Garden

Collecting rainwater: tips and alternatives

Susanne Loacker

Rainwater is useful in both the garden and the house. It is not only good for the environment, but pipes and household appliances will benefit from its low lime content. However, since the amount of rainwater collected is quite limited in this part of the world, it’s worth finding alternatives for descaling tap water – on a small, local scale – for instance by using a water filter – or a filter system for the whole house.

Water is flowing out of a pipe into a barrel. Vines can be seen in the background.
© Getty Images / schulzie

In this article

Don’t simply let rainwater seep away

In the summer, local municipalities regularly introduce bans on watering the garden. In the coronavirus summer of 2020, there were even real drinking water shortages in some municipalities as private water consumption more than doubled – not least because many more people than usual suddenly decided to fill their swimming pool.

Each inhabitant of Switzerland uses 40 liters of drinking water per day to flush the toilet; experts calculate an average usage of 130 liters per person per day. Reason enough to give serious thought to what we do with our water. It therefore seems logical not to let rainwater seep away unused, but to take advantage of it in both the garden and the house.

A woman is washing her hands under running water flowing from a tap in the kitchen.

Having access to clean water is a matter of course for us. But water resources are not endless.

Collecting rainwater for the garden

Whether in the hot summer or at other times of the year: if there is no rain, you must water the plants in the garden yourself. To do so, it’s worth purchasing one or more water barrels and barrel pumps. Ideally, you should place them just below the drain of the rain gutter – or divert the water to the barrels with a garden hose.

A barrel pump, which can be adjusted to different barrel heights, is available from around just 100 francs (for instance from Hornbach). An ordinary green rain barrel with a capacity of 300 liters or more is available from DIY stores (Hornbach) from around just 50 francs. If you prefer a more stylish or classic look, you can also opt for an amphora rain barrel (holds 600 liters, usually costs 655 francs).

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Collecting rainwater for the house

If you want to use rainwater for your house, you must first have a rainwater collection system fitted. This does not come cheap: installing this type of system costs between 7,000 and 14,000 francs. You can then use the treated water to flush the toilet or supply the washing machine, for example – two areas of water consumption that should not be neglected.

But the amount of water you can actually collect depends on many factors: the surface area of the roof is just as important as the average rainfall in your region. You should contact a specialist to calculate the appropriate size of the tank you will need to hold the collected rainwater. In principle, however, a rainwater utilization system should be considered as a long-term investment that will not pay off immediately. Having said that, it will be environmentally friendly right from the start.

Besides saving drinking water, another plus point of rainwater is that it is virtually free of lime. Your pipes will thank you for it, because limescale settles in pipes, on fittings and in appliances. At best, this is only annoying and requires extra cleaning. However, if limescale clogs the wastewater pipe of the dishwasher or washing machine, this can lead to a malfunction of the water stop valve. With a bit of bad luck, this in turn can cause the water pipe to burst.

Descaling tap water: filter systems for your house

If the rainwater utilization system is not sufficient at least for the toilet or the washing machine, a filter system with an ion exchanger is a good option. With this system, hard water – i.e. water with a very high lime content – becomes softer and hence better for the pipes. Modern ion exchangers replace calcium and magnesium with sodium ions, which are not dangerous for household appliances. Filter systems like this for the whole house cost around 3,500 francs.

In Northern Switzerland in particular, tap water is very hard – information on the hardness of the water in your residential area can be found at wasser-härter.ch.

Local filter machines as an alternative

Instead of fitting a filter system for the whole house, you can also resort to local alternatives. To prevent a water pipe from bursting, for example, you can invest in a new dishwasher and washing machine with a built-in ion exchanger.

Table filters also carry out ion exchange with the help of activated carbon. The advantage is that these filters also remove chlorine, lead and copper from the water. These substances are increasingly found in tap water, especially in old pipes. They are all intercepted by the filter cartridge, which must be replaced regularly (filter jugs of different sizes and prices are available from Brita, for instance).

There are also filter machines that work entirely mechanically – for example for installation on taps. However, since they only filter lime crystals and other physical particles such as sand, the water hardness remains unchanged. The amount of lime dissolved in the water is still the same – it just doesn’t settle on the sides of tea or coffee pots. This also means that the taste of the water won’t change. Many people swear that espresso tastes better with hard water.

The simplest type of mechanical water filter is actually a coffee filter. Simply boil water, then pour it through the filter. Keep repeating the process to be certain that there is as little lime in the water as possible.

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Conclusion: water is a complex subject. Before you opt for a fixed installation, it’s worth clarifying your precise needs both now and in the future. Although a rainwater utilization system implies high investment costs, it can be worthwhile in the long term. When it comes to fitting a modern water filter system for the whole house, on the other hand, it’s sensible to consider alternatives.

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