Save it from a rainy day

In building homes for others, California developer Marty Meisler thinks about the kind of home and community he would want to live in. So as owner of Vision Development in Studio City, he got involved with the state’s Advanced Home Case Study program.

After proposing plans for three homes, Meisler decided he himself would move into the house that incorporated the highest level of green-building technology. But along the way, he faced a challenge that spurred a quest to learn all he could about rainwater harvesting (RWH).

“My lot is at the end of a dead-end street near the Los Angeles River channel,” Meisler explains. “When it rains, half of the runoff goes in front of our house. So I wanted to build something that wouldn’t contribute to the problem. Rainwater harvesting was the solution.”

After doing his own product research, Meisler realized RWH works best in tandem with a metal roof. He put on an energy-saving “cool roof” from Custom-Bilt Metals and then installed the Rain Tube gutter protection product that fits inside the trough to keep out debris. Next, the RWH system features first-flush diverters that “catch the initial runoff that has most of the garbage in it,” he adds. “There’s a vertical pipe with a filter, which fills first, before water is allowed to go into the main tank.”

For the “receiving end” of the RWH system, Meisler put a 750-gallon Rainwater HOG galvanized steel tank behind his house and two 50-gallon tanks in front. Though tanks can be installed underground, he relates, “We opted for above-ground tanks because their visibility provides an educational opportunity.”

Meisler is finding that, as more people learn about RWH, its popularity has increased. “These systems can be retrofitted to existing homes,” he points out, “and homeowners are finding RWH products are a beautiful and more discreet alternative to rain barrels.”

On the other hand, as a developer Meisler knows there are limits to how much of a premium home buyers will pay for green homes. Then, too, government authorities in his area “feel uncomfortable with the idea of mixing harvested rainwater into the city system.” For these reasons, he promotes RWH not as a replacement for potable water but, rather, as a cost-saving source of non-potable water for “irrigating lawns and gardens, filling the pool, washing the car, or just spraying the kids down on a hot day.”

Compared to systems that produce potable water for indoor uses, RWH systems which are designed solely for non-potable can be marketed as less costly to install and less complicated to maintain. “Once your system is in place, you just need to empty out the first-flush diverter after a storm,” Meisler says. The equipment can be even more appealing as Los Angeles suffers through a drought that has lasted three years and counting. “Mandatory rationing is probably coming this summer,” he reports, “and that means restrictions on lawn watering and even on the runoff leaving your property.”

Marketability and affordability are important. “Even for folks who want to do the right thing, cost is always an issue,” Meisler  states. “Given the initial cost of buying the 750-gallon tank, you need homeowners who can catch a vision for doing the right today — and then breaking even in 10, 15, or 20 years. Besides, homeowners who install RWH systems tell us that reducing their need for water just plain feels good.”

Meisler echoes that sentiment in his dual role of developer and homeowner. “I’m happy to have RWH in place,” he says, “because it’s consistent with what we’re trying to do.”

In the Heart of Texas
With the worst drought conditions in the country, Texas is also taking the lead in rainwater harvesting. Today, RWH systems are staple offerings for many gutter installers across the state.

As owner of T&E Services in Johnson City, Lewis Eckenrode lives in a region where the lakes are 50 to 60 feet below normal. “We position ourselves as a full-service gutter company,” he relates, “and so, along with the 5- and 6-inch gutters we install, our business also has a full-scale department that markets and installs rainwater collection systems.”

Eckenrode reports rainwater can be converted to human use more easily than water from any other source. “In rural areas, many people have well-water that has high concentrations of calcium and lime, so that the water is very hard,” he explains. “But rain is basically pure distilled water with a very low pH.”

Population growth is another reason RWH has boomed in the state. “We’ve seen a lot of growth in our business coming from places where the aquifer is dwindling down,” he says. “So even as the number of people increases, water is becoming scarcer and some wells have gone shallow or even gone dry.”

Unlike Southern California where Meisler emphasizes non-potable uses, Eckenrode reports that 60 percent of his Texas customers “want the water for potable use, while the other 40 percent just want it for irrigation purposes.” Yet for either type of customer, education is the key to selling RWH products. “Most people don’t realize how much they can save. Not to mention, the rainwater isn’t coming out of the aquifer and so it’s saving the environment,” he believes.

Compared to drilling a well, installing an RWH system can actually cost a little less. Yet as long as costs are reasonably comparable, homeowners will choose to help the environment. “That’s a real motivation for our customers,” Eckenrode notes. “They understand it doesn’t make sense to have water just run off and not being used — especially in a drought situation.”

In addition to a first-flush system, Eckenrode installs Leaf Relief gutter protection supplied to his company by Senox Corporation. After that, he says, “Rainwater used for irrigation purposes only needs just a tank and a pump,” while potable systems need quality filters. Using an ozone circulation system, the water is changed from H2O to H3O before being filtered again with UV light to reduce particulate levels.

Texas offers tax incentives, both at the state and county levels, for installation of water conservation equipment. “Some counties in Texas have a tax abatement program for RWH, so that they don’t increase the taxable property value on your house,” reports Eckenrode. “Other counties have a rebate program for home-owners who install the system. In addition, RWH equipment is tax-free in all of Texas. That includes items like gutters, PVC pipes, pumps and filters.”

For its part, T&E Services can provide its customers with turnkey RWH systems or, “because there’s a lot of do-it-yourselfers in our area, we have a store that makes components available to the public,” says Eckenrode. After the system is in place, T&E offers customers a maintenance agreement to provide regular service. “And we also do gutter work for three other RWH installers,” he adds.

The popularity of RWH is growing as filters and tanks become more available. But as more systems are installed, Eckenrode believes RWH may become a public health issue and installers will eventually be required to obtain licenses. “Right now, there’s no license required to install gutters or RWH systems,” he points out. “But we’re talking about water that people use. And so rainwater collection methods must be safe, proven, and acceptable.”

Categories of customers
Though licensor is not required in Texas to install gutters and RWH systems, the SparkleTap Water Company in League City has earned a Level 3 Water Treatment Specialist license from the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. The company also is a member of the Texas Water Quality Association and the American Rainwater Catchment Association.

President Jack Holmgreen confirms the increasing demand for rainwater harvesting, as well as the willingness of state officials to help promote it. For his part, Holmgreen breaks down his potential customers into degrees of need. “The smallest category — but the highest need — are people who own land but have no well water, or poor-quality well water and no access to a water district. There’s no other water available other than if it’s trucked in.”

By contrast, Holmgreen continues, “The largest category is comprised of people who are green-oriented. They may live in a rural or urban setting, but they want to get off the grid for both electricity and water as much as possible.”

Yet another category of customers — and perhaps the fastest-growing market segment at present — are government agencies that desire to collect rainwater for irrigation, sanitation, heating and cooling, and thereby reduce the burden on existing water sources.

Once again, the key to sales is education. “First of all, customers have no concept of how much water they can collect,” Holmgreen observes. And second, despite fears of acid rain “and the idea out in society that rainwater isn’t acceptable, it’s actually the cleanest water source that we have. When collected through an RWH system, the rainwater doesn’t touch the ground, the particles are easily removed, it’s soft and you can use it for anything.”

“In comparison, the initial quality of conventional water sources used by municipalities is becoming degraded over time. “The water that’s initially coming into municipal systems today has many more containments from agriculture or hormones and prescription drugs, which are difficult to remove. In other words, waste is overcoming our ability to dispose of it.”

Holmgreen agrees the number-one reason that RWH systems are installed today is customer concern about the environment. But return on investment is likely to become a more important factor in years to come. “Right now, monetary motivation doesn’t even make the top five on the list because the payback is between 7-10 years,” he says. “But water rates will continue to rise. So the payback could be cut to 5-7 years soon.”

For its first-step filters SparkleTap also uses Rain Tube products. “It’s made from recycled material, it’s non-flammable and keeps itself clean, and the cost is low,” Holmgreen explains. Gutter protection is likewise an integral part of SparkleTap’s RWH systems. “We recommend getting out any leaves, debris and pollen out as soon as possible — even if the rainwater won’t be used for potable purposes,” he advises. If the customer’s budget permits, his preferred gutter protection product is Gutterglove Gutterguard.

Borrowing expertise
Most gutter installers, of course, don’t have a dedicated RWH department or a water treatment specialist’s license. Another Texas company, Quality Gutter Systems in Boerne, nevertheless illustrates how any installer can enter the market for rainwater harvesting. 

Operations director Chad Yarbrough borrows the expertise he needs by partnering with local RWH companies. After starting in roofing nearly 20 years ago, in 2004 he launched his gutter business. Within a year, he began offering RWH systems as well. “In the hill country around here, homes require a well since they’re not on city water,” he explains, “and I saw a need for rainwater collection as an alternative. Today, a growing number of people are using RWH, in place of a well, as the complete source of water for their homes.”

About half of Yarborough’s customers use RWH, in conjunction with a well or with municipal water, solely for irrigation purposes. The remainder employs RWH exclusively for their residential water needs.

Yarborough concurs homeowners’ main motivation is to be environmentally friendly. “Construction has grown substantially in our area and people are getting leery of drilling more holes in the ground when existing wells are already drying up,” he reports.

When customers order an RWH system, Quality Gutters Systems installs the gutters and gutter protection. For the latter, the company sells powder-coated steel gutter screens supplied by Senox Corporation or the LeaFree gutter hood product. Then to install the RWH equipment, Yarbrough works with four other companies in his area who specialize in rainwater harvesting.
“But even if you partner with other companies,” Yarbrough advises, “you’re still responsible for doing your own homework. Calculate how much roof area there is on the project, which will determine you how much rainwater you’ll get. Then, if the customer is going to use rain collection for all their water needs, make sure you provide enough tank storage to get them through a drought situation.”

Still, partnership has distinct advantages. “The other companies hire us to do all their gutter work — and based on the volume we get, we refer RWH work back to them,” he relates. “Since our installers are specifically trained to do gutters, then it works out great for us to tap the other companies’ in rainwater collection.”

Before jumping into this kind of relationship, Yarborough cautions, “Make sure you have a good relationship with the RWH company. What you install — and what they install — must work together as a system. For example, the downspout or gutter must have a good connection to the RWH piping. Otherwise, the customer will lose water — and you could get blamed.”

In general, though, the future of rainwater harvesting looks bright. “Five years ago when I started the gutter business, no one was installing RWH systems,” Yarborough reports, “but now four companies in my area are doing it as their sole business. Every single year, the demand for rainwater harvesting has gone up.”

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