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Harvesting rain

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Harvesting rain

Marty Morganello explains how he collects rainwater into a 50-gallon container that he uses to water plants in his backyard. He recently started Lowcountry Rain Harvesting, a firm set up to help homes and businesses conserve water.

The average annual rainfall in Charleston is a little more than 51 inches, water that generally seeps into the sandy soil or runs off into storm drains, creeks and rivers.

But Marty Morganello of Folly Beach believes a lot of it is going to waste and can be used to help homeowners and businesses conserve water for gardens and livestock when the rain doesn't fall.

Through his Lowcountry Rain Harvesting firm, Morganello sets up water collection systems at homes, businesses or schools to gather rain running off roofs and direct it to enclosed barrels.

At his home, he has set up different collection points.

The main one consists of four 50-gallon barrels made of 60 percent recycled plastic on a raised platform at the back of his Oak Island Drive home. A downspout from the gutter is connected to the barrels, funneling rainwater into the 200-gallon cistern. The barrels are enclosed so debris can't enter and they won't breed mosquitoes.

When setting up systems, Morganello tries to put them out of sunlight to avoid algae growth. The system is not set up to allow water for drinking because it doesn't have a filter. Water running off roofs can pick up bird droppings, dust and whatever else is up there.

When thunderstorms roll through, the barrels can fill up, so an overflow line is attached, directing extra water through an underground 1-inch pipe into a small rain garden.

To get the water to his budding crop of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, strawberries, lettuce and eggplant, Morganello uses another small underground piping system. When the rain doesn't come on some of those hot summer days or any time of year, he turns a valve and delivers stored-up water straight to the garden through a drip line.

The water can be used to wash cars as well.

He even has a system set up on a small chicken coop to collect rainwater there and feed it to his four chickens, who deliver fresh eggs.

Another system is set up on a small storage shed. His wife, Kim, uses the collected rainwater on potted plants.

The captured rainwater can be used for lawns, but it is not recommended because it uses up too much water too quickly, Morganello said. "It's mainly for drip irrigation," he said.

All new federal buildings and new military structures now require rainwater collection to meet high-environmental construction standards, he said. The water on those new buildings is for nonpotable use such as toilet flushing and drip irrigation for plants and trees around buildings.

"We are trying to get the water back into the ground," Morganello said. "If it goes into the street, it just goes into the storm drain."

A typical four-barrel system costs about $700 and takes Morganello about six to eight hours to install. The cost includes materials and labor.

Although the system allows for rainwater conservation, it probably won't affect water bills all that much because the water isn't used for drinking, cooking or bathing, and in most current set-ups, toilets.

"It's not a money-saving system," Morganello said. "Municipal water is extremely cheap. We are trying to get to conservation-minded people."

Some states, such as Arizona, offer residents rebates for installing rain barrels and cisterns, Morganello said. South Carolina offers no incentives. Last year, Atlanta set regulations to allow rainwater to be drunk, provided filtering and treatment systems were in place and the sole responsibility of building owners. In California, used water such as that from a washing machine, called gray water, can be diverted to watering plants.

Originally from Bethlehem, Pa., Morganello, 47, came to Charleston in 1995 on a visit.

"I liked the climate a lot more than the steel town, and when I saw the marsh, I fell in love with it and decided to stay," he said.

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A master electrician by trade, Morganello saw an ad looking for someone to wire the Folly Beach Pier. He applied and got the job.

"Going from hard hat and work boots to shorts and sneakers, it didn't get any better than that," he said.

After living a short time in Columbia, he saw an ad in 1999 for an electrician at the new S.C. Aquarium. He took the job. About a year later, he became facilities manager, a position responsible for the physical and mechanical operation of the waterfront tourist attraction in downtown Charleston.

"It was a perfect fit for me," Morganello said.

In 2006, he left, saying the stress of being on call 24 hours a day and repairing systems that broke down overnight and on holidays was too much for him.

"I got out of construction stuff altogether. I was just kind of worn out," he said.

Instead, he decided to work from home doing odd jobs. He began managing properties, building furniture and doing framing.

"I was waiting for the next thing to come along," Morganello said.

About 21/2 years ago, his wife, who works at the Clemson University Extension Service, told him about the agency installing cisterns at schools to collect water as educational tools.

He started working as a contractor with the agency to install rainwater systems.

"I realized nobody was doing this," Morganello said. "You could find rain barrels online, but there was no one doing (installation). I believed the market was ripe for it, so I decided to go for it."

Last fall, he attended a training seminar in Austin, Texas, sponsored by the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association for instructions in installation. He passed an exam and got accredited so he could start his own business.

Besides his personal home system, he has installed other rainwater catch basins, including a 1,500-gallon cistern at Mitchell Elementary in downtown Charleston to serve the school's garden.

Students at the science-infused school use the system for irrigation.

But they learn a lot more than water distribution and conservation, said Principal Debbie Smith.

"It's a huge part of our curriculum," she said. "It reinforces learning of materials in the soil and the standards of working the garden and the soil. They learn how to properly water and feed and weed the garden so they can harvest it. They also learn about life sciences from production of the plants and then harvesting them when they come in. It also shows students how they can have an urban garden and turn farming into a career if they so choose."

Morganello also installed two systems at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's vegetable laboratory on Savannah Highway, a two-barrel system at Goodwin Elementary in North Charleston, a cistern at Ashley River Creative Arts School and a rain garden at Wannamaker County Park in North Charleston.

The Sustainability Institute in Park Circle has its own system, but Morganello maintains it. That one is set up to use water runoff to flush toilets.

"Rainwater harvesting leads to a more sustainable lifestyle," he said. "It's like when people start recycling, they realize how much less trash they have. It goes to the mindset to preserve anything we can."

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or

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