Monday, March 14, 2011

Rain Barrels: What I've Learned

High on my wish list when I bought my house was getting rain barrels in place to save rain water for my garden.  Thanks to Red, I actually had one rain barrel before I even moved in!  My house didn't have gutters so I added those, and I was in business.


Rain barrels seemed fairly straightforward to me.  Initially I was most concerned about appearance.   But as is so often the case, nothing beats practical knowledge gained from experience!  This past week I ordered and received my 6th rain barrel, which is my 3rd design; two barrels I bought from Sam's Club.  Two barrels Red and I built at the TAMU Urban Solutions Earth Day rain barrel workshop.  You can see photos of both types here:  Both designs work, and both designs have pros and cons to them.  The new rain barrel has such a poor design that I am returning it and ordering a different one! 

When I lamented to my fellow green friend in Minneapolis about how difficult it is to find a barrel that meets all of my criteria, she said she wanted my criteria list.  (She's wanting rain barrels herself.)  I wrote up a list -- surprised myself at how much was on it, and emailed it to her.  She said I should flip it into a blog post.  And so, behold: 

What I've learned about Rain Barrels

Main Spigot location:  Just be aware of where it is in relation to the bottom of the barrel. If it's totally as low to the bottom of the barrel as it can be, it can be challenging to attach a hose. Optimal is 2-3 inches from the base so that you have some working room. Another solution to this is to have your barrel on a stand of some kind. Some are sold with matching stands, or you can use cement blocks, etc. to lift them up. Of course, the higher off the ground the barrel is, the better your water pressure.

A few barrels come with a second spigot halfway up the side of the barrel for filling watering cans. I don't see the need -- you can just use your attached hose. I don't think they would stick out far enough, anyway, to reach the mouth of the watering can, but I could be wrong.

Main hose attachment: e.g. ideally you want this to be a threaded spigot :  Some of my barrels have the hose attaching to the barrel by slipping a raw/cut end of a hose over a nipple and then the hose is clamped onto the nipple. In my experience, the hose falls off when the water pressure is too great and if you tug "just right" on the hose when using it. Your shoes … get very wet. I also like having an off/on control right on the barrel (as opposed to only at the end of the hose where you are watering plants) because if you want to swap out hoses you don’t lose all your water. Key, I tell you. Key. Live and learn.  Two of my barrels have a split spigot -- I can connect two hoses at once.  Convenient.

Overflow spout: type and location:  You really want this to be a port you can control -- i.e. again, ideally it is threaded with an on/off control. Why? So that you attach a hose to simply direct where the overflow water is going to end up, or you can either attach a hose to link to another barrel.

Where your rain barrel will be, and what your access to it will be, will determine the best location for the overflow: front, back or side. (I've determined that you can add a spout for this too -- we learned how in the Earth Day rain barrel workshop we attended. Not difficult with the right tools.)

Open/Closed system:  To me this means, does the whole lid come off for cleaning or water pump installation (for either controlling bacteria or pumping the water out) or do you only have access by sticking your arm only through the top area where the water drops in? I have both kinds. So far I haven't had to take the whole lid off and crawl inside for anything, but it's something to be aware of. Most barrels sold are closed systems. The re-purposed food container barrels are usually open -- which I think is my preference.

Lid Design:  Pay attention to the shape of the lid. Does it have an area that will (unintentionally) hold water? (Can you say, "mosquito breeding ground"?) Some of mine do (and some don't) and for the ones that do, I've drilled drainage holes in it so it drips down into the barrel.  Mosquitoes need 3-4 days of consistently standing water to breed...  (UPDATE:  If the barrel is full, the holes don't help; the water has no where to go.)

Don't bother with the barrels that purport to have a little area in the lid for planting a plant to make the whole barrel appear to be a gargantuan plant pot. In my experience, the space isn't big enough for enough dirt to support a plant. Or maybe I've just tried the wrong types of plants …

Hoses:  Longer is better. Two of my barrels came with 4 foot hoses. Not the most functional. They work for filling watering cans, but I can't reach to water my garden or beds to water directly. I'll be replacing those.

For my other 3 barrels, I bought a 45 foot hose and cut it into 3-15 foot pieces. Then I bought an adapter that turns a raw hose end into a threaded hose end, and put a no-kink adapter with an on/off function on it on the end of that. The no-kink adapter thingy has metal spiral covering about 4 inches of the hose.  About $5-7 each, but totally worth it to have one on each end of the hose. (Red and I spent a crazy long time in Home Depot hose department figuring out how many of what kinds of hose connectors to buy to meet my needs. Still didn't get it quite right and I need to go buy more. It just shouldn't be that hard...but somehow, it is.)

Support/Location:  Most barrels are 50 gallons. 50 gallons of water weighs 417 pounds. Be sure you have a solid footing under your barrel or it may tip over. (And break off the nearby house spigot, causing you to call a plumber in the middle of the night. IJS)  Also in that vein, unless you want to drain it to move it, choose a location that you are committed to … you simply cannot move them full! I built a wheeled square to put one on, which was great, except that I didn't have a concrete pad to roll it around on -- just dirt -- and of course the wheels just sunk into the dirt. Waste of time, that was!

All of that being said, I do really love my rain barrels. It's amazing how fast they fill up, and how long it takes to empty them! Saving me a fortune.  My roofs collects well over 715 gallons when it rains once inch.  That is a LOT.  They are rarely empty.  There is something therapeutic about hand watering baby plants with a watering can of rain water... even my dog prefers to drink water ouf the rain barrels versus out of the tap or garden hose.  She knows...

Click here to read about the benefits of collecting and using rain water and to get the calculation for how much rain your roof could be collecting:


Leigh said...

Research combined with experience really pays off! Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to link to your post here. I'm amazed at how much rain you're able to collect with your barrels. Very encouraging.

Anonymous said...

very interesting, thanks