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100-Year-Old Way to Filter Rainwater in a Barrel

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During our boiling, broiling, blistering summer of 2012 here in the Missouri Ozarks, water was a topic of conversation wherever we went. Creeks and ponds dried up (some never recovered) and the water table dropped, forcing a few neighbors to have their well pumps lowered or to even have deeper wells drilled.WaterBuck blog rain barrel

Many folks shared memories of rain barrels, cisterns, hand pumps and drawing water with a well bucket as a child, usually on grandpa and grandma’s farm. Some said they’d never want to rely again on those old-time methods of getting water. But, at least they knew how it was done.

It seems we have lost much practical knowledge in the last 50 or so years because we thought we’d never need it again. Now we are scrambling to relearn those simple know-hows.

A tattered, 4-inch thick, 1909 book I happily secured for $8 in a thrift store reveals, among umpteen-thousand other every-day skills, how to make homemade water filters. The instructions in “Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cookbook” are quite basic as everyone had a rain barrel back then and presumably knew how to clean the water. Now, 104 years later, I am thankful the authors had the foresight to preserve their knowledge for us, and pointed out that rainwater collected in barrels from a roof is a necessity in some locations, but also is best for laundry and “often more wholesome for drinking purposes than hard water.”

The “wholesome” observation applies to plants, too. I noticed during our 6-week dry spell (not a drop of rain) that I was only able to keep my vegetables alive with the garden hose – until our well, too, began sucking air. The pitiful potato, tomato and bean plants actually seemed petrified, like faded plastic decorations. Then, after a 2-hour rain shower, the plants miraculously leapt to life – vibrant, green and THRIVING. I did, too.

In early June last year, my husband surprised me with a 425-gallon water tank so I could water with nutritious rainwater, although it was August before any measure of water was in the tank. When the elusive rains finally paused briefly overhead, I was out in it with my 2-gallon watering can, running and sloshing the water like a crazy woman onto our neglected trees far up the hill.

100-year-old instructions

For gardening, rainwater is, naturally, best unfiltered. But, for household use, the vintage book says the following instructions yield a cheap and easy way to make a filter just as good as a patent filter costing 10 times as much:

“Take a new vinegar barrel or an oak tub that has never been used, either a full cask or half size. Stand it on end raised on brick or stone from the ground. Insert a faucet near the bottom. Make a tight false bottom 3 or 4 inches from the bottom of the cask. Perforate this with small gimlet holes, and cover it with a piece of clean white canvas.

“Place on this false bottom a layer of clean pebbles 3 or 4 inches in thickness; next, a layer of clean washed sand and gravel; then coarsely granulated charcoal about the size of small peas. Charcoal made from hard maple is the best.

“After putting in a half bushel or so, pound it down firmly. Then put in more until the tub is filled within 1 foot of the top. Add a 3-inch layer of pebbles; and throw over the top a piece of canvas as a strainer. This canvas strainer can be removed and washed occasionally and the cask can be dumped out, pebbles cleansed and charcoal renewed every spring and fall, or once a year may be sufficient.

“This filter may be set in the cellar and used only for drinking water. Or it may be used in time of drought for filtering stagnant water, which would otherwise be unpalatable, for the use of stock. This also makes a good cider filter for the purpose of making vinegar. The cider should first be passed through cheese cloth to remove all coarser particles.

“Or a small cheap filter may be made from a flower pot. A fine sponge may be inserted in the hole and the pot filled about as directed for the above filter. It may be placed in the top of a jar, which will receive the filtered water.”

Free online reading

My copy of the 1,000-page book is stained and worn, I assume from many years of use in the house, barn and garden. Even though I could read the bright, white online version, I treasure my rag-tag book and am hanging onto it. I still have much to learn.

To read the free online version of Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cookbook that covers everything from how to eradicate vermin, salt fish and build a 5-hole privy, visit Household Discoveries on Open Library.org. Information on filtering water begins on page 108.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Productsa company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid, and invented the WaterBuck Pump. A former newspaper editor and reporter, Holliday blogs for Mother Earth News, sharing her skills in modern homesteading, organic gardening and human-powered devices.

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  • Knowdafish

    A better way instead of having the spigot at the bottom is to have its outlet connect to a piece of hose or piping and have the actual out let up a ways on the barrel, this way the contents of the barrel always stay wet allowing beneficial bacteria to thrive and never die because they dried out.

  • Mike Kennedy

    With our modern acid rain how about an update and adding a layer of marble chips to the top? They are available at hardware or aquarium stores. I don’t think this system would discourage bacteria—it might even be making a better place for it to live than an empty barrel!

  • Guest

    Hard maple for the charcoal. Not hard marble! Typo.

    • prepperjournal

      Thanks for the heads up!

  • shaun

    I could not find that book on openlibrary .org.have you seen it there recently?any help would be appreciated.it may have been written by a distant relative and I would like to read it.If you could email me any info that would be great.

  • prepperjournal


    The link is in the article above, but here it is again. http://openlibrary.org/books/OL24653192M/Household_discoveries The links to download this book in different formats are on the right side of the page.


    • Nick Vasey

      Unfortunately PDF link seems to be down. Annoying, because I want to print it out. But, not your fault either! :) Cheers for good info. :)

  • http://www.dondarkes.com/ Don Darkes

    Thank You! I enjoyed and learned from the article. I live on a self-sustaining sailboat with its roof adapted to catch rainwater and condensation. Even though I live in a relatively pristine ocean environment the amount of contaminants in the air/rain water are terryfying. I have used a number of commercial charcoal/ceramic/UV light filters and processes to purify the water. The effect of this is best seen when tasting the water or baking bread with and without filtering the water first. Eye-opening!

  • profesora

    Where would one get a new oak barrel? And do you have any recommendations for where a city dweller would get charcoal appropriate for using in the filter? Thank you for posting this.

    • http://www.theprepperjournal.com P. Henry

      Sorry, for not responding sooner. I just saw this comment…

      For the charcoal, you can make it by simply burning wood. Even in the cities there will be wood you can scrounge. Pallets, lumber from abandoned buildings, unused furniture, packing crates. All of it will work. Simply burn it all down and use the charcoal that your fire created in your filter.

      Now, for the Oak Barrels. You can get them but they aren’t cheap and most are probably treated with chemicals to keep pests out of the wood. Even if the wood is safe, real wood barrels are SO much more expensive. You can do everything she mentions in the post above with a plastic barrel at a fraction of the price. Plastic wasn’t around back 100 years ago so that is why the Oak recommendation in the book I believe.


  • Mark

    Great question profesora. Hope you get the answer that we all are looking for. This is the question we all have,little help here!

  • catherine holliday boyce

    Your website url caught my eye as I live in Escondido, Ca. I live in a ground floor apt. with large enclosed patio to house plants and have been collecting rain for the past 4 days in various recepticles. Want to filter it and your article will definately point me in the right direction.
    I grew up in countryside of southeastern pa. so collecting rainwater was not necessary although my parents did have rain barrels set out.
    Thanks for this posting.
    Cate Holliday Boyce

  • James Wurm

    Hey, I’m late to the conversation, but I really like this article. In my other research on this topic, another issue that came up is toxic particulate matter that runoff the roof, be it from the tar shingles themselves, or pollutant dust that settles from general air conditions. I think the filter assuages my concerns about that, but you also mention that the filter shouldn’t be applied to gardening water, that its better for the plants to have unfiltered water, and while I’m certain that is fine for general landscaping plants, what about fruits and vegetables? I know the soil and plants themselves do a lot of work to clean the water, but is it enough? Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thank you.

    • http://www.theprepperjournal.com/ Pat Henry

      Thanks for the comments and questions James. I don’t know if Linda is still checking on this one or not, but I think the article was referring to rainwater that wasn’t collected off the roof when she mentioned the garden. Straight from the sky would be best for your plants and vegetables, but if you are capturing from the roof filtering will be better for the plants to avoid the toxins you mention.

      Another great idea is a back flush type of system where when the rain first starts, it fills a tube up prior to going into your rain barrel. This was the bird poop and loose asphalt goes into the tube and settles to the bottom which can be flushed with a cap onto the ground.

  • James Wurm


  • Rich

    First of all, you’ve got the order wrong. It’s supposed to be gravel on the top, followed by a layer of sand and then the charcoal on the bottom. You can follow that up with another layer of sand on the bottom, but it is not necessary.

    Secondly, you need to use activated charcoal, not just any charcoal. Activated charcoal has been treated to open up the pores in the charcoal, which are what make it work so well for trapping bacteria.

    Finally, you didn’t mention that you need to rinse the grave, sand and activated charcoal thoroughly, before building the filter, in order to clean out dirt an charcoal dust.