Things to consider before buying or making a rain barrel

1) What do you need the water for?

Whether it’s for a few container plants, a small raised bed garden, or a 800 square foot plot; you need to assess how much water you will need and plan accordingly. Further, do you mean to just supplement your plants through dry spells, or are you planning to use that water to fill up your toilets, fill your pool or even drink? The latter isn’t as crazy as you’d think, since some people may need to cut costs in more ways than just forgoing that Starbucks coffee every morning. Living in a place like Florida or Arizona and seeing the water bill is enough to make anyone think about watching every drop of wasted water like it’s dollar bills going down the drain. So, think about how much water you will need and plan accordingly with your storage space

2) Does your HOA or state/county/local government allow it?

Alas, many of us have home owners associations that were created in good intentions, but are now run by overzealous control-freaks that come by measuring your grass with a ruler or putting “don’t park here” notes on your guests cars. I am fortunate enough not to be burdened with an HOA. For now, I hope that my neighbors don’t decide to park a 40 year old boat in front of their house, or litter their yard car parts and trampolines. However, since I do plan on having chickens someday, I may be the offending party more than any tires or treehouse. Before deciding to store your own water, check to see if your HOA allows it.

As for the government? Yes, as crazy as this sounds, collecting rainwater is ILLEGAL in some states. Obviously, if the state doesn’t get much rain, the local politicians would best serve their paying customers by making laws to preserve that precious rain as much as possible. Who are the paying customers you say? Well, farmer lobbyists for one. Citizens have just as much right to water falling from the sky as any farmer, it’s just the farmers banded together and got the law on their side. So now your average citizen is force to buy water. Don’t like it? The government is “by the people for the people”, call your congressperson and remind him/her of that. Now, with that said, most of the states that ban collection only apply to LARGE collection of rain. So basically that doesn’t affect your average Joe with a barrel in his backyard. The law has only been applied a few times, two of which I’ve read about. One in Oregon, where a man used machine-dug reservoirs to store 13 MILLION gallons of rain water, which is clearly a little over the top. The second case was in Colorado where a car dealership installed a rain water collection system to wash the cars. That one seems a little unfair to the car dealer, but I doubt the “rain police” are going door to door to see if you have a bucket or barrel under your downspout. Studies have shown that rain water collection actually improves aquifer levels and flooding because on a macro scale, you are withholding some of that run-off from your roof for a later time,
which reduces the strain on municipal drainage. When you water your lawn later, that water slowly seeps into the ground since it’s drier than when a large amount was just flowing on the surface during the rain. On the other end of the spectrum is some states or municipalities actually encourage or require you to collect rainwater. Texas allows a sales tax exemption on rain harvesting equipment, and new dwellings in Santa Fe, NM require rain catchment. So when in doubt, just do a Google search for rain water collection in your state.

3) Where to get the water storage and supplies?

You can buy water tanks as small as a gallon, and up to thousands of gallons. Obviously if you want a larger one, you will have to pay for it, and they are not cheap. The cheapest rain barrel you can find is used FOOD GRADE 55-gallon barrels. I do stress food grade because you don’t want to be using barrels that once held paint, chemicals, or other toxic nasty’s. Anything that at one time held something related to food is generally safe. If you live near a soda bottling plant, such as Coke or Pepsi, they will sell their used barrels for $5 or $10, and that’s the cheapest I have been able to find. They truck in the barrels full of the base syrup, and they add water and bottle it at the plant. They don’t reuse the barrels, so will sell it to recover a little of the cost. That’s about as win-win as it gets, folks. The barrels will have a little bit of residue inside, so a good cleaning with mild soap and water will be necessary. I’ve also heard that you can go to automated car washes and some of them use soap in 55 gallon barrels. Several people have told me you can get them for free, but there is a price you have to pay, since you won’t be too sure what kind of soap/detergents they used in them. You might be able to clean them out, since it’s just soap; but not all soap is created equal, and not all soap is safe to put on plants/yourself. If you go the free-car-wash route, ask about what kind of detergent they use and maybe do a little research on how nasty that stuff is.

As for the rest of the supplies, PVC pipes and spigots can be bought at a hardware store relatively cheap, and it probably the easiest way to finish up your list of supplies.

4) Where to put the barrels

This may be the simplest consideration, so I won’t dwell on it. Ideally, your barrels should be close to your collection point, be that a downspout or out in the open for direct catchment. If you want a simple gravity fed way to get the water to the garden, it should be elevated to a position higher than the garden. If you don’t want to upset the neighbors, it should be concealed with some bushes, fence, or hedges.

5) How to collect the water

You basically have two options for collecting rain water. You can use the abundant horizontal-ish space that is called your roof, or you can use what looks like an upside down umbrella or large funnel directly over your barrel.

Roof system

Advantages – Large surface area for catching water. Reduces run-off from your house so you get environmental kudos. Downspouts already exist so funneling your water into barrels is very easy.

Disadvantages – You will probably need a first flush diverter if you want to drink the water or use it for crops (see #6 below). You will need some basic DIY skills to divert the downspout water into the barrel. If you are buying anything that you need for this system, it could be more expensive than direct catchment.

Direct catchment

Advantages – Small surface area is easy to clean. No pesky heavy metals or roof runoff to worry about. You don’t have to reroute downspouts.

Disadvantages – Limited amount of water that can be caught, you will need a LOT of rain to fill a 55 gallon barrel (by my VERY rough calculations, based on .632 gallons per square foot of surface area, you will need 17 inches of rain to fill a 55 gallon barrel with a 5 square foot catchment funnel). Can be quite an eyesore to your neighbors, and probably yourself, it’s not exactly going to blend into the yard. Especially if you want to make the funnel big enough to be of use.

6) Do I need a first flush diverter? What the heck is one anyways?

When I first started researching rain barrels, I thought you can just plop a barrel down, hook it up to your downspout and slap a drain on the barrel, and “Voila! Done!” Depending on a few situations, yes, generally you can. However, if you plan on drinking this water, or want to be a little more cautious when watering plants that you intend to eat/harvest from, read on.

For the lawn/pretty flowers: If you’re just using the rain water to water your lawn during dry spells or to water ornamental plants in your garden, generally a rain barrel hooked up to a downspout is all you need to do. I would make sure that there is a fine mesh screen over any open parts of the barrel to stop it from becoming the mosquito version of a Grand Hyatt or Hilton. From this collected water, you can put the barrel on blocks or elevate it however you want and a hose from the spigot will gravity-feed the water to where you need it.

For vegetables/herbs/drinking: For watering anything you intend to eat all or part of, some extra steps should be taken. If you’re using the direct catchment system that was described above, you will not need a first flush diverter. All you will need to do is clean the catchment funnel when it looks dirty, or at least twice a month. If you are using water from your downspout, there are some things to consider regarding where your water is coming from.

“I know already, the sky. Duh”

Well, yes, the sky; but on the way down your water picks up a few hitchhikers. In the air, the water droplets can actually catch airborne soot and particles, and the clouds themselves can absorb sulfuric and nitric pollution, which is what causes acid rain. Once that water hits your roof, the hitchhiker party REALLY starts. Your roof is probably made with paper and fiberglass asphalt. When sun hits those shingles, chemical reactions occur that causes some of the heavy metals and asphalt to separate. When it rains, those heavy metals (such as copper, arsenic, and lead) hitch a ride down to your rain barrel, and obviously that’s not very good to drink or put on your tomatoes or cucumbers1. For people in the south with tile roofs, those are generally made with ceramic and you need not worry as much about the heavy metal contamination. In addition to the heavy metals, your roof collects more than just rain. It collects leaves, dirt and dust, and animal poop. Oh yes, lots of poop. From the birds that just ate your prized blueberries, to even raccoons that apparently love to climb up on roofs to use your gutter as a bathroom.

I kid you not. They can and may set up a community latrine on your roof2.

Basically, raccoons are picky, they don’t like spoiled meat that you leave out hoping to poison them, and they don’t like pooping on the ground. What snobs. So if one raccoon takes a liking to your nice secluded roof, he will tell all of his buddies.

So now you can start to see what is going on up on your roof that you probably never wanted to know. All those decomposing leaves, ripening animal droppings and even the occasional dead animal itself are all up there just waiting for water to fall and carry bits of them into your rain barrel.

If at this point you have, in disgust, decided not to put up a rain barrel at all, I don’t blame you. I hope you’re still reading this post at this point, as many people may have jumped up and ran to the shower with a gallon of bleach to cleanse themselves of the horrible thoughts. Your perseverance, curiosity or just plain stubbornness will pay off.

Science to the rescue3!!

Studies have shown that when it is raining, a certain amount of water will generally wash most of those contaminants away. Your dead squirrel in the gutter is another issue, you probably should check up there yearly just to make sure there isn’t anything like that on your roof. However, for heavy metals, dirt, feces, and bacteria in general; studies have shown that your water is higher quality and less filtering is required if you remove the first centimeter (0.39 inches) of rain or about 1 gallon per 100 square feet of roofing4. This is, finally to the point, where a first flush diverter comes in.

Basically you want to divert away that first flush of water coming off your roof. So at least the name makes sense at this point, right? The rest is remarkably simple, and can also be cheap too. Sure, you can buy diverters or filtration systems online, and I’m not going to tell you do to one way or another. That is up to your wallet, and the time you want to spend on something like this. But for a frugal farmer like me, the simplest and cheapest first flush diverter is a length of PVC pipe with a racquetball in it. I will show you how I made it when I actually get around to making it.

*laugh* Yes, I know, if I haven’t even made it, how simple can I possibly know it is? Well, I’m guessing, and that’s always my first mistake. I’ve read online it’s easy, and the internet never lies, right?

For now, here are instructions that someone else out on the internet was kind enough to make.

One other important thing to keep in mind is what to do with that first flush water. Whenever your downspouts dump the water right on the ground, that water is constantly pushed by the water behind it right across your yard and into your local streams or storm drains. That pollutes the local environment and potentially your local municipal water supply. When planning your first flush diverter, think about ways to channel that initial water into a rain garden, that way the plants in your rain garden will naturally filter the water and allow clean water to seep into your local aquifers or waterways.

1) http://www.harvesth2o.com/adobe_files/Effect%20of%20Copper%20on%20Cucumber%20Plants.pdf
2) http://www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/ehs/RaccoonLatrine.aspx.
3) http://www.irc.nl/page/29189
4) http://www.harvesth2o.com/first_flush.shtml

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