In Each Life, Some Rain Must Fall. Why Not Bottle It?
New York Times – January 8, 2004
By: Nora Krug
Dripping Springs, Texas
Ever tasted a raindrop and wondered, Why doesn’t someone bottle this stuff? Well, someone has and called it, aptly, Rain Water. Rain Water, the product, comes from Dripping Springs, where it is collected and bottled by Richard Heinichen, a 57-year-old former blacksmith. He fills about 1,500 bottles a day with the “cloud juice” that falls on Rain Water headquarters, wich he calls Tank Town. Mr. Heinichen (pronounced like the beer) said he sold about 170,000 16-ounce bottles last year – at about $1 each – and has more than a quarter-million gallons of water in storage.
Mr. Heinichen, who said he has invested nearly $500,000 in Rain Water and is just barely breaking even, began his quest nearly a decade ago as a way to quench his own thirst. Dissatisfied with the well water at his home, he built a small rain collector there. It worked so well that he began installing similar ones at other people’s homes, eventually establishing a business that helps finance the bottling of Rain Water.
One hot day, Mr. Heinichen was driving back from an installation job and found himself parched. He considered buying a bottle of spring water but thought better of it. (He so dislikes the taste of spring water that he relegates the water from a small spring at Tank Town to a duck pond.)
The “aha!” moment hit, “and right away I got so excited about it,” he said.
So why haven’t there been other “aha’s” – why has the $7 billion a year bottled-water industry drawn on sources as exotic as Fiji when rainwater is ubiquitous? For one thing, capturing and purifying large quantities of rain before it hits the ground is a considerable feat of engineering.
While rain has long been used as a water source in areas without a public water supply or where well water is unavailable or tainted, the amounts collected are usually small and rarely suitable for consumption without treatment. In addition to abosrbing pollutants from the air, once rainwater hits a surface like a roof, it collects contaminats that multiply when it is stored.
And the entire enterprise will work, of course, only if it actually rains. That is what makes Mr. Heinichen’s accomplishment even more surprising. Annual precipitation in Dripping Springs, despite its soggy name, averages only about 32 inches, nearly 17 inches less than in New York City.
But even that 32 inches, falling over a single acre, is enough to fill nearly seven million 16-ounce bottles of water a year, said Bill Lauer, an engineer with the American Water Works Association in Denver.
At Tank Town, Mr. Heinichen’s collection system starts with a little less than half an acre – 20,000 square feet – of parabolic metal roofs. After hitting the roofs, the rain flows into gutters, down pipes, through a preliminary filter, and into one of 13 tanks. It is filtered twice more and zapped with ultra-violet light before it is bottled.
The system is a bit Rube Goldberg. In fact, Tank Town itself looks a little like something out of a cartoon. One tank is painted to look like a turtle; others are pastel, suggesting bloated Easter eggs. A swimming pool is fashioned out of an old beer vat.
Mr. Heinichen has no formal scientific training. But he earned certificates in water-treatment-plant operation at Texas A&M and consulted an engineer while developing his plant.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved Rain Water for sale in 2001 after Mr. Heinichen installed a laser particle counter to check for impurities. A commission spokeswoman said the water is regularly inspected and no problems have been found.
Mr. Heinichen said he originally expected Rain Water to be an instant hit. But business began to trickle.
Jennifer Braafladt, bar manager at the Hotel San Jose in Austin, where a bottle of Rain Water is put in every room, said that guests often joke about whether the hotel collects the water from its own roof.
“Somehow I have to convince people that rainwater isn’t really dirty,” Mr. Heinichen said. To that end, he is trying to come up with a new label that no longer uses the image of a darkening cloud, wich some have told him looks like a smudge.
Mr. Heinichen has already turned Rain Water into something of a cult hit. The local Curves gym and a Whole Foods Market and several restaurants in Austin are among the places that sell it. Customers as far awas as New York and Oregon order it online at rainwatercollection.com
Unlike some other bottled waters, Rain Water contains no minerals, which some say add flavor.
“It has a nice, sweet taste,” said Lynn Helton, a customer in Dripping Springs.
Others are simply drawn by the gimmick. Peggy Smith, owner of the Curves gym, down the road from Tank Town, said she isn’t sure Rain Water tastes different from any other water, “but I keep thinking of the novel idea of cloud juice.”