The Rain Barrel: The Worth of Water, Part 2

The Rain Barrel
This is set up at my parents’ house but it is the same one we have at the cabin.

Shortly after I wrote the post called We Never Know the Worth of Water, my Mom and Dad bought us a rain barrel.  Not only did they buy it for us but they went out to the cabin one evening and set it up for us.  They bought it at Canadian Tire on sale for $104 (regular $140), fully assembled except for the faucets.  There are two faucets – one halfway down from the top and one near the bottom.  This makes it convenient to gauge how much water is actually in the barrel.  On the top, it has a screen to allow water in but to keep leaves and bugs out and because it’s brand new, there is no worry about contamination from something else inside the barrel. It holds 190L when full.  You can find plans on Pinterest for how to build a rain barrel for cheaper and loads of posts on kijiji for recycled barrels but you never know what’s been in them.  They are pretty big and so not exactly the easiest things in the world to clean.  There are often fundraisers put on by schools or churches that sell rain barrels so if you are thinking about getting one, keep an eye out for flyers at your work or community centre to get them for a little cheaper and the money goes to a community group. Luckily for us, shortly after it was set up, it rained every day for a week and the next time we arrived at the cabin, we had a full barrel.

Obviously, a rain barrel is a great solution to the “no running water” issue.  But what exactly can you use rainwater for?  First of all, it comes off the roof, which collects all sorts of interesting things and then it goes through the eavestroughs, which can also get pretty dirty.  It will carry whatever toxins and contaminants into your rain barrel that might be on your roof and in your eaves (mould, bird poop, etc,). Rainwater can carry parasites, bacteria, viruses and chemicals and has been linked to disease outbreaks.  Also consider that rain blown through populous areas gathers toxins from pollution.  The quality of rainwater can also be affected by the frequency of rain (or lack of it), the season, the environment (urban vs. rural) and by other contaminants in the air (soot or smoke).  All of these things makes rainwater impossible to drink.  And if it’s impossible to drink, then to what degree is it safe to wash dishes or wash our hands?  In the city, the water is used for lawns and gardens but out here in the woods, what can I do with 190L of beautiful rain water?

Well, according to some American sites for water safety, the process of purifying rainwater into drinking water is too delicate to even consider. Brita filters can’t clean it well enough so that’s not an option.  Some End-of-the-World-Prepper sites give instructions on how to bleach it.  (Um, no thanks.)  You could also use water purification tablets or boil it, as in the olden days, but it doesn’t taste very good.  (This is why beer and tea were the drinks of choice in the olden days – both are made with boiling water and are much tastier to consume.)

Gravity-fed filtration system for group use.
Gravity-fed filtration system for group use.

There is also a fairly new product on the market called the LifeStraw .  I haven’t tried it but this company created a water purification system for disaster-struck areas.  It’s a great product for camping but the individual LifeStraw doesn’t protect against Giardia (Beaver Fever).  They have larger sizes that have passed water safety guidelines and can be used to filter any kind of water (even disease-filled, dirty ground water, apparently) into pure drinking water with virtually no effect on taste.  We are looking in to buying one of these to refill our drinking water cooler jugs with filtered rain water.  I will let you know how it works.

I did find a simple process to purify water enough to do dishes with it.  The simple formula is 8 drops of Clorox to 5 gallons of water to make it dish-worthy.  The process doesn’t have to be quite as precise since you aren’t actually ingesting the water.  We haven’t done that yet, we just spend the extra time to boil it for several minutes, add soap and ta-da!  Clean dishes!  It doesn’t remove the dirt particles but we rinse the dishes in potable water so the dirt particles go down the drain with the dishwater.

Doing the dishes is our biggest consumer of water (and cooking but we will only ever use bottled water for that). But one person does use a fair amount of water in an average day that we forget about.  Just this past weekend, our first few uses of water were from the rain barrel.  We watered the dogs (okay, not the cleanest water for them to drink but they are dogs; they lick their butts and constantly have leaves and dirt stuck to their drooly jowls so I figure a little rainwater won’t kill them.  That being said, dogs can get Giardia so be on the lookout for signs and symptoms as an indicator of intestinal unhappiness.)

Using organic soap, we created an old-timey wash station.  I feel a bit like we're in the Wild West.
Using organic soap, we created an old-timey wash station. I feel a bit like we’re in the Wild West.

We set up a washing station with a washbowl, organic soap, washcloth and towel so we could get ourselves a little cleaner after any number of dirty jobs that need to be done at the cabin (hauling rocks, chopping wood, building a deck, digging holes, cleaning tools, etc.) or simply just washing feet before we put them into the bed.  After using rainwater and soap to get the dirt off, we use hand sanitizer on our hands just to make sure.  We use rainwater for our campfire water, to mix concrete and to wash the deck off.  Though I have not yet tried this, I have read that rainwater is absolutely fabulous to wash your hair in.  Rainwater is naturally soft which lathers well and makes hair soft and luxurious.  Likewise, rainwater could be used for laundry – whether in a washbasin, a big bucket or in this funky new product called Scrubba – basically,  a small, watertight laundry bag that has a flexible internal washboard.

Managing the water makes life manageable.  If we are going to spend a great deal of time out at the cabin, finding inexpensive, eco-friendly and sustainable sources of water is a priority.  When water is scarce, dark clouds bring hope and a rainy day is like the arrival of a good friend.

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