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Rain Barrels: Save On Water Bills at the Cabin

Collecting, storing & using Mother Nature’s water supply has never been easier

By Lisa Readie Mayer
Published: February 1, 2012
CBN-J0212
PUMP IT UP – With a pump system, use your collected and stored rainwater to water your shrubs and gardens. This top-mounted unit is the Rain Perfect Rain Barrel Pump, $140 (pump only), www.cleanairgardening.com.
Rain, rain, don’t go away. Rain barrels will collect it for another day.
Our apologies for the eco-rewrite of this classic nursery rhyme, but it drives home a point: A lot of rainwater needlessly goes down the drain when it could be captured and put to good use.
    Collecting and storing rainwater is easy and useful. Rain that falls on a roof can be diverted through downspouts into barrels and stored there as a ready source for watering flower pots and gardens, washing your vehicles, or even topping off a swimming pool. This untreated, or soft, water contains no chlorine, fluoride, minerals or other chemicals, making it very plant-friendly.
    Considering lawn and garden watering accounts for 40 percent of household water use in the summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates rain barrels can save the average homeowner at least 1,300 gallons of water during the peak use period. Besides conserving water, harvesting rainwater saves energy by reducing the amount of tap water being treated, lessens the impact of storm runoff on streams and sewer systems, and saves you money on water bills. It also permits you to water your gardens during drought restrictions.

How much water?
To calculate the amount of rainwater you can potentially collect during a 1-inch rainfall, divide the estimated square footage of your roof by 2. That means a 1,000-square-foot roof will collect 500 gallons of water during a 1-inch rain.
    You may not need or want to collect all of that rain; a modest sprinkling will fill an average rain barrel. There are ways to collect only a portion of what falls; for instance, you may choose to position rain barrels at all of your downspouts or at only one or two. Regardless, your water-collection efforts will have a positive impact on the environment and your water bill.

To get started
Your rain-harvesting system can be as simple as a utilitarian 55-gallon, food-grade plastic drum that you place under the gutter’s downspout. (Don’t use a plastic garbage can, as it isn’t sturdy enough to withstand the pressure of the water over time.) To capture even more rainwater, you can install more complex systems that use extra-large barrels or link multiple barrels together with PVC pipes or hoses.
    Prefabricated units are available at hardware stores, home and garden centers, and through online retailers such as www.rainbarrelsource.com, www.cleanairgardening.com, and www.gardeners.com. These products range from simple plastic or wooden barrels to decorative vessels that blend into landscaping and resemble urns, planters, landscaping boulders, or architectural columns.
   
Accessories make water harvesting easier. For example:
  • Diverters send rain into the barrel from the downspout, but when the barrel is full, they use backflow pressure to redirect water to the downspout, so the barrel doesn’t overflow.
  • Linking hoses that run between barrels make it possible to fill multiple barrels from the same downspout.
  • Pumps move the water from the barrel to where you need it. Some pumps mount atop the barrel, some sit beside and some are submersible.
  • Stands are available to raise barrels for better pressure and to more easily fill a watering can, but you can accomplish the same thing by placing the barrel on cinderblocks (just make sure the barrel is level and secure to prevent tipping).
Do-it-yourselfers can find rain barrel components at most hardware or home improvement stores. For more information about rain barrels, from assembly to safety to maintenance, go to www.epa.gov and www.rainbarrelguide.com.

Other tips
Always keep the rain barrel covered with a top or a fine screen to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in the water, and to keep dirt and leaves from getting in and clogging the system.
    A cover is also a safety feature, preventing curious small children or animals from falling in and becoming trapped, or even drowning.
    During the winter months in cold climates, disconnect rain barrels from your downspouts and remove hoses so freezing water doesn’t crack the barrel and damage the hoses. And it’s best to store empty barrels upside down until spring.
    If you’re away from your cabin for extended periods, take precautions to prevent flooding damage from overflowing rain barrels. A large-capacity barrel or multiple barrels might be a good investment. Also, before leaving, make sure the diverter is connected to the downspout and barrel and is working properly; or if you’re unsure, completely disconnect the barrel from the downspout while you’re away.

Thanks to her new rain barrel, frequent contributor Lisa Readie Mayer will use April showers to water her May flowers.
What's Your Style?
There are a wide variety of rain barrels available. Here are five style examples.
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