City considers allowing homeowners to use rainwater

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Mary Stouffer once hated rainy days. They flooded her Virginia-Highland basement and created havoc. Rain works for her now. Rainy days are good days.

Stouffer is one of the few people in metro Atlanta who harvests rainwater for drinking and cooking. She’s a reason the Atlanta City Council will hold a public hearing Thursday seeking feedback for a permit process that would enable any of its 100,000-plus water customers to seek this natural alternative.

“I just didn’t want to be another person soaking up the water when we have so much rainwater,” Stouffer said. “Before, when it rained, I was fearful that I would get flooded. Now I am joyful when it rains, because it fills my tanks.”

Stouffer already has a permit that allows her to collect rainwater for drinking. She had a system installed at her home in February last year after she received special permission from the city to experiment with the process.

If pursued under a wider scope, Atlanta would become the first city nationally to write its own ordinance enabling home owners to use rainwater for drinking, washing and bathing, said Jenah Zweig, Office of Sustainability project manager. Portland, Ore., operates under a rainwater ordinance that was approved by the state.

“There is a worldwide shortage of water and it is just starting to hit the U.S.,”  said Bob Boulware, former president for the American Rainwater Catchment System Association and founder of Design-Aire Engineering in Indianapolis. “I am seeing water be what energy was 30 years ago. … Atlanta, and Georgia, seeing that water shortages are an urgent issue, has gotten out ahead.”

Several cities in California and the Southwest are also looking into similar projects, Boulware said.

In Georgia, rainwater use for irrigation and flushing toilets was allowed by a 2009 amendment to the international plumbing code that didn’t address everything.

“The amendment said nothing about drinking water, so we were in a gray area,” Zweig said. “But if you collect water from the roof of your house, it might not be safe. From a regulatory standpoint, rainwater untreated is not something you want to be drinking.”

A new ordinance would create a permitting and regulating system for Atlanta homeowners who want to harvest their own drinking water and potentially cut down on their water bills.

However, a home water system is not cheap. Stouffer’s cost between $12,000 and $15,000, meaning any actual savings won’t be incurred for another decade.

Stouffer was remodeling her home and backyard while trying to address the constant flooding of her property when she decided to go with her own water system and gained approval.

“We had a lot of runoff and instead of flooding my basement I wanted to capture and use it. … I wanted another choice, so we turned lemons into lemonade,” Stouffer said.

Bob Drew, the founder of EcoVie Environmental, installed the system, which consists of two 1,700-gallon tanks. When it rains, water is collected from Stouffer’s roof through an elaborate system of gutters and pipes.

The first 20 gallons, filled with leaves and bird droppings, are flushed away. The remaining water goes through filters to remove pollen and dirt. Once the water makes it inside the home, it is filtered at least three more times.

“I think it tastes better than city water,” Drew said of his filtered rainwater. “No chlorine. No trace elements. But that is just my opinion. This is a well-designed system. No health risks at all.”

Dennis Lye, a Cincinnati-based research microbiologist with the Environmental Protection Agency, said the federal government now recognizes rainwater as an alternative source of water.

“It is not dangerous at all, as long as you have a treatment process; water collected off the roof is not as contaminated as ground or river water,” Lye said. “It has not been accepted, because there is no history of it. Local and state agencies are ignorant of the process.

“But it is just a matter of education and there is a groundswell of support for it.”