U.S. Water News Online
BILLINGS -- When Dave Grimland and Kathleen Ralph bought
their property high on a ridge southeast of Columbus, they hardly
gave a thought to where they'd get their water. When they learned
there wasn't any beneath them, they turned to the sky.
The family of three now harvests enough snow and rainfall to keep
them in water year-round. The system they've devised, an updated
version of the old rain barrels, depends on a metal roof, sloping
gutters, large storage cisterns and pumps.
"We reinvented the wheel," Grimland said with a laugh. "People
have collected water off roofs for hundreds if not thousands of
years. But no one had done it around here on a modern subdivision
What makes the Grimlands' water collection system stand out is its
"It supplies all our needs, from cooking to bathing to toilets to
drinking," he said. Not to mention, the dishwasher, clothes washer,
the hot tub and the drip-irrigated garden.
Originally, the couple figured they'd drill a well, "like everyone
else," Grimland said. That was before a local rancher dropped the
bomb on them.
"He said 'I've punched holes all over this place. If you're lucky
enough to even get water, it won't last long,"' Grimland recalled.
"That kind of startled us."
Bearing that news and pondering their options, the Grimlands left
the area to return to their jobs in India. The house - and the water
system - would have to wait.
Then, out of the blue, their "eureka moment" arrived. A friend,
unaware of the Grimlands' water problem, had sent them an article
about a Texas family who collected water from the roof of their home.
The Grimlands were determined to give it a try.
"We showed it to a Billings architect," Grimland said. "He said
he'd never heard of it, but he said it sounded reasonable."
Starting out, the Grimlands didn't know how much water a given
roof space would produce and they didn't know how to clean or filter
the water they would collect. Nor did they know how much water they
"We really wanted to live here so it was either try it or haul
it," Grimland said.
The couple wrangled contractor Ken Nitzel and plumber Verle
Davison into their plan. They explained to the two what they had in
mind and were told what was and wasn't practical. The idea also
piqued the interest and support of extension agent Pat Graham, who
shared whatever he could glean from the Montana State University
"When we weren't sure, we winged it," Grimland said.
The original plan called for two 2,200-gallon concrete cisterns to
be built in the Grimlands' unfinished basement. A few good showers
quickly taught them that their 3,200 square feet of roof space
yielded much more water than they had imagined. One-quarter inch of
precipitation on the roof equaled 500 gallons in the cisterns,
Grimland said. That, they eventually learned, was enough to keep the
family in water for a typical week.
Knowing that one big storm could overflow their storage capacity,
they added a cistern with a 4,000 gallon capacity.
"Even then, half way through the spring, we were filled up and
unable to collect more," he said.
So, they built a "water barn" below the house and added another
13,000 gallons of storage.
In the nine years Grimlands have lived on their system, only twice
have they hauled water, even during the past six years of drought.
The first time, they topped off their cistern as a fire prevention
measure. The second time, this past spring, they filled up when the
early rains failed to materialize, and only then because they had
emptied the system for cleaning.
While the Grimlands have had no shortage of water, the same might
not hold true for the average American family. The Grimlands are
careful about their usage, getting by comfortably on 2,000 gallons a
month, much less than the national average of 6,000 gallons for a
family of three.
"We had lived overseas where the water supply has always been
tenuous, often contaminated and very irregular," Grimland said. "We
were used to being careful and cautious with water."
One of the biggest challenges proved to be natural debris draining
from the roof into their storage tanks.
"Out here, with all the dust blowing, you get an enormous amount
of detritus, pine needles and just dirt," he said.
To address that, they installed a 1,000-gallon settling tank. It
keeps most of the larger matter out of the plumbing system but the
tank must be cleaned out four or five times a year.
"One pollutant we didn't know about and which has proven the most
difficult to deal with is pine pollen," Grimland said. "It doesn't
settle out &emdash; it floats."
And, because the pollen is alive, it will ferment to a scum on the
surface of the settling tank if it's not removed. Grimland adds
bleach to kill the pollen and then vacuums the surface with a wet/dry
vac. During the pine pollen season in June they take an added
precaution &emdash; shutting off the collection system for the first
few minutes of a shower to allow most of the pollen to rinse off the
Perhaps more disturbing were the three mice Grimland found at the
bottom of one tank.
"There's nothing so unappetizing," he said, grimacing.
He followed up by plugging every imaginable entryway with screen
and foam. Then he placed ultrasonic rodent repellents on top of the
tanks. That seems to have solved that problem.
Mice notwithstanding, the Grimlands do not typically chlorinate
their water. They pass it through a carbon filter for taste and a
sub-micron filter that screens out the tiniest of bugs, even giardia.
The water also passes by an ultraviolet light system that kills
bacteria. They believe their water is probably cleaner than water
from many public systems.
While the added "hassles" aren't for everyone, Grimland points out
that any rural water system requires some sort of maintenance.
Hauling water puts demands on time and vehicles and living on a well
raises concerns about groundwater going dry. The learning curve for a
water collection system does require an effort, he said, but once
it's down, it's not as annoyingly taxing as it may sound.
"I prefer this system," he said. "We aren't depleting any aquifer
or buying any gas to get it up here. Up here in the hills, it's as
dependable or better than most."
Since the Grimlands installed their collection system, the idea
has spread. Three others in their rural subdivision followed their
example and another couple in the Reed Point area retrofitted the
system into their solar, wind-powered home.
Several years ago, Grimland estimated the cost of their collection
system at $8,000 &emdash; maybe less if everything was installed at
the time of construction.
"You're not saving a bunch of money, but you have a great deal of
satisfaction in feeling fairly water independent," he said.
Grimland is happy to share what he's learned because he believes
alternatives represent solutions for the future.
"You don't have to be a tree-hugger to be concerned about this,"
he said. "And it doesn't have to be that bad."
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