Here’s the short version of our Tragedy to Triumph story….
On August 22, 2008 Tropical Storm Fay forced us to evacuate our beautiful riverfront home in Jacksonville, Florida. Our home, which was built on a concrete slab, was overtaken by rain and river water. Consequently, our septic tank backed up contaminating everything in its path and leaving us standing in sewage water nearly up to our knees. We knew it was time to leave when a carpet runner floated down the hallway….
Mother Nature had spoken, but we screamed back! We were not going to abandon our slice of paradise on the confluence of the Arlington and St. Johns Rivers. So we decided to re-build “Villa Paraiso” (Home of Paradise) and go for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. The moment I learned there are Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Certified levels of certification, I wanted to achieve Platinum. My husband, Steve Sadler, and I are both Type A personalities and when we decide to do something we tend to go full steam ahead.
The learning process of building green spanned from the fall of 2008 until we received our Certificate of Occupancy in June 2010. And yes, LEED Platinum certification followed closely behind. LEED certification is based on points achieved in sustainability, energy efficiency, water usage and landscaping. We owe several of these points to our fabulous new rainwater harvesting system.
Taming the Rain with a Rainwater Harvesting System
Given the amount of rain we get in Florida, rainwater harvesting became a major consideration early in the process. During the summer months we get afternoon “gully washers” and In Jacksonville the average rainfall for those four months averages 26.11 inches!
Sadly, massive rainfalls do not necessarily equate to surplus fresh water. Acutely aware of the shrinking drinking water supply, we didn’t want to waste potable water to water our newly planted 1,000+ native plants or our 300 sq. ft. organic garden which gives us delicious vegetables year round. Nor did we want to use storm water run-off for irrigation. So we decided to investigate rainwater collection systems.
Our Rainwater Harvesting System
We soon found out that standard rain barrels typically only hold 55 gallons and even though we could daisy-chain several together, we knew our large roof was capable of capturing thousands of gallons. Luckily, our plumbing project manager found a resource for much larger water tanks and we bought two 1,500 gallon tanks for our harvesting system.
Our roof slants 33.5 degrees, which allows us optimum solar power from the photovoltaic array we have on the south side of our home. This roof angle also allows water from the roof to slide into the gutter.
In lieu of traditional downspouts, we first tried using copper rain chains – an age-old method invented by the Japanese to catch rainwater from the roof for drinking. However, we soon found that these lovely rain chains could not handle our heavy rains and we had to remove them and install traditional downspouts. (Of course, now I have to find a new use for the rain chains… Any ideas?)
We now have 6 different downspouts that go into small brick containers, which are filled with white rock to help filter the rainwater. Plumbing pipes run from each downspout – under the concrete deck – to a maze that delivers abundant rain water to the tanks located under our home.
(We’ve actually had so much rain on a couple of occasions that the tops of the tanks literally spin off to release the overflow!)
There is a pump that controls the water from the tanks and we have drip irrigation hoses along the living walls that are covered in jasmine and honeysuckle. The drip hoses in the food garden are on a timer and it goes off every morning (except when the ground is already wet).
The garden is approximately 260 sq ft and gets a slow watering of 40 gallons over an hour period. Many mornings there is enough water from the dew on the metal roof to water the garden! I also have gardening hoses on all four corners of the house that are fueled by the rain tanks and allow me to easily water my gardens.
I think the rainwater harvesting is one of the greatest features of our “green” house. And an interesting bit of irony considering the circumstances that led us to build it! Let it rain!
Michaela Miller and Steve Sadler have been named Florida Sustainability Ambassadors and speak frequently to environmental, Green, civic and other professional groups. Michaela produced an award winning documentary of the deconstruction and rebuild, “Built Totally Green $ave Our Future”