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What Is a Rainwater Collection System?

Have you ever considered that all the water you consume was rain or snow at one point? Think about it, the water cycle starts in the oceans, and anything above sea level needs water “pumped” up. This is done by evaporation and precipitation in the form of rain and snow. Rivers, groundwater wells, and municipal supplies all use what was originally rain, so why not short-circuit the whole process and just collect the rain?

Water can be in short supply and incredibly expensive, depending on where you live and travel. Additionally, water from the tap often gets treated with chemicals like chlorine and fluoride. One of the most popular options for addressing these issues is using a rainwater collection system.

So what is a rainwater collection system? Today, we’re taking a deeper look to see if it might help you. Let’s go!

What Is a Rainwater Collection System?

Don’t overthink it. A rainwater collection system is exactly what its name suggests. It’s a specifically designed system that collects and stores rainwater. These systems range from simple rain barrels for watering plants to massive harvesting systems capable of supplying water for an entire town.

Rainwater collection system for gardening
Rainwater is often collected in barrels for watering plants and other household uses.

Collecting rainwater is a common practice around the world. It is prevalent in locations where water is costly or not readily available. Having an adequate rainwater collection system in the right area can save you money and is great for the environment.

Instead of needing to filter groundwater, proper rainwater collection can provide safe water supplies just about anywhere without the need for a well or municipality.

How Does It Work?

The basic idea of a rainwater collection system is straightforward. It’s rainwater running down a collection area (usually a roof) and into gutters and then ultimately into a storage tank. Basic collection systems typically aren’t complex or overly sophisticated in design.

More elaborate systems can include auto-fill systems, pumps, and complex filters. The system’s complexity will greatly depend on how the user intends to use it. Robust systems can provide for practically all residential water needs.

Rainwater Collection Systems for Off Grid Living or RV Camping

Many off-grid properties or RVers who prefer camping off-grid rely on rainwater collection to keep their fresh water tanks full. Similar to residential systems, an RV rainwater collection system captures water runoff from the camper’s roof.

The rainwater is funneled off the roof, collected in a barrel or other water storage device, then pumped into the RV’s holding tanks using a water pump. Generally, RVers will use a filter to clean and purify the rainwater before it enters the holding tank and/or at the faucet, depending on how the water will be used.

Off Grid Water System for Camp and RV

Pro Tip: If you plan to use rainwater for drinking, make sure you Choose the Best RV Water Filter System for the job!

The Benefits of a Rainwater Collection System

Many people get their entire water supply from rain alone and have a self-sufficient water supply, and having water in itself is a huge benefit. Those using it far off-grid can have a water supply where it would be difficult to dig a well or get water by any other means. Others will collect it for a specific purpose like filling a pool, watering a garden, or for livestock.

remote rainwater collection
Many places on small islands rely on rainwater collection as there is no city water or groundwater available.

By investing in even a small rainwater collection system for your lawn, you’re keeping more money in your pocket. By using rainwater, you’ll use less city or groundwater and likely see a decline in your monthly water or electricity bill. However, there are more than monetary benefits to collecting it.

During dry seasons, some parts of the country will put water restrictions in place. These will often control when and how long you can use water. Restrictions often prohibit watering lawns and other activities that use excessive water. You can typically use the water you collect how you want and when you want.

Even if your rainwater collection isn’t your main water source, it can be tremendously beneficial to have a backup supply of water on hand. You never know when you’ll need it for flushing toilets or survival.

caged IBC tote
IBCs (intermediate bulk containers) are popular choices for collecting rainwater by the hundreds of gallons.

Pro Tip: Consider purchasing an RV water bladder to store additional water in the bed of your truck while traveling.

Are There Any Downsides to Using a Rainwater Collection System?

There are a few disadvantages to owning and using a rainwater collection system. They can require a rather steep upfront cost and routine maintenance. You don’t want to discover your system isn’t working when you need to use it.

One of the biggest downsides to a rainwater collection system is its dependence on rain. They’re rather useless once your supply runs out during a drought. So while they’re great in theory, it can be rather difficult and risky to make them your primary means of water. Many times people will use massive multi-thousand-gallon tanks if they are relying on it for a primary residence in a dry location.

Rainwater Harvesting Full System Tour - Southern Arizona
Tour a full home rainwater collection system

The Legalities of Collecting Rainwater

There are no federal laws or restrictions dealing with the collection of rainwater. The federal government leaves it up to individual states and local governments to create the laws and regulations for their specific areas. As a result, some states encourage it more than others.

For example, rainwater collection in Alaska is completely unrestricted. Many residents in the state even use it as their primary water source. However, in Arkansas, rainwater collection can only be for non-potable purposes. It must be engineered by a licensed professional, and must comply with the state’s plumbing code. 

rainwater collection system
Make sure you understand local laws on rainwater collection before you set up your system.

If you’re planning to install a rainwater collection system, check for any local restrictions first. This can help you avoid wasting money on expensive equipment you can’t use or return.

What Does It Cost to Build a Rainwater Collection System?

Building a rainwater collection system can run from $150 to $15,000. The total price tag will significantly depend on the type of system you’re looking to build.

A 55-gallon rain barrel that has a spigot for watering plants will typically be in the ballpark of $150. However, if you’re looking for a massive 5,000-gallon tank for irrigating and using water for residential needs, it can get expensive very quickly.

Is It Worth Setting Up a Rainwater Harvesting System?

Rainwater collection systems are great for the environment and can be budget-friendly. They’re excellent for watering plants and gardens and can even extend your time camping off-grid. If you live or travel in areas that receive decent amounts of rain throughout the year, they’re a great option. 

barrel of water
Rainwater collection is most advantageous for people who live in areas that receive decent amounts of rainfall.

However, if you live or travel in locations with very little rainfall, they may not be worth the investment. Save yourself a load of trouble by doing research and even chatting with others who harvest rainwater. They may be able to help you avoid any mistakes they made along the way.

Water conservation is only a smart part of off-grid living. From waste management to generating and storing power, here are the Important Lessons RVing Can Teach Us About Living Off the Grid.

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About Tom Morton

Tom, a Pacific Northwest native, is our technical genius. Born in Washington and raised in Alaska before settling in Michigan. He's the man who keeps our operation running, both figuratively and literally.

With a background in Electrical Engineering, Tom specializes in RV solar systems and lithium batteries. He made history as the first documented individual to use a Tesla battery module as an RV battery. Tom has personally assisted countless RVers with system installations and has educated thousands more through his videos and articles.

Cinematography is another of Tom's passions, showcased in his work on the Go North series. You can see his camera skills on display in The RVers TV show on Discovery Channel and PBS where he also stars as a co-host.

Tom's mechanical expertise extends beyond RVs to boats, planes, and all things mechanical. He's renowned for taking on maintenance and repair projects single-handedly and is often spotted underneath RVs, making him the technical backbone of our endeavors.

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