What's unusual in this house is that we drink rainwater in preference to mains water, right in the heart of the city. 

I wanted to collect all of the water the family needed from off our roof. We
had never been big water users, despite running the washing machine daily
and doing all the other normal things
a family of four does. Even before renovating we used just 350L of water
a day; about half that of the average Sydney household. But this still adds up to around 100,000L of water annually.

My rainwater has been tested regularly, and is safe to drink: in fact, it is actually cleaner than mains water. I've achieved this by using a 'first-flush' device (to divert the first, dirty rush of rainwater from the roof), a sump and self-cleaning gutters.

Every day more than three million Australians, mostly in rural areas, safely drink rainwater. But at the time that I disconnected from Sydney's mains water and relied solely on rainwater, no one knew about the quality of Australia rainwater in cities. As far as I know, my family was the first to be assessed according to scientifically verified and published data.

ENSURING WATER QUALITY

Tests on our drinking water carried out by the University of Technology, Sydney, have demonstrated consistently low turbidity and faecal coliform counts. Of particular importance in an urban setting, lead levels recorded in our tank water have been shown to be below the safety threshold recommended by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council.

How is it possible to achieve clean water with almost no maintenance when surrounded by busy roads used daily by thousands of trucks and cars and with planes flying overhead to and from Australia's busiest airport? It's really quite simple and my Sustainable House has four clever adaptations to produce fresh and safe water:

My son Julian and the first-flush diverter; the polystyrene ball is easily removed for cleaning.

  • the enclosed gutter on the
    roof excludes leaves and bird droppings but lets water in
    through special sinks
  • the downpipe contains a sloping mesh trap to exclude leaves and debris without blocking water flow
  • a simple diversion system in the downpipe directs the first 6-10L
    of rainwater (carrying dirt from
    the roof) away from the water tank and into the garden, and
  • a sump with a fine mesh excludes the last of the heavy sediments before the water enters the tank

The guttering system feeds into a concrete tank that holds about 8500L and is hidden below our home's back deck. When it's full the water overflows into a mini-wetland to reduce stormwater runoff from the block.

MAXIMISING YOUR RAINWATER SYSTEM

The tank system functions extraordinarily well but we have run out of rainwater four times, which has meant popping across to the neighbours to occasionally "borrow" 1500L of water. Installing a bigger tank would have alleviated this problem, but not solved it: there simply isn't enough rainfall coming off our tiny roof to sustain a family of four. It would be enough for two.

This shortcoming aside, the system has served us well and means an extra 100,000L of fresh water remains in Sydney's main dam supply each year.

It's lawful for anyone to undo the tap and pipe and disconnect from mains water. The locked metal shroud for which Sydney Water holds the key prevents anyone using water except by fraud.

To get the most value from your
rain-tank investment you need to
use the water efficiently. And the
key, in this driest of countries, is
to re-use as much water as possible. 
When it's re-used endlessly for gardening, toilet flushing and
clothes washing (see how in my
chapter on Wastewater), two big
wins come your way.

You don't depend on rain to flush your
toilet (because filtered flush water comes back repeatedly to be used for that purpose), and you don't need as big
a rain tank. This means you use the
best-quality water - rainwater - as efficiently as possible.

When you see clean, precious rainwater stored in rarely filled rain tanks used to flush toilets, you'll appreciate how wasteful it is to use cloud-carted water to flush toilets just once. What an abuse of the rich, intermittent gift bestowed on our roofs!