The spirit of quirky Hill country enterprise is on display at nearby Tank Town, a skyline of catchment tanks in Necco Wafer hues. Here, Richard Heinichen harvests rainwater and filters it by reverse osmosis down to a ten-thousandth of a micron. Yes, it tastes good. “Made between Heaven and Earth over Dripping Springs, Texas,” brag the bottles, which are sold on-site and at assorted local businesses.
Richard Heinichen simply refused to settle for unacceptable well water. That determination lead to the birth of a full-scale rainwater collection and bottling facility in Dripping Springs – and earned him the honor of becoming the first (and only) company licensed to bottle rainwater in America.
Heinichen, the pioneer behind Richard’s Rainwater, founded Tank Town 20 years ago after collecting his own rainwater and receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from friends and neighbors. His branded, bottled rainwater has been around for almost six years.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen, but this turned into quite a business,” Heinichen said.
With 15 rainwater tanks and a storage capacity of 300,000 gallons of water, he’s not kidding. But surprisingly enough, droughts are a non-issue at Tank Town; Heinichen said they wouldn’t begin to feel the effects until after 200 consecutive days without rain.
“Noah didn’t build the Ark when it was raining,” he said. “We store water; it has no shelf life. It’ll last forever. If you store it properly you’ll never have a problem with it.”
Similar to cultivating a fine wine, he ages his water and employs a proprietary method before bottling.
“That’s what’s kinda neat,” Heinichen said. “When it rains, I don’t use that water for over a year.”
Heinichen was also the first company in the nation licensed to use rainwater as the sole source of water for a public water supply – but earning that distinction didn’t come easily. The Health Department informed Heinichen he was breaking the law by bottling rainwater because it wasn’t an approved water source.
“So I asked the City where their water came from, and they said they’re getting it from the Colorado River,” he said. “But where does that come from? Keep going back enough and all water is rainwater.”
It took Heinichen four years to get Richard’s Rainwater on the shelf. He hired engineers who created a pioneer bottling plant that went on to – perhaps ironically – receive an award from the Health Department.
“They approved me on the first go-round,” Heinichen said. “They said, ‘This is fantastic. We applaud you.'”
But Heinichen didn’t rest on his laurels for long. Running the plant meant going back to school, so he attended both The University of California, Berkeley and Texas A&M to become a certified public water operator.
“It’s been a long haul, but they can’t take it away now,” Heinichen laughed.
Since Tank Town is not located over a recharge zone and the water isn’t pulled from springs, Tank Town has zero impact on the environment. Richard’s Rainwater, nicknamed “Cloud Juice,” is bottled on-site to avoid the need for chlorination – a legal necessity for competitors like Ozarka in order for water to be transported before bottling. Ozarka’s springs dried up years ago so they now truck water in to be bottled, which means the water must be chlorinated, he said.
“People are paying a ridiculous price for a poor quality water,” he said.
While Heinichen was quick to praise any attempts to filter city water, he contends there’s still no comparison between Richard’s Rainwater and, for example, Brita-filtered water because there’s nothing in rainwater – and there never was. Yet as pure as his water is, Heinichen’s rainwater still undergoes reverse osmosis and UV filtering to kill any lingering bacteria.
“Whatever people are doing to make their water pure, that’s wonderful,” Heinichen said. He maintained that most city water supplies have chemical elements present that could prove harmful to people.
“It’s kinda like we’ve got our heads in the sand about water quality,” Heinichen said. “[Rainwater is] the only way you can really guarantee yourself some safe, pollution-free water that’s naturally soft. You can’t make it with any machines.”
Mentioning the Edwards Aquifer in San Antonio, he said he’s also worried about the quantity of city water left for future generations.
“There’s an interesting fact about water: it’s about 500 feet below your seat,” Heinichen said. “It takes 30 years for that water to get down there. We’re pumping that stuff out faster than the water can recharge.”
Heinichen said rainwater might also have health benefits. A Richard’s Rainwater devotee called him and explained that her baby had recurring rashes – until she began washing her baby in rainwater. Heinichen said he thinks this has something to do with rainwater being a universal solvent, which means it’s “the only water” that will completely remove the soap out of hair and clothes.
Heinichen said he also has three followers who claim their migraines return if they drink anything else. One man who dropped by Tank Town said he’s been using a rainwater collection system for years and would readily give up air conditioning before having to go without rainwater.
Heinichen offers a private labeling service at Tank Town for several clients, including Mercedes-Benz, Austin Java and Texas Pure Rain. He said most of his clients have been upfront about their water essentially being Richard’s Rainwater with a different label – with the exception of Pure Rain. Sold at Central Market, Whole Foods and several Walgreens locations, Pure Rain is competing directly against Richard’s Rainwater.
“It could be damaging to me if (Pure Rain) is sold cheaper than my water,” Heinichen said.
Pure Rain Managing Principal David Schraub said his goal with Pure Rain is to donate at least 50 percent of sales to their sister company, Natural Renewable Energy, in order to offset the cost of building solar energy collection racks. Schraub aims to position Texas as number one in both solar and wind energy.
“Yes, Texas has natural gas and oil,” Schraub said, “but we also need something that’s carbon and footprint-free. The public needs to do something, and not rely on the government to do something. Here’s a way to support it and do it.”
Since he’s busier than he’s ever been, Heinichen said he now wants to get out of private labeling so he can get back to focusing on Richard’s Rainwater and selling rainwater collection systems for home use.
“I’ve probably seen a 20 percent increase in my business every year for the past 20 years,” Heinichen said. “We’ve had hundreds – I think maybe 350 families and systems we support. Two years ago we were selling 200 cases (of Richard’s Rainwater) a month; now we’re selling 300 (cases) a week.”
Which is why Heinichen said he’s content to keep Richard’s Rainwater on the shelves of Wheatsville and off the shelves of Wal-Mart. He said he wants to keep the business small and personal.
“It’s peaceful out here,” Heinichen said, gesturing to the rainwater tanks from under the shade of a tree. “I don’t want trucks constantly coming in here and ruining it.”
Heinichen said word of mouth is really the best way to advertise, and referenced Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point to explain how he intends to reach people with Richard’s Rainwater.
“It’s all paid off, I’ve got people totally addicted,” Heinichen said. “That’s all I wanted to do, really, was to make sure people endorsed it and believed in it the way I do.”
Not that Heinichen is in it to reap financial rewards.
“There’s no money in it,” he said. “I don’t need to do it. I just enjoy it.”