San Diego

Accessibility Tools

Rainwater Harvesting Information

Photo of Rain Collection Barrel


This website does not necessarily represent the views of the City of San Diego or its employees. The City of San Diego assumes no legal liability for the accuracy, completeness or usefulness of information in this report. The contents of this website are provided for general education and informational purposes only. The City of San Diego highly recommends that the reader consult with a technical professional and/or product retailer before applying any of this information to a specific project.

General Information

Photo of Garden Plants and Sprinkler Irrigation

Rainwater harvesting is a technique used for collecting, storing and using rainwater for landscape irrigation and other uses. The rainwater is collected from various hard surfaces such as rooftops and/or other manmade aboveground hard surfaces.

This ancient practice is growing in popularity due to interest in reducing the consumption of potable water and the inherent qualities of rainwater.

This website will focus on general information about rainwater harvesting systems, rainwater system advantages and disadvantages, and helpful links and references.

Rainwater Harvesting Basic Components

Rainwater systems come in all shapes and sizes, from simple catchment system under a downspout to large above and/or underground cisterns with complex filtration systems that can store thousands of gallons of water.

Most rainwater collection systems are comprised of the same basic components

  • Catchment surface - rooftop or other raised solid surface. The best catchment systems have hard, smooth surfaces such as metal roofs or concrete areas. The amount of water harvested depends on the quantity of rainfall, the size of the surface and the slope of the catchment area.
  • Gutters and downspouts - also known as distribution systems. They channel water from the catchment .area to a holding container such as a barrel, cistern or planted area
  • Leaf screens - a screen that removes or catches debris.
  • Roof washers - a device that diverts the "first flush" of rain before it enters the storage tank. Most rainwater suppliers recommend that the "first flush" of water is diverted to an outside area of the storage system since the catchment surface may accumulate bird droppings, debris and other pollution.
  • Storage tanks - In general, the storage tank is the most expensive component of a rainwater harvesting system. There are numerous types and styles of storage tanks available. Storage can be aboveground or underground. Storage containers can be made from galvanized steel, wood, concrete, clay, plastic, fiberglass, polyethylene, masonry and more. Examples of aboveground storage include cisterns, barrels, tanks, garbage cans, aboveground swimming pools and more. Storage tank prices vary based on variables such as size, material and complexity. To inhibit the growth of algae, storage tanks should be opaque and preferably placed away from direct sunlight. The tanks should also be placed close to the area of use and supply line to reduce the distance over which the water is delivered. Also consider placing the storage on an elevated area to take advantage of gravity flow. The tank should always be placed on a stable and level area to prevent it from leaning and possibly collapsing.
  • Delivery systems - gravity-fed or pumped to the landscape or other end-use areas.
  • Purification/treatment system - needed for potable systems to make the water safe for human consumption. Please check with your local health department for information on filtration systems and certification requirements. Information is available at the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health - Small Drinking Water Systems. Additional information available at California Department of Public Health.
Photo of Rain Gutters and Downspout with Debris Filter

Rain gutters and downspout with debris filter

Photo Storage Tank Shown with an Inlet Pipe and Overflow Tube

Storage tank shown with an inlet pipe and overflow tube

Photo of Inlet Pipe with Debris Filter

Inlet pipe with debris filter

Photo of Rain Barrel at San Ysidro Library

Rain barrel at San Ysidro Library

Photo of Serial Connected Rain Barrels

Serial connected rain barrels

Photo of Rain Barrel Overflow Tube

Rain barrel overflow tube

Rainwater Harvesting Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Makes use of a natural resource and reduces flooding, stormwater runoff, erosion and contamination of surface water with pesticides, sediment, metals and fertilizers.
  • Reduces the need for imported water (the San Diego region imports between 80%-90% of its water from Northern California and Colorado River)
  • Excellent source of water for landscape irrigation, with no chemicals such as fluoride and chlorine, and no dissolved salts and minerals from the soil.
  • Home systems can be relatively simple to install and operate May reduce your water bill.
  • Promotes both water and energy conservation
  • No filtration system required for landscape irrigation

Photo of Watering Can Being Filled from Spigot

  • Limited and uncertain local rainfall
  • Can be costly to install - rainwater storage and delivery systems can cost between $200 to $2,000+ depending on the size and sophistication of the system
  • The payback period varies depending on the size of storage and complexity of the system
  • Can take considerable amount of time to "pay for itself"
  • Requires some technical skills to install and provide regular maintenance
  • If not installed correctly, may attract mosquitoes (i.e.; West Nile Disease and other waterborne illnesses)
  • Certain roof types may seep chemicals, pesticides, and other pollutants into the water that can harm the plants
  • Rainwater collected during the first rain season is generally not needed by plants until the dry season. Once catchment is full, cannot take advantage of future rains

Safety Considerations

Photo of Rain Collection Units Secured within Fenced Enclosure


Please make sure that children and pets do not climb on the storage systems and accidentally fall into the storage tank.

Storage tanks should have locking lids and/or bars that keep the children and pets out!

Standards and Regulations

Collage of Think Blue Logo and Surfer

Rainwater harvesting policies vary from state to state but there are no known local laws restricting rainwater harvesting at this time. In 2007, two bills were passed in the California State Legislature that require local water districts to create water conservation programs and building standards (AB1420 and AB1560). However, neither bill discusses rainwater harvesting as a water conservation option. The American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (ARCSA) has developed a standards guide that is being proposed to the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) for inclusion in the Sustainable Plumbing Standard.

The City of San Diego's Stormwater Pollution Prevention Program is currently conducting a pilot study on rainwater harvesting at seven locations throughout the city's watersheds. Information about the pilot project will be available soon on the "Think Blue" web site at www.sandiego.gov/thinkblue.

Helpful Web Links, Resources, and References

Photo of Park Landscape


Report water waste by calling 619-533-5271 or email [email protected].

General Water Conservation Information: 619-533-7485


You must have Javascript enabled to use this form.