Who’ll catch the rain?


I’m not the sort of person who’s easily enamored of plastic objects, especially big ones that cost $1,150 apiece. Working in an uncertain industry in uncertain times, I’m hardly the target market for an expensive, 187-pound piece of injection-molded, candy-colored, food-grade polyethylene, which doesn’t do much to explain why I now own two of these things.

Chalk it up to loss aversion, exuberant spending or some other manifestation of behavioral economics, but the closest I can come to understanding my own actions is that this outrageously pricey plastic came to my attention at a time when I was primed for long-term savings. It was late fall. I’d just escaped a layoff. Not only was the global economy in ruins, but social order also seemed on the brink of collapse. California was entering a third year of drought. It was only a matter of time before all hell broke loose and with it, potentially, our access to water. We were going down, and it was going to be dry and ugly.

Or so it seemed in October, when I was in the midst of what can only be described as a full-on freakout. Water was on my mind. I was feeling the need to do something -- anything -- to allay my unease, and rain catchment systems became my target of inquiry and action.


I’d done the math and learned that my 1,500 square feet of shingled roofing, coupled with an estimated 15 inches of annual rainfall, held the potential to generate 13,500 gallons of water each year. I wanted all of it, and rain barrels were too puny. Underground cisterns were too expensive. Above-ground tanks were ugly.

That led me to something called a Waterwall, an easy-on-the-eyes product that does exactly what its name implies. It’s a wall that catches and stores water -- beautifully. The system can channel water from a roof into a gutter that drains into an oblong, above-ground tank. It operates similarly to a rain barrel, only it’s a lot bigger. It’s also modular, allowing water to flow freely from one wall into another, a series to create a sort of waterlogged fence.

I’d heard about Waterwalls from Brad Lancaster, the Arizona author of three thick books on rainwater harvesting and the country’s pre-eminent expert on the subject. Lancaster had come to my house for a consultation, during which he not only sold me on the virtues of water that falls from the sky but also walked me through options for catching it.

First, the virtues: When it comes to irrigating plants, rainwater helps to flush the soil of dehydrating salts that come courtesy of the imported municipal product feeding our landscapes nine months out of the year here. Catching the rain for later use also prevents a portion of it from running into the street, where it picks up contaminants, pours into storm drains and flows, untreated, to the ocean. Capturing rain also reduces the need to use drinking water for landscape irrigation, which in Southern California accounts for about half the potable water consumed by a typical single family residence.

Best of all, rainwater is free. It’s just the catching that costs money. Lancaster is a big proponent of inexpensive earthworks -- digging trenches and building berms to retain rainwater in a landscape. I was, at that time, switching my xeriscaping to food production. I was tired at the thought of so much digging. And, in my freakout state, I was eager to catch the rain as soon as it started falling.

I logged on to the Waterwall website, currently being reconstructed, and was smitten once I saw the images pop up on the screen. Just looking at them made me happy. There, in a blaze of colors, sat three stellar examples of contemporary, sustainable design: the 317-gallon Eave model designed to fit against the side of a house, the 317-gallon Freestanding that can be used as a fence and the 660-gallon Fatboy, which can also be used as a fence. Each was roughly the height and length of a garage door. The biggest difference was thickness: The Eave and Freestanding are 14 1/2 inches thick; the Fatboy, 27 1/2 . All three types can be used in a series; their ends are designed to slide together and can be joined with plumbing that allows the water to flow from tank to tank before exiting a porthole and hitting the dirt.

Waterwall was based in Australia, which has been experiencing drought conditions. I sent an e-mail to find out whether the walls could be shipped to the U.S. and to get a rough idea of price. “Yes” was the answer to my first question; the firm also said it planned to close Australian operations and set up shop in the U.S. The Freestanding models I was interested in cost $2,300 for two, not including shipping.

At $3.62 per gallon of storage, the Freestanding costs roughly the same as the rain barrels I had considered buying. However, it’s 700 times more per gallon than what I paid for water from L.A.’s Department of Water & Power. Add $118 in taxes and $354 per Waterwall for shipping charges, and the per-gallon cost rose to $5.12. Even so, I went forward with my purchase, rationalizing the decision by reminding myself of the virtues of rainwater and the fact that Waterwalls can be used season after season.

If the warranty is any indication, my Waterwalls will last at least 15 years -- probably more because the plastic is UV-stabilized to prevent cracking. I can only hope, because the true cost per gallon ended up being $6.62. The reason: installation.

My original plan was to put the Waterwalls on the edge of my deck and use the water for thirsty fruit trees. That idea was nixed when I realized that my deck wouldn’t hold the weight of the walls. Each Waterwall weighs 1.3 tons when full, akin to the weight of a parked car.

So began the saga -- of finding a new location, then prepping that location, which required a concrete footing to keep the walls from toppling over. The job required the hiring of a worker to dig a 16-foot-long, 18-inch-deep trench ($45), the building of a frame for said hole ($22), the hiring of a concrete truck ($403), the hiring of a concrete pump for said truck ($184), the buying of more concrete to make up for the shortage from the truck ($32), the buying of rebar to reinforce the concrete ($38), the renting of a concrete drill to bore holes into the concrete to hold the Waterwalls in place ($55), the buying of $55 worth of other miscellaneous items and way more patience, time, embarrassment and help from friends than I really want to admit.

Thousands of dollars and six months after I made my initial inquiry, I learned about a significantly less expensive, similarly designed and soon-to-be-locally-made product from a competitor, Stormwater Sustainability in Malibu.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Waterwalls, which are now nestled in my backyard and holding water I’ve collected from my garage roof. I think they’re an engineering marvel. I just think they’re overpriced for what they are, especially in this economy. If I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t. But now that they’re there, I’m happy to have them. And I plan to remain happy to have them because I’m keeping them for the rest of my life.


Carpenter’s past columns on green home improvement and sustainable living are archived at



It pays to conserve

Santa Monica has started a rainwater rebate program that reimburses residents for redirecting their gutters’ downspouts to plants instead of paved surfaces and installing rain barrels or cisterns to catch rainwater. Residents can receive rebates of $40 per redirected downspout, $100 per rain barrel and $500 per cistern. As of Wednesday, no one in the city had used the program, which is run by the Office of Sustainability and the Environment. Information: (310) 458-2213.

Los Angeles plans to offer rebates, but not until winter 2010. Later this year, the city’s Bureau of Sanitation will run a pilot program at 600 Mar Vista homes to test systems that the rebate might cover. Customer service call center: (800) 773-2489.

-- Susan Carpenter


Video demonstration

See Susan Carpenter’s Waterwalls save a rainy day in the video posted with this article online.