When Philip Spangler and I first started making plans for the tiny house, we searched everywhere to find examples of an on-board rainwater plumbing system. Many viral tiny-house builders are selling plans, often made in Sketch-Up. But even though we looked at all of them, we found very few details about the systems required for indoor plumbing, just plans for measurements and framing, which we could figure out for ourselves. So we decided to save the $150 to $250 that builders charge for these plans and just wing it, figuring that as long as we knew the size of the tanks, we could plan how the system would work later.
Well, later is now, and thankfully, Victoria Salvador has a plan. A plan, it turns out, that will make my tiny house unlike any other that we’ve been able to find.
Victoria’s plans for my tiny-house rainwater-catchment system are earning her credit for her Sustainable Building Construction class at Arapahoe Community College. Although she has been an architect for many years, and even worked on the Fairbanks International Airport, she is constantly learning and improving her skills in a male-dominated environment. (When she isn’t helping me build my house or working, she’s hauling lumber deep into the forest, where she’s rebuilding a burned cabin on her family’s land.) When she did her undergraduate studies, it was the start of the U.S. Green Building Council, and a lot has happened in these twenty years. (Her presentation is due Wednesday: Wish her luck!)
There are a few of reasons we had difficulty finding plans. For one thing, the majority of people in tiny houses stay fairly stationary, so their rainwater-collection barrels rest on the ground, and a pump and hose is used to get the water to the house. In cases where people move around, most hook up to a municipal water or camp system via an RV hookup. The majority of collection tanks are quite large as well, though there are water bladders sold for tiny houses (I had dreams of those, but they are quite expensive) and most of those are filled via hoses.
Another issue is the weight – each of my tanks has the capacity for 40 gallons, which equals about 640 pounds of sloshing, shifting weight – weight that is unevenly distributed, on one side of the house alone. So when I move the tiny house, I’ll lose my stash of water, and need to supplement or rebuild.
But one of the biggest reasons for the lack of useful information is because in many places, collecting rainwater is illegal.
For years, I thought this was due to fears of mosquito proliferation, despite growing up in an area where drought and the West’s legendary water wars were bigger worries that insects. But really, it boils down to one simple question: Who owns water?
East of the Mississippi, water is taken more for granted than it is in the West. For many consumers, their first realization that water may be a limited resource came from the recent news of California’s epic droughts. Even in the midst of these droughts, though, the water wars are playing out, with corporations playing by their own rules, entire industries exempted from water restrictions, and fights over water rights for farmers. The fact is that not very far in the future, we will all be fighting over this incredibly limited resource. And already, politicians are selling it off.
Is water a public resource, or one to be privatized and sold to the highest bidder? We are at a critical juncture right now, trying to determine how our dwindling resources are to be divided. The United Nations, arguing that water is a human right, expressed shock at Detroit’s shutoff of poor residents' water, and the NAACP chimed in with accusations of racism. Water is intensely political, with structural inequities built into pricing structures and access. And that’s just in the U.S., where we are only beginning to experience what some parts of the rest of the world have gone through for decades.
Recently Colorado made rainwater catchment legal — thankfully, though the hidden profile of Victoria’s parapet gutter design would have allowed me to easily fly under the radar. Unbelievably, 97 percent of Colorado’s rainfall is lost to pavement, evaporating back into the air. When Victoria shared that fact with me, my jaw dropped.
These are the things we talked about while we built the frame for the gutter this week. We also discussed the institutionalized discrimination built into mobile-home zoning — particularly relevant for tiny homes, which are considered mobile homes. Because of this, you can’t get a federally backed mortgage to buy one, so purchasing land is usually out of the question, and people who own their homes wind up keeping them in trailer parks, a type of community that has a horrible reputation in this country.
In most metropolises, mobile homes are pushed by zoning outside the city center — an average of seventy miles. In rural areas, legalizing rainwater catchment can mean the savings of thousands of dollars a year. Infrastructure exists on heavily trafficked areas – for people in remote areas, there often isn’t water if they don’t own a well.
According to Victoria’s calculations for the life-cycle analysis she’s been working on for her class, if someone is homesteading in a rural area that doesn’t have water, they’re using approximately 5,000 gallons every three weeks for their family, livestock and small crops. The average bladder for carrying water is 200 gallons, or about 1,600 pounds. If you’re hauling water yourself (something I didn't even realize people do until this conversation), it will take 25 trips every three weeks to get those 5,000 gallons, or 433 journeys round-trip per year. So the ability to collect rainwater could make an enormous difference in the lives of these families.
Much of what drove me to build my tiny house was envisioning the future of things like water. While I thought about where I should live after the impending sale of my house, I looked at sea level maps, and read about drought and temperature shifts. Water has been heavily on my mind the entire time in my quest to become self-sufficient. Water is central to all of our lives, but until we lack it, we don’t think about its presence. In the tiny house, water will be more apparent in its central role to my life. I will need to collect it, clean it and manage what goes into it before sending it back out to the environment as grey water. Victoria’s smart plans for my system try to automate these tasks as much as possible, but it will always be something to be aware of. No faucet will be turned on without consciousness of each precious drop. In the future, that may be what we all strive for.
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Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging about her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.