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Water Catchment and Storage with IBC Totes

Back in 2009 when I first started my garden, I discovered that vegetables can fade and die pretty quickly without water in our hot summer climate. Early on I would water the garden with city water without thinking twice about where it comes from or what is in it. As I learned about permaculture, I realized this practice wasn’t very sustainable because it relies on the government for the water necessary to grow our garden. Not to mention the fact that our county water contains fluoride and who knows what else. Clearly I needed to catch and store rainwater on site to reduce our dependency on the county.

In Georgia, we get plenty of rainfall. The average is 50 inches annually. With a little math, we get 1,358,000 gallons of rainfall on our 3 acre property every year. That should be more than enough – I just needed to figure out how to catch some of it. The most obvious way to catch water for most people is the rain that falls on their roof. I decided to start there. But is it safe? There has been much discussion about chemicals that might make their way into the water when it is caught on an asphalt shingle roof. Based on what I read, I was not concerned. I was not going to drink it directly from the roof. It would be used to irrigate plants. The soil and plants do a pretty good job of filtering out impurities. So with that health question answered, I moved forward with a project to catch the rain from one side of our garage roof that is close to our garden.

Amazingly, there are some states and municipalities that have made it illegal to catch rainwater. That is scary. Luckily we have no such rules in Georgia. So I got busy to find some tanks to use for storage. I saw the rain barrels they sell at the big box stores. They are over-priced and frankly a joke. They’re way too small to catch a useful amount of water. There are some really big tanks and bladders you can buy, but they are very expensive. I liked the IBC totes I kept seeing in internet articles I read.

IBC Tote

IBC Tote

They typically come in 275 and 330 gallon sizes, and can be purchased used for a reasonable price. There are plenty of people selling them online or on Craigs List. I kept looking around and eventually found a landscape company that was giving them away, which is even better. The only catch was that they were still dirty and required a bit of cleaning. The landscape company purchased them with a dye they used for landscape mulch. The hazard label described the product as a 1-0-0. That means it is a 1 for health, 0 for flammability, and 0 for reactivity. Basically fairly benign. Still the 1 for health was a concern. But we’re not talking about pouring the dye on our plants – just some residual stain left on the inside of the tanks. I felt with a thorough cleaning of the inside, it would be ok. I acquired three of the 275 gallon totes for free. I cleaned the inside with soap and water, and then with a pressure washer. All that was left were some stains on the inside that would not even come off with a 2250 PSI pressure washer. I felt the risk was negligible of anything bad getting into the water at that point. If you aren’t sure of the material that was in the tanks you find or aren’t comfortable with it, you can always consider buying tanks.
Here’s an interesting note. Years later I discovered that biodiesel is a phenomenal solvent for cleaning the inside of these totes. The residue left behind from the biodiesel is harmless but easily removed soapy water and a pressure washer as described above.

Once the totes were all cleaned, I built bases for each one from concrete blocks. The three totes are installed side-by-side at the same level as each other next to our garage. I built a manifold from ¾” PVC pipe to connect between the three totes. Each tote has a 2” male NPT (national pipe thread) fitting at the bottom with a shut-off valve. I found PVC fittings at the local big box store to adapt down from 2” to ¾”. The most difficult one to find was the 2″ NPT to 2″ slip fitting. You can find it here at Amazon if you can’t find it at the hardware store. This fitting gets you to 2″ slip and the rest is easier from there. The manifold allows the three tanks to share water since the water from the roof all goes into the first tank. Finally I added two spigots to the manifold. One is to hook up to a pump for my garden irrigation system. The other spigot is to have easy access to water outside for tasks like washing hands or tools.

Water Tanks with PVC Manifold

Water Tanks with PVC Manifold

Spigots

Spigots

To get the water into the tanks, I found a drain fitting at the hardware store that fits perfectly into the top opening of the tank. It is called an Atrium Gate. Here is a link to the fitting at Home Depot, but you can find it at other stores too. Just make sure you get the 6 inch version and not the 4 inch. I wrapped it with some window screen on the inside to catch debris and zip tied it securely. I removed the gutter downspout and ran a 4” corrugated black landscape pipe from the gutter downspout adapter to the fitting in the top of the tank. The black pipe is attached to the downspout adapter but not to the tank. It hasn’t moved in years so it has worked well. I can’t stress enough how cool that fitting is. It fits perfectly in the opening and makes it very easy to add a screen for catching debris. It also holds the black corrugated pipe very well.

Atrium Gate - Landscape Fitting

Atrium Gate – Landscape Fitting

Fitting with Screen Attached

Fitting with Screen Attached

Fitting in Tank Opening

Fitting in Tank Opening

Pipe from Gutter to Tank

Pipe from Gutter to Tank

Very little maintenance is required. Occasionally I pull the black pipe out of the fitting at the top of the tank and remove the debris from the window screen. When cold weather comes, I close the valves at the bottom of the tanks and open the spigots to drain the manifold. I learned that lesson when it froze and cracked once, but PVC is easy to repair so that wasn’t a big deal.

The tanks have worked great. They hold over 800 gallons of water. During dry times, I can water my garden for 2-3 weeks before the tanks run dry. A couple of inches of rain will fill the tanks from just one side of our garage roof. I have thought about routing the water from the other side to the tanks but that has not been necessary. I also designed it so that I could add 2 more tanks to increase storage capacity, but that hasn’t been necessary either.

If you are concerned about algae growth, you can either paint the outside of the tanks black or cover them with something like shade cloth. I have not felt the need to do either since I am just using it to water garden plants.

Rainwater is much better for your garden plants than fluoridated city water. Even if you have to start small, do it. Catch rainwater in a trash can or in buckets. More than likely you’ll eventually expand to larger tanks like ours. Every little bit will help you on the journey to self-sufficiency.

Resources for this post:
Information about the hazard labels on totes:

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