When it rains… collect rainwater

“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”
~Thomas Fuller

Water. It’s amazing stuff. And when you don’t have it, life is hard.

As you know, we’ve been reclaiming an old cottage on the Connecticut shore from the woods. It’s been an… <<erm>> interesting process. And we’ve only just begun.

Yesterday, we managed to get running water to the kitchen sink. Such a simple thing. Cold water only. Rain water, at that. And yet, seeing that water run in the kitchen was truly a triumph of massive proportions.

kitchen sink finished

Such a simple thing… and yet it was anything but simple to get that water flowing from the kitchen sink. I was so very happy to see it! (Notice the counter cut out all the way around the sink? I’ll explain that farther down.)

Here’s what’s happened in the past couple of weeks:

Day 1: There was a relatively new tank behind the cottage. Several years ago, the previous owners upgraded the water system by bringing in a brand new 550-gallon tank and a new pump. They hooked the whole thing up and ((psssshhhhh)) water squirted everywhere. The pipes were not strong enough to withstand the increased pressure. At that point, they simply shut it all off and brought gallons of water in jugs whenever they came out. We moved the tank into position and pulled out all the old pipes.

water tank

The 550-gallon tank was in great shape – dirty and icky, but in good shape. All we had to do was move it into place and clean it out.

Day 2: We had two options: we could pay $100 each time we needed the tank filled, or we could set up a rainwater collection system. We figured ((ahem)) that the rainwater would be easier. John and I spent hours taking measurements, then headed to Home Depot to buy everything.

Our tank, after years of sitting around, was gross. Green slimy stuff lined the walls and floor. Daryl climbed inside with a bucket of water and a sponge and started scrubbing. With the worst of it gone, he scrubbed one last time with bleach. It would have to do. The tank was ready.

Day 3: Wasted a couple hours trying to attach new wood to the old rotted stuff. Finally realized it wasn’t going to work, so pulled off all the old stuff, then made another trip to Home Depot for stuff to fix that up.

gutter put up

Okay, so I cheated on this pic. This is actually Davy and John putting up the gutter on a different stretch of the roof, but I didn’t get pics of the first one. Still, a big job made even more difficult because of all the rotted wood.

Day 4: Under bright sunny skies, we attached the wood to the house (with two trips to Home Depot for various bits), then got the gutter on. By then, rain was imminent and we were frantically trying to get the system in place to start collecting water. And that’s when I realized that I forgot one simple piece. Darn.

Day 5: It poured all day. All. Day. Long. And not one single drop went into our tank. I did buy the missing piece though.

Day 6: Now that we had missed one opportunity to fill our tank, we were determined to get things in place for the next rain. All four of us were outside, working on various aspects of the system. And we could see the skies darkening and lightning flashing. Thunder boomed all around. And the blasted system still wasn’t working. “Get it hooked up!” John screamed. “I’m  trying!” I hollered back.

Rain started falling as we hooked up the down spout. Great big drops fell from the sky while I grabbed bits and pieces of rope from the ground to tie the spout to a nail sticking out of the cottage. As John and the boys finished up things up on the roof, I jerry-rigged the tube over to the tank. It wasn’t pretty – resting on upside-down trash cans and other assorted what-not – but it was functional. Pretty doesn’t matter in times like that.

Sopping wet, we headed inside to listen to the rain pounding on the roof.

water collection system

I didn’t get a picture of the first attempt to get this hooked up, but this is what it looks like now. I will eventually put up a bracket to hook it to the house – right now it is simply tied to an old nail sticking out. And it’s resting on an upside down trash can, but it works :)

Day 7: We woke up to find a grand total of two inches of water in the bottom of our tank. Still, it was a start. The water collection process had been started. YIPPEE!!!

I reworked the system a bit, making it more stable, and we turned our sights on transporting the water into the house. Amazingly, the pump worked when we tried! Rain fell again that night and I couldn’t wait to see how full the tank was the next day.

Day 8: “It sure rained a lot last night,” John said when I arrived at the cottage in the morning.

“Fantastic!” I replied. “How much water did we get?”

“None. The valve was left open.”

Cripes! All that work to collect water, and it had all run out of the tank. The water level sat there, just beneath the valve. I was crushed.

In the meantime, we had to figure out a way to get the water to the kitchen once we had it. Yet another trip to Home Depot – they all know me and the pups by now. In the end, we decided to use a garden hose connected to the pump that extends all the way up to the cabinet. Then there was a simple coupler to attach it to the faucet, which was also brand new. It seemed so very simple.

The trouble was that they couldn’t get it together. Have I mentioned that our cottage is just a very rustic cottage out in the woods? And not built by a professional? And not built like most things are built? Yeah, that. John and Daryl took turns crawling under the sink, trying to get the faucet hooked up, but the space was so tiny there was simply no way for their hands to get up there. They did the best they could. It leaked. Badly.

We also gave up on the idea of getting rain, strung a hose from our brother-in-law’s cottage, and filled the tank that way.

kitchen sink

John and Daryl spent hours trying to get their hands up into a tiny space beneath the sink to get it all hooked up. They finally thought they had it, so we turned on the water and… it leaked. Badly.

Day 9:  Another trip to Home Depot landed a special wrench meant for tight spaces. Full of confidence, I headed back to the cottage, sure that we would have running water within an hour or two.

Nope. Although the got everything put together really tight, it still leaked.

“The only thing I can do is take the whole sink out,” John proclaimed. “There is no way I can see what’s going on up there. There’s no space at all.”

But taking the sink out wasn’t a simple matter.

Remember this cottage is… odd? We had two options for getting the sink out: cutting out all the 2X4s supporting it from the bottom, rendering the entire cabinet useless, or cutting it out from the top. John pulled out his POWER!

Tim the Toolman took over and invaded our house. John started cutting the counter with circular saws, sawlzall, and hammer and chisel. Seriously, it was just like the TV show.

They got the sink out, took it outside, and hooked it all together. Now, they had plenty of space to work, making sure every connection was tight. It still leaked. We went to bed.

kitchen sink tim the toolman

When did Tim the Toolman move into my house? I have to say – now, after the fact – that it was pretty funny seeing John whip out all his power tools and start cutting up the kitchen counter.

Day 10: After another trip to Home Depot and a different set of connectors, we hooked it up outside and it didn’t leak!! We were so very close.

kitchen sink outside

It worked! It worked! They got it put together so that it didn’t leak. Too bad it was outside…

“Let’s do it!” John said. “Nancy – go turn off the pump. We’ll disconnect it, then move it inside.”

I headed back behind the cottage, unplugged the pump, then turned the knob to drain it. And that’s when I tripped on something and stepped on the valve for the pump. CRACK!!

I looked in horror at our water – precious water – spilling out of the busted pipe onto the patio. “JOHN!!” I screamed. “Oh crap! Crap! Our water!”

John dashed down to the patio and held the broken pipe in place to stop the flow of water. Davy and Daryl jumped out of bed and raced down to help. I retreated inside – the last thing they needed at that particular moment was more of my klutziness.

A few minutes later John came in. “You need to go to Home Depot. Fast. The kids are down there holding the water in the tank and they’ll be there until you get back. Here’s what we need…”

So with my son holding back 550 gallons of water with his bare hands, I jumped in the car for the 20-mile journey to the store. And when I got back…

…I found Daryl INSIDE THE TANK!! Dressed in his swimsuit and with goggles in place, he was diving down to the valve, trying to plug it with a plastic bag. It worked! There was still a trickle coming out, but we saved the vast majority of our precious water.

water tank daryl inside

What can I say? We make a great team. While Davy held back the water with his hand on the broken valve, Daryl jumped into the tank and dove down to plug it from the inside. He did a great job – there was a still a trickle of water coming out, but not too bad. We managed to save most of our water.

It didn’t take long to get the valve reconstructed and installed. Then, while I stayed way far away, John and the boys took the sink inside and hooked it up. It worked.

We finally had running water in the house.

Something so simple. And yet, in this cottage, we’ve learned that nothing – absolutely nothing – is simple.

kitchen sink finished

I never thought I would appreciate that simple stream of water so much…

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

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About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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