Rainwater harvesting: Catchment comes with a catch

onarch-hydraulicwash-webRain barrels are all the rage these days, but harvesting rainwater for commercial use, as the owner of Hydraulic Wash wants to do, has been stalled by outdated codes and guidelines.

In a town where rebates are being handed out to folks who buy rain barrels, one might think a local laundromat owner's plan to harvest rainwater off his roof would be welcomed with open arms. But according to Hydraulic Wash owner Charlie Smith, the County greeted his green plan with their arms folded.

"We wanted to put in the rainwater system up front when we renovated last year, but we got so much resistance from the plumbing inspector," says Smith.

Smith says the inspector "ran him through the ringer" by making him "follow every little inch of the law" during the renovation process. Eventually, Smith says he had to put construction plans for the collection system on hold.

According to Smith, his laundromat– or "mat" as he shorthands it–- uses a whopping quarter million gallons a month, and with County water rates going up, he figured he could save a little money while lessening the strain on local water supply. The rainwater collection system he chose, designed by Roanoke-based Rainwater Management Solutions, would provide 10,000 gallons a month, the equivalent of two households worth of water, and save him $62 a month.

Of course, Smith also thought it made good marketing sense. Rainwater, because of its natural softness (lack of metals), requires less soap and detergent than tap water, and is thought to leave clothes smelling fresher. One major detergent maker claims its product "gets your laundry as fresh as a gentle spring rain."

According to County building official Jay Schlothauer, Smith's frustrations were not unfounded.

"The inspector on that job was uncomfortable with the concept," admits Schlothauer.

The dilemma, Schlothauer points out, is that the project had to meet the strict requirements of the International Plumbing Code, which says only potable, i.e. drinkable, water can be supplied to plumbing fixtures, even if the water is for laundry use.

And while the code recognizes water from public water supplies, wells, streams, and springs as potable sources, it says nothing about the use of rainwater. Essentially, plumbing inspectors, charged with making sure water is safe, haven't yet received any guidelines to follow when it comes to the use of harvested rainwater.

In a letter to Smith last Fall, Schlothauer said the County was "willing to entertain" Smith's proposal for a rainwater collection system, but only if the system provided potable water as defined by the Virginia Department of Health.

However, given the existing standards for water quality, the County's decision to hand off Smith's plan to the Health Department for approval may just be another way of saying no.

"What I've seen so far doesn't meet potable water standards," says Jeff McDaniel, the Department's local representative, who recently conducted a preliminary review of Smith's plan.

Ironically, if Smith's mat were in the supposedly green City of Charlottesville, he might have encountered even more resistance. New guidelines for rainwater harvesting issued in February simply prohibit the use of rainwater for laundry use, pending the release of new standards from the Health Department.

"Our laws are behind the curve," says Martin Johnson, an urban conservation specialist with the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District. " And it's creating a real log jam as more people are getting interested in harvesting rainwater."

Johnson says his organization has been promoting rainwater harvesting in the area for six years, but the state codes and guidelines needed to make it more wide spread, especially for commercial use, have been lagging behind the times.

"It's not rocket science," says Johnson, referring to projects like Smith's, "but the state has been dragging their feet coming up with guidelines."

"It has been a far more involved than I thought it was going to be," says Smith. "We didn't realize this was going to be a groundbreaking process."

As the city guideline says, there is "little or no guidance available" on approving systems to meet existing standards for water quality. Indeed, according to McDaniel, it's the first time he's ever had to review a request like this. He says the Health Department has no specific guidelines or standards for the installation of rainwater collection systems, particularly for laundry use. "But they're working on it," he says.

According to David Crawford, president of Rainwater Management Solutions, it's a familiar scenario.

Crawford, widely recognized as a national expert on rainwater "catchment systems," says his company has installed hundreds of systems across the country, and all of them have involved navigating around fragmented state, local, and federal regulations, educating local officials, and slowly pushing forward on approvals. He says it's not uncommon for officials to defer to their local and state health authorities. He's also confident that Smith's system will eventually get approved, even if it requires potable water–- because, he claims, his systems can purify water to that standard.

"Everything gets interpreted differently depending on who's looking at it," he says. For instance, in some states rainwater harvesting is illegal, while in others it is a requirement for new construction, he says.

Crawford even wryly recalls one plumbing inspector questioning the use of non-potable rainwater for flushing toilets because he worried that someone might drink from the toilet. Of course, he hopes that one day there will be a single, national set of standards for installing rainwater collection system, but until then he appears to welcome the kind of scrutiny Smith received.

"Inspectors are doing the right thing," he says. "It's a new thing, and they're just being cautious...enforcing federal water quality standards. And this is even more important because it's a commercial business."

At this point, the Health Department's McDaniel says he's asked Smith to present a more formal proposal, at which point he'll consult his superiors in Richmond.

"This is providing water to the public," he explains. "And so we'll have to determine if there are any risks to the public."

"If it takes a little longer to get approved, that's okay," says Crawford. "...take the time and do it right. I have no patience for the people who have done it wrong."

Meanwhile, Smith watches the rain fall on his roof and sighs.

"Every time it rains, I think about all that water I could use going down the tubes," he says. "It seemed like a simple business decision at the time."


Several local politicians have argued that the 24% voluntary drop, over the last 10 years, in projected water usage in our community, is unsustainable over the next 50 years. This article just goes to show how wrong they are. The laws haven't begun to catch up with the technology that already exists to conserve water, let alone the new technology that will come online in the next 50 years. We need to reward people for conserving, not burden them with $200 million dollars of new infrastructure that will cause water rates to go even higher. Before we add any more costs we need to accurately calculate our present water usage, and more reasonably factor the conservation that we all know will continue in the future. Otherwise, we will all need to be taxed like water hogs to pay Rivanna's overhead.


Another worthwhile, innovative proposal nixed by a mindless bureaucrat. So I guess that means it's also illegal to capture rainwater and recycle it to irrigate one's lawn if you have to use "plumbing?"

SO....why bother?

Ooops.. please change RSWA to RWSA and vice versa above

Hopefully our elected officials will realize that the economic burden of these new water rates will soon be passed on to all of us making our community an even more expensive place to live.

It's time for a national standard that favors conservation.

"It’s Now Legal to Catch a Raindrop in Colorado "


The problem for municipalities is that they measure and charge for sewage based on how much water you use at the water meter. If this business was able to harvest 10,000 gallons a month off the meter, thats water that would get dumped in the RSWA's sewer system and treatment plant that no one would be paying to treat. As long as RSWA leadership (or for that matter RWSA) includes City/County power brokers, there's no way you're going to see meaningful changes that encourage real conservation or alternative thinking. Rainwater would be ideal to flush toilets, but as of right now it has to be clean enough to drink. ridiculous. but I don't see it changing any time soon.

I think this article misses the point. The plumbing code is constructed in this way intentionally. Should there be a drop in water pressure, the rainwater from this roof could be sucked back into our main drinking water supply and end up around the community. Thus, the plumbing code is for our safety, and our drinking water is not dependent on one valve or the hope our systems never lose pressure.
What he should do is set up machines with a separate plumbing system - only from the roof - which go directly to those washing machines, and only those machines. Thus, he gets his wish and the community stays safe.

Why didn't Monticello HS, our newest and supposedly green school, do this ? Must be legal in Virginia.

"Our buildings and homes could capture all water we need on a daily basis. A great example of rainwater harvesting can be found at the Langston Brown Community Center and High School in Arlington, Virginia. The community center has two 24-foot-tall 11,000-gallon cisterns that store rainwater."


It makes no sense that Charlottesville and Albemarle are not leaders in this movement and I agree with Daniel, this is a terrific article, and hopefully will change the hearts and minds of our elected officials. If not we need new leaders.

I think we should send this article to Governor Kaine. Perhaps he could find a solution to Mr.Smith's water conservation plan and help him fund it too.

RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia plans to participate in a federal program that offers rebates to consumers who buy energy-efficient appliances.

Gordon Hickey, spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, says the state must apply to participate by Aug. 15.

The U.S. Department of Energy is setting aside nearly $7.5 million in stimulus funding for rebates in Virginia.

Rebates will apply to the purchase of certain Energy Star appliances, with an emphasis on heating and cooling systems, water heaters, clothes washers, dishwashers and refrigeration units.


Rivanna better get prepared. Looks like Charlie and Bob have the same idea and that they'll be selling less and less water in the future. Unfortunately, that will mean higher rates for all of us.

from channel 19:

"Bob's new shop now has several green features aimed at making the building more energy efficient and better for the environment. The most hidden feature is an underground water management system. "On this property alone, we are containing every bit of water before it goes into the storm drain." Water runoff from the parking lots drain into a bio-filter that cleans the dirt and oil residue out. The cleaner water is collected with the runoff from the roof gutters in a 25 hundred gallon tank. Archer says, "Pretty soon we'll have it set up where they can pump water out of that tank if they need it to water flowers and stuff with."


Same story: The state is prohibiting innovation, logic and savings (money and environment).


don't woorry once the republicans finish melting the snow caps we will all have plenty of water. We will alsao have polar bear steaks and waterfront property in oklahoma...

Thank god (and obama)that we will at leaST HAVE FREE HEALTH CARE to deal with the sunburn and the anxieity of it all...

dyl, don't spout your tempered reasonableness here! Clearly da gummint is screwing a business owner/tax payer! They are supposed to work for us by letting us do what we want WHEN WE WANT, not keep us safe!!

Clearly you miss the point.... gummint is bad! BAAAAAD I TELLS YA!!

Doesn't either the county or the city (or maybe it's shared?) have a school bus washing facility that captures rainwater? I remember hearing about something like that being in the works a while back. Does anyone know about that. If it did get built, I would be very interested in seeing what sort of standards it was held to in comparison.

Dyl, you make a legitimate point, but do you really think this is the first facility to use a system like this or that the consultant who has done this all over the country is unaware of the potential problems and ways of addressing them? Like so many other code issues, it is as much about protecting the interest of entrenched industries and trades as it is about anything else.

TJ, if the city encouraged more of that sort of behavior by giving someone a rate break for saving water, then the arguments in favor of building a bigger dam would start to look very flimsy indeed. Don't count on the forces that stand to gain from refusing to dredge giving in that easily.

"Thank god (and obama)that we will at leaST HAVE FREE HEALTH CARE to deal with the sunburn and the anxieity of it all”Š" Healthcare, water treatment and sewage treatment are NOT FREE.
"I don’t understand the sewer charge argument because I get charged sewage fees to water my lawn, water my garden, etc, things that don’t involve the sewer system." That's because sewerage meters are not employed to measure outflow. It is (wrongfully) assumed that any water used will be disposed of through the sewer. As the cost of water and sewer treatment continue to rise, more and more people will question this practice. However, the county residents have no say so in these fees because ACSA is an AUTHORITY and is NOT ANSWERABLE to the public. Of course, RWSA is also an AUTHORITY and is not answerable to the public. Nor are the RSWA, jail and airport authorities. Nor will be the new regional transit (transportation) authority. No wonder RWSA and ACSA are so vehemently opposed to wasting their time listening to public input and are so willing to dengrae the members of the public who dare to question their decisions. All of this authority in a supposed democracy.

I remember that years ago Lake Monticello's Service Authority would give you a water meter you could hook up to a spigot to measure how much water you used for lawn watering, car washing, etc. You'd take it in periodically and they'd deduct that much from the sewerage portion of your utility bill. Anyone know if RWSA has something similar?
As for Dyl's concerns about rainwater entering the water mains through a pressure drop, approx 10% (guessing?)of the water that leaves the treatment plant never reaches a water meter through loss to leaks in the water main distribution network. Loss of pressure risks water entering the mains through any of these thousands of leaks which is why tap water should be boiled for consumption for a period of time after a loss of pressure event. Regardless, rainwater or greywater should be plumbed to fixtures through parallel plumbing and kept seperate from the municipal supply, or a backflow prevention device used at a minimum.

the idea of a tandem system is very valid and reasoable and I think that a follow up as to why this was not used would make a good story.

You can also ask them why they can build JPJ arena with super steep steps that thousands of drunks use and could fall to their death but harry homeowner can't have a steep step on a 2 foor porch.....

Betty, Sadly, there is really no if about it. WE NEED NEW LEADERS!

I found an article on the bus washing facility I was wondering about earlier. Apparently, the new CTS bus maintenance complex has a 60,000? (unclear from the article) cistern for catching rainwater for use in washing busses. You would think Albemarle County officials could use that an an example of how this would work.


The great motivator to use rainwater will be the cost of water charged by the RWSA and we can see that in Mr. Smith's plan and at Bob's Wheel Alignment. More and more businesses and homeowners will join, especially those being charged the most. In 50 years much will change. It's insane to build a new dam and pipeline for hundreds of millions when the writing is on the wall --we don't need it. I'm waiting to see which elected official has the courage to tell the truth, and stop spending public money on an outdated idea.

Here is the good news:
In terms of quality, rainwater is better than surface water (though not as good as ground water). In other words, rain is better than the water in our reservoirs. And once we switch to low flow toilets and front-loading washing machines, 1000 square feet of roof could provide a reliable supply of water for flushing and clothes washing. These two changes could reduce residential use of public water by about 50%. Plus, the water would not need to be treated, so this would cut down on the use and transportation of chlorine.
Rainwater harvesting could have an interesting role to play in a distributed water system. The tricky part is that we would need big cisterns to get us through dry months. And would these cisterns be installed, monitored, and maintained by individuals, neighborhood associations, or ââ?¬Å?the authorities”?

So, Martin Johnson, you're an "urban conservation specialist." Instead of complaining about the failures of other bureaucrats, do your job. Write the guidelines. Petition the state. Do something productive. What DO you do?

Pouring tens of millions of dollars into Rivanna's sewage treatment plant upgrade is another waste of taxpayer dollars, and will necessitate even higher sewer fees, and a reluctance to let innovation take place, because of set infrastructure costs at Rivanna.

This Authority is outdated and continues to enlarge itself with an outmoded and overbuilt sewer and water planning process, and punitive actions like the suit against a forward thinking recycler.

Unless our elected officials step in and change course we will continue to waste much more than rainwater


This is truly brilliant journalism. Thanks. I don't blame the plumbing inspector or the county officials, but hopefully regs will be altered to account for a multi-tiered understanding of water usage sooner rather than later. Many of our typical water uses could be easily accomplished by greywater, and this is a perfect example. If governments around the country are responding to these innovations, I'd love it if Albemarle and Charlottesville would be on the cutting edge of this. I think the political will is here.

With water likely to become a more scarce resource in the future, we may no longer be afforded the luxury of being able to safely drink out of our toilets.

I wonder if the groundwater around the business could use the rain to help dilute the runoff from cars busses people and such?

Dyl has a good point, but that would involve plumbing fixtures. Actually most of these posts are pretty constructive...a rarity these days. I don't understand the sewer charge argument because I get charged sewage fees to water my lawn, water my garden, etc, things that don't involve the sewer system. Not very fair. The city should waive this sewage change if he's saving water and demand on the water supply.

Why aren't Sally Thomas and the Nature Conservancy helping Mr. Smith get this approved ? Whatever happened to the Rivanna River Basin proposal ?

"The Rivanna River Basin Commission hopes rainwater harvesting systems will blossom in Charlottesville and surrounding counties, said Ridge Schuyler, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Piedmont program.".... The Rivanna River Basin Commission is drafting a proposal that would encourage local governments to use rainwater-harvesting systems on its buildings, Chairwoman Sally H. Thomas said.

Thomas, who is also a member of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, said she foresees businesses and homeowners having an increased interest in the systems,"