and have valves on the shower head to shut off the water while soaping up. Overall though, the system is much more water independent than most. Glad we don’t have water rights here though, and it is legal to catch water.

Love your blog and incidentally, I grew up down the road in Bay Village, OH.

In Virginia–and maybe many other states now–installing a cistern is actually one of the few stormwater management BMPs (best management practices) that you are allowed to use as you design your development, whether single family home or commercial business. The idea here is two-fold: you reduce the actual runoff coming from a lot/parcel and at the same time you reduce the potential for any pollutants that may be carried by that runoff water.

As a soils consultant, I think it’s probably better to store as much water as possible for re-use than to assume that it will percolate back into a nutrient deficient, compacted lawn, as some of the other BMPs do. Problem is, if you aren’t raising your own food, you probably don’t even think about the benefit and therefore I fear that most of that stored water will go stagnant and just be dumped or pumped onto the ground when the cistern gets full. It takes labor and planning to harvest rainwater and I’m afraid that many of our fellow Americans don’t have that issue high enough on their priority list. So far, I don’t see many folks running out to install them, but as time moves on, contractors and home owners won’t have much choice when building on small lots.

Here is the design spec for Virginia:

Gene, I’ve tried to email a few times but I don’t think I’m getting through. My email address must be getting caught by your spam police. Hope all is well.

You can get first flush diverters that take the first flow off the roof and store it in a piece of downpipe with the idea that the cleaner water once any muck on the roof is washed off is what makes it to the tank. We don’t have a diverter on our garden tanks but we do have one on the large tank on our hayshed on our land in the country.

I don’t know how well the diverters work. You would need to clean them out regularly. We had a fine collection of gloop in the one on our hayshed tank last time we cleaned it out.

Talking of haysheds and gloop, swallows seem to love nesting in sheds in Australia and crapping a lot. It used to drive my brother mad when one pair insisted on nesting in our tractor shed and liberally covering the tractor seat. We have a pair in our hayshed that seem to aim at the table we have in there judging by the collateral splatter. Do they do this in the US?

David, Really enjoyed browsing your blog. You have a lot of very good ideas.

I know the Westerners don’t want to hear this, but in Western Pa. we have so much rain this summer that the two 500 gallon cisterns are helping to reduce my garden flooding from spring and road run off. When we built the house I told my neighbor (excavator) Tom that i wanted a cistern. Oh, he said, how ’bout a septic tank? I stopped dead and he added…I mean a new one…we could get it cheap, bury it beside the house and run the gutter rain into it. And so it was done. The tank drains down to a hydrant that provides fresh water throughout the year. When city people visit and go wading in the creek…she wash off at the hydrant. This AM, when the power went off, I moved the grill over to the hydrant, fired up, made breakfast on the grill and washed up at the hydrant. When we built the garage some years after the house, Tom said “are we going to do another one of those water septics again?” “you betcha, I said.”

Sue, I think the problem I’d have with drinking cistern water is that the roof rain water lands on is not sanitary for at least the initial moments or minutes of rain. Days or weeks of dust (from barn yards and pastures and bird droppings could be on the roof and once washed into the cistern, bacteria can only multiply and I say that as a person that eats carrots out of the ground, and so on. I agree that in terms of softness and what have you, rain water is the way to go.

We are in New Zealand and host wwoofers. It was from some wwoofers from the US that we learned that there are places where it is illegal to collect rainwater. That is something that I find astonishing; can’t my head around it. They’re also surprised that we drink the water, whereas I think of rainwater as just the best and hate the chemical taste of treated ‘town water’. We’re mostly reliant on rainwater for house and garden and have a total of 5 tanks; 3 25000 litres and 2 30000 litres taking the rain from the house a shed and the haybarn. They’re on different parts of the property and are arranged so that the water is all gravity fed. As back up in a drought year, which does seem to be happening more often, we can pump water form a dam/pond to another tank which then gravity feeds down. That is when we either boil the water or, more usually, take water from one of the rainwater tanks for drinking. Water is a precious commodity alright.


I believe you are on to something. A few evenings ago I helped with a Master Gardener class and the extension agent mentioned a master gardener training program being developed for rain water harvesting for Indiana. It seems that is now a hot topic.

I grew up with a cistern at our home. We purchased water at that time since it was for drinking and cooking. (No bathroom inside our house back then) The well water was horrible and full of iron. I never thought it was all that unique.

Now I do have a rain barrel and getting ready to add another one. I am sure if I every build another house I will incorporate a large cistern to collect all the rain water from the house and use it for laundry and the bathrooms.

Maybe, just maybe with droughts and all the severe weather people are starting to think of conservation as not just something nice to do but a means of self preservation. I can only hope we become more frugal with our resources. My little grandkids deserve that.

And Pat like you… Eat More Tomatoes!

Installing a rain harvesting system with a cistern is the last bit of work we have to do to our suburban homestead (such as it is). We replaced the asphalt roofing we had with a standing seam metal roof in preparation for it, but I haven’t figured out where exactly to put the cistern. That, and the cost are the only things holding us back.

I’m a believer. Raised in arid Colorado and having spent the better part of two decades living in San Diego, even south-central Kentucky rainfall seems precious to me. I have an 1100-gallon cistern collecting rainwater off my little horse barn roof, a 2,500-gallon tank I fill with a battery-operated ag pump from the nearby pond to water the garden, and another 2,500-gallon tank waiting to be installed down by the shop building to capture that roof’s rain harvest. Any house we build will include a below-ground cistern potable water system – the technology is available, it just requires the homeowner to assume maintenance responsibilities for a utility that is normally provided by a public entity. The safety and security of such a home-harvested supply of water will be, in my opinion, well worth the effort. Great subject, great post Gene.

We had a brutal drought in Victoria for the first ten years or so of this century. The large water storages Melbourne relies on were at very low levels which saw strict water use restrictions introduced. We had just bought our house and planted a load of fruit-trees and bushes, canes etc as well as making vegetable beds. So if we weren’t to lose the lot or break the law we needed to catch at least some of what rain was falling on our roof. I worked out we would need about 35,000 litres (~9,000 US gallons) to keep us going over a whole summer without rain. The footprint of this much above above-ground storage was very large (our block is about a sixth of an acre) and expensive if built as one tank in concrete. So we went with 2 x 9300 litre UV-stabilised food-grade plastic tanks for a total of 18,600 litres (4600 US gallons) and hoped we would get at least some rain over a summer to top them up.

The tanks have been great. We had some heavy rainfalls a few days after we installed them which nearly filled both. We have had some very dry patches where the tanks have been invaluable. From memory, the only tree we lost was a young avocado which was hit by some unkind combinations of very hot days, dry winds and probably water stress.

We’ve used our tanks for garden watering but we could have connected them to our laundry and toilet supply. (And still may do.) I grew up on tank water in the country used for drinking and cooking. However, drinking and cooking with the captured water does mean ensuring the tanks and roof capture area are kept clean and uncontaminated and that the rainfall is also clean enough to drink. I remember that the the primary school I attended (years 1-6) had odd tasting drinking water for a while until the dead blackbird in one of the tanks was discovered and removed. Drinking dilute raw blackbird soup made for some tough country children. But not an artisan/foraging/wild/local etc food I intend to revisit 🙂

There’s a few pictures of the tanks in posts on our blog:

The installation was a hoot as they had to manoeuvre the tanks over a garage into the backgarden. Quite an eye-opener!

Shots of our beehive often show one edge of a tank.

Tom and Betsy Webb August 20, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Interesting ideas! Especially the cistern in the hay mow. Wish we still had one to try it out in, We agree with your perception that rain water is much better for gardens than well water, and to that end have captured and used natural precipitation for years. It is always surprising how just a brief shower will fill up the barrels.

haha, so true.

cool thing about rain barrels though (especially if they’re a dark color) is that they store free heat (from the sun) if you stick ’em in a greenhouse during the colder months.

no PV required…

The local Extension water guru had told me several years back that many homes in the North Central and Northwest parts of Pennsylvania still depend on cisterns for their domestic needs. The geology is not always conducive to drilled wells.

In our little valley, sulfur is the main reason for catching and storing rainfall for household use. We are lucky enough to not have hit that seam with our well. We do catch the roof water in several 300 gallon totes for our garden and the Community Learning Garden my wife volunteers at has a 3,000 gallon tank to feed the drip system. Pumped well water is too precious to be the first choice for outside use.

We have a neighbor who has fish in his irrigation setup. He has a lean to greenhouse fed by the roof of a large shop/garage. It goes through several large tanks of tilapia before going to his gardens. Also acts as a heat sink in the winter.

With the abundance of rain this summer, the tanks are full waiting for a 36 to 48 hour drought.

Eat more tomatos!!!

I have 2 “rain barrels.” The largest, in the back of the house, is a big square thing in a wire cage that holds almost 400 gallons I think. I run a hose from it down hill into the goat pastures and fill their water troughs with it. The one in the front of the house is whisky barrel sized and is to water the dogs, flowers, and chickens. I have a huge one that is taller than me that I plan to install to catch water from the barn roof. It will hold about 1000 gallons I think and will be for the garden.

Did you know that it is illegal to collect rainwater in Colorado? I guess they are so hard up for water that the state claims every bit of it!

A great idea but here in Washington State I understand it is illegal to store precipitation. Nevertheless folks do it and I intend to join such folks. I don’t know of anyone prosecuted for such. What is ironic is that deep wells used for irrigation are often permitted as in grandfathered in and it seems their effect on water supplies for streams and groundwater is far more than what rain barrels and cisterns would be. Doing the math on hard surface accumulation (E.g. a barn or house roof) of water during a significant precipitation yields some surprising results in regard to how much water can actually accumulate in a short time ,which if it doesn’t soak into the ground usually ends up in surface water somewhere usually picking up contaminants along the way.
Allowing the precipitation from the barn roof to accumulate in the barn yard simply makes a soggy stinky mess in the barnyard. I’m convinced that precipitation that accumulates in feed lots is one of the main reasons for the stench and vile living conditions commonly found in feed lots. How much better ( in my opinion) it would be to provide roofs and cisterns for feed lots that captured and used precipitation.

I understand that in the Australian outback storing rain water in cisterns provides most of the water for many ranch homes. I also understand that long showers in such places are taboo. Water is precious; hopefully we as a species will learn to treat it as such.

Fifty bucks? Maybe if it came with the pump?

Soft, free rain water is all I have ever used for household use. Water heaters and pressure tanks last forever as there is no mineral to corrode them. Several thousand gallons accumulate from the eavestrough in a concrete cistern beside the house. In a wet year like this I can’t use it up fast enough. Not safe for drinking or cooking but anything else it is ideal for.

Gene, I was recently scolded by a well-meaning, but naive neighbor for not doing rainwater harvesting.

I try to garden year round here in Cali, so no watering is normally necessary from Oct.-March,our rainy season. We seldom get so much as a drop, though, from the end of April till the next October. In order to capture any meaningful quantity, in an amount that would help my cause during the rainless summer, I would need about 50,000 gallons in storage capacity, tolerant neighbors, a building permit, and lots of money. Fifty gallons in a barrel, saved from the winter might water two of our raised beds for a day, maybe.

I have to pay for my city water, at drought prices, but still, the food we put by makes it worth it.

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