When It Rains, He Stores
Austin-American Statesman – July 2002
By: Denise Gamino
Who among us has not stood in a soft rain shower with mouth wide open to try to catch some liquid sky?
There’s just something primeval about free-falling rainwater that makes us tilt our earthboud heads and await the nectar of clouds. But, unless you’re a big mouth, drinking rainwater in real time means getting more rain on you than in you.
Not anymore: When the sky melts, Richard Heinichen is there to catch it.
Heinichen is believed to be the only person in the United States bottling rainwater for commercial sale.
And is’t Austin-area rainwater. Or, as Heinichen calls it on his labels: “Fresh-squeezed Cloud Juice. Made between Heaven and Earth over Dripping Springs, Texas.”
Heinichen (whose name is pronounced like beer, not water) is the uncrowned Purveyor of Precipitation. His is a puddle-wonderful world where every drop of rain is captured before it hits the ground and is then used for washing clothes, cooking, bathing, gardening, and of course, drinking.
Well…not every drop of rain. Heinichen has so much rainwater saved to bottle that he had to watch more than 250,000 gallons wash across the highway in front of his bottling plant during the recent floods, according to a formula that uses collection surface and inches of rain to calculate gallons.
His fiberglass storage tanks are full of last year’s rain. He has 200,000 gallons of stored rainwater just ready to turn into bottled water, which he began selling 10 months ago.
“I can bottle for a year and two months without any rain,” he said. “So, I don’t even need (the recent) rain.”
Heinichen hoards his rainwater in plain view. If you are driving on U.S. 290, look for the field of pastel water tanks three miles west of Dripping Springs. Some of the tanks are 15 feet high and hold 17,000 gallons. His property, which he calls “Tank Town,” looks like a cylindrical Stonehenge splashed in Easter egg colors. Near the tanks are six arched tin roofs with 20,000 square feet of surface to capture rain. A field of lavendar and rosemary perfumes the air.
“I want to celebrate this stuff,” he said.
All visitors to the whimsical “Tank Town” recieve a free sample of government-approved bottled rainwater.
Twist open a bottle of the straightforwardly named Rain Water. Take a sip, and the first thing you’ll notice is…nothing. There’s a complete absence of taste. Pure rainwater is odorless, colorless and tasteless.
The tactile response is the kicker. Rain Water feels like what dew looks like. It is so soft and weightless the cloud it came from must have had a satin lining.
Bottles of Rain Water are showing up at a few cafes on South Congress Avenue and soon will be sold at the Central Market Cafe on North Lamar Boulevard. The cafe at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center sells is, and Gov. Rick Perry and his family get regular deliveries from Tank Town. And the water is so popular at the Salt Lick that some customers won’t drink anything but the 16-ounce bottles that sell for $1. The water often sells out.
“Last week, these two ladies came in and asked if we had Rain Water and they freaked out just because we didn’t have any,” said Holly Bennight, assistant manager.
Water snobbery is commonplace in the growing world of rainwater collection. Hundreds of homeowners in the Hill Country, where well water can be corrosive and unavailable during droughts, have converted to whole-house rainwater systems for everything from showers to drinking water.
Rainwater transformed Heinichen from a metal sculptor who created the giant “fork in the road” in front of Hyde Park Bar & Grille in Austin to a quiet rainwater evangelist living life by the drop.
Heinichen and his wife, Suzy Banks, a freelance writer for Texas Monthly and other publications, drilled a well for their home near Dripping Springs in early 1994. The water was so hard it turned freshly laundered clothes into stiff boards, turned their hair into Brillo pads and corroded pipes. They converted the house to a rainwater system; they converted themselves into rain collection experts.
By the end of that year, Heinichen was selling fiberglass rainwater tanks and the odd hamlet called Tank Town was born. Ninety-nine percent of Heinichen’s business is selling and installing rainwater collection systems.
The idea for selling bottled water came on a hot summer day in 1998 when Heinichen got thirsty while installing a residential rainwater system for a customer. He reached for a bottle filled with rainwater from his kitchen tap at home, but it was empty.
“I refused to go buy water in a store,” he said, “because it just didn’t taste as good.”
Instead of going to nearby stores and paying 69 cents for a bottle of water, Heinichen drove 20 miles back to his house to wet his whistle. On the way, he had a pipe dream: Why not bottle rainwater commercially so others could share something so sublime it inspired a parched man to take a 40-mile detour?
“There is no water that can touch it,” he said. “It’s the gold standard of water. I put a spigot on a cloud instead of a pump in the ground.”
It took four years of tinkering and government bureaucracy – water torture for Heinichen – before he won approval to sell rainwater. Texas health officials had never given permission for bottling and sales of rainwater.
“Rainwater is not a source for drinking water,” more than one official told him. “It’s not approved.”
“Well, what water have you been drinking?” Heinichen asked, pointing out that all fresh-water sources are fed by rain.
With the help of an engineer, Heinichen was certified by the Texas Department of Health as a bottled water plant operator. A permit from the Texas Natural Resource Conversation Commission was tougher to obtain because Heinichen refused to disinfect the rainwater with chlorine. Most public drinking water systems use trace amounts of chemical disinfectant, such as chlorine.
The TNRCC eventually approved Heinichen’s rainwater system because of his extra safeguards. Instead of chemicals, Heinichen uses several filtering processes and then subjects the rainwater to ultraviolet light and reverse osmosis to kill anhy remaining bacteria and contaminants. In addition, his system operates as a “closed loop” that guards against outside bacteria because the water is not exposed to air once it leaves the rooftop.
Heinichen is bottling 60 cases a day, but he has the capacity to quadruple his output. And, if consumer demand outpaces his two-room bottling plant, he is willing to expand.
“I could keep up with the big boys,” he said. “Easily, I’d love to be able to supply everybody with water the way it ought to taste.”
One raindrop at a time.