Cisterns: Deep trouble or untapped resource?
In its heyday, this pump moved rainwater from the backyard cistern to a tub for washing clothes and dishes. Robert Proctor found this cistern while remodeling a house near downtown Indianapolis. Photo by Brandon Smith
Angie's List member Tony Adams and his wife, Dawn Zapinsky, own a 101-year-old Foursquare home in Meridian Kessler that includes a cistern buried in the backyard. It's connected to a hand pump in the basement, but the couple say they have no idea what to do with it.
"Honestly, the only thing I've ever known about a cistern is it's mentioned in the lyrics to 'Ya Got Trouble' from 'The Music Man,' " Adams says.
Thousands of cisterns exist in the area, says Paul Mullins, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. But the underground caverns - as deep as 10 feet and as wide as 14 feet - have been filled or capped and forgotten as people connected to city water.
Some cisterns remain intact and could potentially be connected to gutter downspouts and used again to collect rainwater for use in irrigating lawns and gardens. Previously, homeowners also used the water for cooking and laundry.
Adams and Zapinsky want to use theirs for irrigation, but local contractors and city and county officials say they might be the first to try to restore an old cistern. Soil and water conservation officials in Marion and Hamilton counties say they know of no other restorations.
"You essentially are talking about a big rain barrel," says John South, manager of the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District. "The only negative aspect is that you are looking at some kind of pump to get the water out, versus a rain barrel where you can let gravity do the work."
Many homeowners opt to remove their cisterns, says Robert Proctor, co-owner of highly rated Maple Road Construction in Indianapolis. He finds them when he starts digging for a home addition, deck or other project in an older neighborhood. "You bring a backhoe in and you no sooner dig in the ground and you start bringing up brick. It's an expensive little deal."
Costs to fill a cistern with gravel and cap it start at $2,500, he says. "If you have to build on top of it, it costs more," he says, because then he has to dig it up rather than fill it.
The Indiana real estate sales disclosure form also requires homeowners to tell potential buyers about cisterns. "Even if it is filled but you know it is there, that's a disclosure issue," says highly rated real estate agent Kristie Smith of Kristie Smith-Indy Homes Team in Carmel, Ind. "That could really add to the cost of a swimming pool if you had to remove that cistern."
Adams and Zapinsky say their agent, highly rated Eric Baiz of F.C. Tucker on 86th Street in Indianapolis, explained the cistern and pump before they bought the house. Baiz, who specializes in historic homes, says he's seen only one other repurposed Indianapolis cistern. "The owner actually dug a tunnel from his basement to the cistern and turned it into a wine cellar," he says.
Adams says he may soon be ready to uncork the old cistern. "We've given the pump a couple of cranks and nothing has happened," he says. "Our assumption is that it is not working right now, but that doesn't mean it couldn't."