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Install A Rain Barrel Oct 24, 2013 ../pictures/thumbnails/00223-EricBarrelTruth-tn.jpg Collect the rainwater from your roof to prevent pollution and irrigate plants.

Homeowners and Stormwater - Further Reading

Roll Out the Barrels

 
This recycled whiskey barrel collects rain water for irrigation of a vegetable garden.

A wooden rain barrel.

 

NOTE: The Stormwater Partnership's Incentive Program can help cover the cost of installing rain barrels and rain gardens for Elkhart County residents.

Some of us remember a song from childhood that goes like this:

Slide down my rain barrel
And through my cellar door
And we'll be jolly friends
Forever more

The song comes from the days when people saw rainwater as a resource, not a waste product. Houses used to have cisterns and rain barrels to store and use the water that falls from the sky.

Today, there's a growing movement to let rainwater slide down into rain barrels again. The reasons include protecting water quality in our rivers, irrigating plants with chlorine-free rainwater, and saving money on water bills.

We design storm sewers to move water away from our homes and off of our streets as quickly as possible. But this can cause a host of problems, including downstream flooding, bank erosion in receiving streams, and pollution running off those same streets and rooftops.

 
A screen on top of the rain barrel prevents mosquitoes from breeding and separates debris from the water.

A rain barrel with a screened top.

 

Part of the solution is to bring back rain barrels. A barrel at each downspout will keep the first flush of stormwater out of our storm sewers. That first flush picks up pollutants and adds to the volume our system has to deal with. In cities with combined sewers, holding rainwater prevents sewer overflows into the river.

Water collected in rain barrels can be stored and used for irrigation during dry spells. A half-inch rainfall on a 1000 square foot roof generates over 300 gallons of water. That will fill five 55-gallon rain barrels and leave a little to overflow. On average, there are 23 days each year where precipitation is a half inch or more in Elkhart County, according to the National Weather Service. And we get lots of smaller rain events in between.

Harvesting free rainwater for irrigation saves energy used to treat drinking water. It also saves money, since irrigation accounts for about 40 percent of the average homeowner's summer water bill.

Garden plants don't need treated water -- in fact, the chlorine used to make our water safe to drink can harm plants. Cold city water can also shock plants during hot summer dry spells. Water sitting in rain barrels is warm in the summer.

Although you shouldn't drink water from a rain barrel, some people still swear by washing their hair in soft, chlorine-free rainwater.

Three years ago, I bought two used white oak whiskey barrels and installed them at two corners of my house. I modified my downspouts to run into the top of each barrel, and connected a spigot and an overflow hose to the barrel. By putting them up on concrete blocks, I got enough gravity to water my vegetable garden with a soaker hose or a small sprinkler connected to a regular garden hose.

The barrels still work well, although I have to admit that they leak a little more than they used to. But they still hold most of the water from a rainfall until I'm ready to use it. I'm willing to put up with the leaks because I like the look of wooden barrels better than plastic.

If people continue to put up rain barrels, our children might start singing about them again. And we all will sing about clean water, healthy gardens, and lower water bills.

Things to consider

  • Wooden vs. plastic. I chose wooden barrels for my home because I like how they look. The down side is they leak, so I lose some water before I'm ready to use it. Recycled white oak whiskey barrels can be special ordered at local landscaping or home improvement stores for around $40. If you go with plastic, find a food-grade barrel that has not stored anything that could be toxic to plants. You may be able to find these for free or very cheap if you are willing to look around. You can always paint a plastic barrel if you don't like how it looks.
  • Manufactured vs. Do-it-yourself. Like all things, the more work you are willing to do yourself, the less you will pay. A quick internet search turns up manufactured rain barrels costing $100-$200, depending on size, quality, and whether the barrel is wooden or plastic. For these, all you have to do is modify your downspout to direct water into the barrel. For a Do-it-yourself project, the barrel could cost $0-$40 (see "wooden vs. plastic"), and hardware will be $10-15, depending on what you have and the type of barrel. Detailed instructions for making your own should be included with the purchase of a wooden barrel, or can be found at one of the web sites listed below.
  • Mosquitoes. Don't let this become a mosquito breeding ground. Make sure your barrel has a tight lid -- you should never use a bucket or barrel with an open top. Cut a hole in the top where the downspout will let water in, then cover the hole with flexible window screen. Secure the screen tightly to the top of the barrel.
  • Roof debris. The mosquito screen also keeps leaves and other debris out of the barrel. You will have to clean off the screen frequently, perhaps after every rainfall. If you have asphalt shingles on your roof, you will find yourself regularly cleaning little asphalt pebbles off your screen.
  • Safety first. Make sure the barrels are on a stable, level surface. Raising them on concrete blocks or a wooden stand is a good idea, as that will allow gravity to help you when you want to water plants. Just make sure there is no chance of the barrel tipping.

Rain Barrel Web Sites: