Saturday, May 19, 2007

Living in Paradise, Part 1 - The Mysterious Cistern

Three years ago this month, my hubby and I, along with three cats, packed up our lives and made a big move that so many people only fantasize about: we abandoned the ultra-urban Washington DC suburbs and headed south to live on a tropical island. We landed on St. Croix (aka STX), the largest of the US Virgin Islands, bought a house mid-island, and prepared to settle into our new lives. For several months before we moved, I'd been a regular on a terrific message board about moving to and living in the Virgin Islands, ( so we thought we had a pretty decent awareness about the differences between island life and living in the lower 48.

Then we encountered our cisterns.

Although some homes near the heart of the two cities on STX have city water and a few others have wells, most rely on a cistern to provide water to the home. A cistern is a large water storage tank that's built into the foundation of a house. Rain water runs off the roof and into a gutter system that empties into the cistern, which hosts a draw pipe that's connected to the home's primary pump. The cistern can be accesses through a 2'x2' opening located somewhere in the floor of the home, and there are overflow pipes to prevent the cisterns from overfilling in the even of heavy rains over an extended period of time. (I have read stories that describe the covers of cisterns being blown off by the downpour when category 5 Hurricane Hugo struck.)

For those who do not know, water is a precious commodity in the USVI. Homes with cisterns use rain water as their primary water source -- the air is so free of pollution down here that it takes minimal filtering to make it potable, and with the use of our faucet filter provides the tastiest drinking water I've ever tasted. As it rains very, very little during the winter months, the water collected during hurricane season (June 1-November 1) needs to last through the dry period until the rains come again. If you run out of rainwater, you can purchase a tanker truck full of water, delivered and pumped into the cistern through either the floor hatch or the downspouts. The current rates for 3100 gallons of water are about $110 for well water and $160 for distilled (desalinated).

The only thing about cisterns I found during my time on the VI Now message board was that they needed cleaning occasionally. We had no idea how often this needed to occur, and talking with locals and transplanted continental produced advice ranging from having them every two years to every five years. The only consensus was that, even though it is possible to clean them yourselves, it is best to pay a professional. These conversations also provided advice to treat the cistern water with bleach or use a faucet filter to make the water parasite free and safe for drinking. (There are some pretty nasty water-borne parasites prevalent in the tropics.)

Our house used to be a duplex, so we actually have two separate cisterns that hold 12,500 gallons each. Since moving here, we've finally sorted out all of the mystery, and had one of our two cisterns professionally cleaned, which should be done every five years or so. We also learned, the hard way, that only one of our two cisterns was equipped with a draw pipe. It took a $400 investment to get it set up they way we were sold on it -- that switching between the two cisterns takes no more than the flip of a switch. We've had to buy water once -- this week, in fact -- and know that we can only buy it 3100 gallons at a time because the larger tanker truck can't make it around the tight curves on our street. And we know that our faucet filter eliminates any need to ever add bleach to our super clean rainwater.

Now all we need is to sit back and wait for nature to deliver all of the fresh water our cisterns can hold -- without bringing a hurricane along with it, please.

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