Saving water in the rain

The rain is falling today

The rain is falling today

Here in west Wales, it’s rather wet… in general and today specifically. According to, the average annual rainfall here in Aberaeron is 981 mm, but the picture is variable:

Rainfall in Wales varies widely, with the highest average annual totals being recorded in the central upland spine from Snowdonia to the Brecon Beacons. Snowdonia is the wettest area with average annual totals exceeding 3000 mm, comparable to those in the English Lake District or the western Highlands of Scotland. In contrast, places along the coast and, particularly, close to the border with England, are drier, receiving less than 1000 mm a year. (The Met Office)

This means that in Wales we have plenty water. But even so, us Snails continue to be careful with our consumption: collecting rainwater, reducing the amount of mains water we use and minimising our water use in general. Why? Since we have so much, why not slosh it about as much as we want?

Rain-diverter on a downpipe and a water butt

Rain-diverter on a downpipe and a water butt

The answer is that all resources come at a cost… not just financial, although our water is metered and we do pay for what we use, but there is also a cost in terms of energy and infrastructure. Water that comes from the mains has been treated and processed. So, if we can collect our own water to use in the garden, for example, we are being a little bit more sustainable. Storing water also slows down its progress through the landscape and helps to avoid drains being overwhelmed during storms. Our towns and cities are full of hard, impermeable surfaces to ensure that water does not accumulate, but this means that storm drains can easily be overwhelmed during heavy rainfall events. By collecting rain water in ponds and water butts and using it to water plants or flush the toilet over a number of days, we slow its movement and help reduce possible flooding. Indeed, lots of the rain water that we capture Chez Snail never makes it into the drains as it’s used by our plants.

We also have an additional reason for collecting rain water: the insectivorous plants like it. They don’t like the chemicals added to ‘processed’ water out of the taps and need something a bit more natural. We only water them with rain water and they seem to be thriving:

Cephalotus follicularis Albany carnivorous Pitcher Plant growing well

Cephalotus follicularis Albany carnivorous Pitcher Plant growing well

Living in an orchard

My sister moved house earlier this year and has been working really hard in her garden, with me giving encouragement by telephone. It’s been lovely to have someone to share seeds and plants with, and it was particularly lovely to visit this week, deliver some plants and see the progress she has been making.

The house she moved into had a garden with quite a lot of lawn, a vegetable patch, a filthy chicken house, dilapidated greenhouse and a tatty plastic pond. In three months she has transformed it into an orchard with a productive vegetable garden (boosted by all that chicken poo she shovelled out of the coop) and herb beds. I am always inspired by other people’s achievements; I thought you might like to be inspired too and see what she has been up to.

There’s lots of fruit

As well as herbs and vegetables:

And there’s still room for ornamentals and the relocated pond:

Plus some practical features:

What a brilliantly productive garden it’s going to be… with hens and a fruit cage planned for the future too. She only started doing any serious gardening a few years ago, but there’s no stopping her now.

The drought ends

I have been trying to be very un-British recently and not write about the weather, despite the fact that it has been of particular interest to me.

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back

As I have mentioned previously, we try not to use mains water to flush our toilet. This saves us a little money, because our water is metered (not everyone’s is in the UK), but is mainly about saving energy. All water treatment requires the input of energy, so by using untreated water in the toilet cistern, we reduce our carbon footprint. Most of the time we use rainwater, which we collect in several water butts and an IBC from the roofs of the shed, house and greenhouse, but when we are getting low, we also use water from showers. We haven’t got round to collecting it from the washing machine yet, but that will probably happen.

Anyway, rainwater usually supplies all our needs in this respect, after all west Wales is generally quite soggy. But not so far in 2013. Today is 12 April; we had some rain this morning and showers yesterday, but before that the last time it rained was 22 March. That’s 19 days without any precipitation… not much evidence of those April showers we hear about. Similarly, there was a period in February/March when it didn’t rain for 22 consecutive days!*

The IBC, collecting water from the shed roof and now raised up on a couple of pallets

The IBC, collecting water from the shed roof and now raised up on a couple of pallets

The early dry period was most welcome because it allowed us to use up all the water in the IBC (or at least transfer it to other receptacles) so that Mr Snail-of-happiness could lift it up onto two pallets in order to increase the head of water, thus making it much easier to drain. But as the dry spell continued and our water stores declined we started hoping for rain. Then about three days ago we reached the point where the only water we had left was in the 5 litre bottles that we use to store it in the bathroom. We knew that once the last 40 litres was used up, we’d have to turn the mains back on to the toilet.

And then it rained… providing us with another few days worth. Rarely do we need to celebrate rain here, but we did yesterday and today. Tomorrow the forecast is for heavy rain – we are rejoicing. Fingers crossed for torrents of the stuff… and then we’ll be happy for the sunshine to return.


* We write a description of the weather every day in a diary – it helps us interpret the output from the solar panels and is turning into a really interesting record. Soon, we plan to get a little weather station so that we can add numbers to our descriptions.

Water off the greenhouse roof

Water off the greenhouse roof

Water butt at the front of the house

Water butt at the front of the house

Water Audit

When we first moved into our house about 14 years ago, we were horrified at the size of the water rates. The house, notionally, has three bedrooms ( although in fact it now has one bedroom and two offices because we both work from home) and so the water rates reflected a family residence. Since there are only two of us, we decided that it would be prudent to have a water meter fitted… and one was installed within about four months of us moving in.

Having a water meter provides a great incentive to think about your water consumption. When ours was first fitted we thought very carefully about how we used water. We already had water butts to provide water for the garden and we were careful with our use for showers, but we did have an old, very water-hungry washing machine. Its age was showing as it also used to migrate across the kitchen during spin cycles. We decided to replace it and, after much research into water and energy consumption, bought a new one. The old one was given away to friends who used if for several more years and the ‘new’ one is still going strong 13 years later. Our careful water consumption reduced the bills to half the amount we would have paid unmetered and we were very pleased.

The IBC stores water collected off the shed roof

The IBC stores water collected off the shed roof

Some years later we instigated the use of rainwater in the toilet cistern. Using the water that is piped into your house to flush the toilet is wasteful of both water and energy… after all, that treatment that it goes through before it reaches you requires energy and resources. According to the Environment Agency, almost 1% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK originate from the water industry, so reducing consumption of water helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions. We have a very low-tech approach to filling the cistern: we collect rainwater off the roof of the house, the greenhouse and shed in water butts and an IBC, then we fill 5l bottles with it and when we’ve flushed the toilet, we take the lid off the cistern and pour 5l of water in.

Until recently, the toilet remained with the mains water switched on, so that any shortfall was topped up by the mains. However, a few weeks ago we received a water bill. It was slightly higher than usual, although within the margin of error due to rounding. It did prompt us, though, to look at our weekly water consumption, and the figure did seem to be higher than we could easily account for. We wondered whether we had underestimated the number of washes we did every week, the exact amount of water used in the shower, the inclusion of occasional baths? Eventually we decided to investigate how much mains water was going into the cistern each time we flushed. We turned off the tap that isolates the toilet from the mains, flushed, tipped 5l of rainwater in and discovered a shortfall of 1.5l before the ‘usual’ level in the cistern was reached. Our water pressure is quite high, and we had only ever noticed water entering from the mains for a short time during filling, but each time, this has amounted to 1.5l!

The issue has been resolved – the toilet remains isolated from the mains unless we run out of rainwater or have guests (we don’t ask visitors to participate in water transfer) and we await our next water bill with interest… I suspect that the difference is going to be noticeable. Now, we’re wondering how else we can cut down!

More water

I have been thinking a lot about water recently. I think about it as it falls from the sky (most days); I think about it as it flows off the field behind us, through our garden and into our next-door-neighbour’s garden; I think about it as I slosh through the mud to round-up the very soggy chickens (I’m thinking of trading them in for some ducks); and I think about it whenever I do the washing and have to dry it indoors.

In the UK, flooding seems to have been something of a theme of 2012, and the year-end is no different. Travel has been severely disrupted in the past few days as a result of flooding and landslides and not helped by a couple of fires associated with railway lines! Earlier in the year I wrote about the severe flooding in Aberystwyth and surrounding areas and discussed the issues associated with this, including building on floodplains and the impact of upland land use.

The recent flooding is particularly acute because the ground, having been exposed to months of wet weather, is saturated. This means that any water which does fall doesn’t soak into the soil, but immediately flows over the surface, quickly reaching streams, rivers and drains, thus potentially causing flash floods. So we could reduce this problem in the long-term both by having more tress in the landscape – to intercept water and slow down the rate that it reaches the soil – and by having soils that have a greater capacity to hold water.

It is the latter that I have been pondering over the past couple of days. Because our garden receives so much run-off from the field behind, we have had to build raised beds to prevent our vegetables drowning and we’ve had to raise the level of the area where the chicken enclosure is to prevent the chickens dissolving! The latter we achieved by using recycled plastic boards to enclose an area of about 11m2 that used to be lawn and filling it with wood chip. The wood chip now needs topping up (a job for the new year) as it has started to settle and rot down. We noticed earlier in the week that it was starting to get puddles on the top of it – despite still being about 10 cm higher than the natural surface of the garden. So, yesterday I decided to loosen it with a fork to improve the drainage a bit. And what did I discover? That what we have now is soil! Despite the wet conditions, the area is teaming with earth worms. We have inadvertently created a brilliant composting system – carbon from the wood chip and nitrogen (plus lots of other nutrients) from the chicken poo. I’m really quite excited about how efficient it has been… and how much water it is holding. I’m seriously thinking of setting part of it aside to grow potatoes next year!


The soil is an important resource for managing water in the landscape

The ingredients for a good soil – that is fertile and acts like a sponge – are right there in my back garden, so why aren’t they right there in the surrounding countryside? Well, the problem seems to be this balance between carbon and nitrogen. Soil micro-organisms need both, and if we upset the balance, we cause problems. Gardening books warn us not to dig wood chips into the soil because they will ‘rob’ it of nitrogen. In fact, what happens is that wood chip contains loads of carbon but not much nitrogen. Micro-organisms need nitrogen if they are to make use of all this ‘feast’ or carbon and, being really efficient critters, they scavenge nutrients much quicker than plants and so they grab all the nitrogen they can, leaving the soil somewhat depleted. If we are gardening, we avoid this either by composting our wood chip along with things that are nitrogen rich (like chicken poo, or kitchen waste) or by simply using it as a mulch on the surface, where it breaks down much more slowly.

This sort of problem does not occur in modern agriculture… quite the reverse, in fact. Many farmers these days apply inorganic (chemical) fertilizer to their land. This is usually either just nitrogen (N), or a combination of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). So the thing that is missing in this case is carbon. In soils, the carbon is present in organic matter, so when nitrogen is boosted by fertiliser application, the micro-organisms start to break down the organic matter like mad. And here’s the rub… the organic matter is the stuff that makes the soil act like a sponge. So, our modern farming methods deplete the soil of organic matter (regularly because fertiliser is usually applied every year). Taking a crop off removes the plant material that would, in nature, mostly be returned to the soil thus boosting organic matter. So, with modern agriculture, we end up with soils that water flows through or washes away (thus exacerbating the situation).

Things are improving in some ways – for instance, we no longer burn stubble after cereal production, instead we plough it back into the soil, thus returning some carbon. And lots of organic farming techniques value incorporation of organic matter into the soil, but we need these practices to be much more widespread if we are to reduce the potential for flooding. According to Toby Hemenway, good quality soil can hold about a quarter of its volume of water, so if your soil is 30cm deep, it can soak up 7.5cm of rain…. isn’t that astonishing? OK, you are not going to be starting from a completely dry soil, but what if the soil in your garden could hold that amount of water: acting as a ‘water battery’ and storing that water for when you need it, whist slowing its movement through the land during periods of heavy rain? So, good soil is not just beneficial in wet places, it’s great for dry places too!

As climate change leads to there being more energy in our weather systems, we are likely to get more extreme weather – wetter and drier. By developing good soils, we can buffer the negative effects of these changes and make everyone’s lives more secure in terms of food security and safety from natural disasters… all through thinking enhancing the health of our soils.


All the April showers recently here in the land of snails have been making me think a lot about water…

Nearly half of all UK water use is domestic, so I try to be thoughtful about what I do with the stuff. In particular I think it’s wrong to use drinking-quality water for things like watering plants and flushing the toilet, especially considering how much energy is needed for water treatment. It’s easy enough to install a water-butt or two if you have a garden and downspouts, but next to impossible if you don’t. We have three collecting water off the roof of the house, one on the greenhouse and an IBC (which holds a cubic metre of water) collecting from the shed roof. This may seem excessive for a relatively small garden in a wet area, but much of the saved water is used to flush the toilet… we fill the cistern manually from 5 litre bottles of rainwater. We have a hose pipe from a raised water-butt (on a wooden stand constructed by Mr S-o-h) that siphons into the bottles stored in the bathroom (we live in a bungalow, so no pumping is needed). Sounds like a fiddle, but it’s a low-tech solution and saves us some money since we are on a water meter. If we are running low on rainwater in the summer, when the priority is growing food, we save grey water from the shower and use this for flushing.

We have a low water-use washing machine, although it’s about 12 years old, so I’m sure a more efficient one would be available. Of course this raises the issue of when to replace our possessions. Currently we try not to get rid of anything unless its broken and cannot be repaired, so the washing machine stays. Actually, the embodied energy and water in any product is usually so high that this generally seems like a sensible option.

So, I try to think not only about the water that I use directly, but also that used indirectly… am I taking water from a region or country that can ill afford it because of my purchases? The answer has to be yes, so I try to be mindful of this, for example buying my coffee from Ethical Addictions, who support coffee growing projects aimed at reducing water use and supporting communities.

I’m always looking for ways to save more water, both directly and indirectly… any ideas?

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