Back in the day, we called them cisterns. These were brick-lined wells – above or below grade – designed to collect and store the rain-water from a home’s roof. Even after city water became widely available, people kept their cisterns and its soft, sweet-smelling rain water, which was ideal for washing clothes and rinsing hair.
As the decades rolled by, people abandoned their cisterns and closed them off. Without active use, they became a breeding ground for bugs and also a safety hazard for pets and little children.
With the “green movement” and the soaring cost of municipal water, there also came a resurgence in the idea of rain-water harvesting (as it became known in the late 20th Century).
Here in Norfolk, Virginia, I had intended to dig a well, to satiate my thirsty veggies and flowers. However, my husband (who happens to be the Chief Deputy City Attorney in Norfolk) said, “Let me look up the ordinances on that first.”
Turns out, Norfolk has an ordinance that forbids sinking a well within 50 feet of any property lines. Since our spacious old house was centered on our 110′ by 110′ lot, that nixed that idea.
My other option was rain water harvesting. Fortunately, the city doesn’t have any ordinances against collecting rain water. (In some states, it is illegal to collect rain water.)
After I set up my first rain barrel, it didn’t take me long to realize that one 60-gallon rain barrel didn’t go very far during one of Tidewater‘s hot, dry summers.
The next summer, I added more rain barrels, positioning them under a downspout that produced copious amounts of water. The first year, my little rain barrels sat directly on the dirt, and because of that, they didn’t get much use. They were too low, too muddy and the head pressure was abysmal. Later that year, I built a nice wooden stand for my rain barrels.
(By the way, if you’re in Hampton Roads, I highly recommend “Mike’s Rain Barrels.” Contact Mike at [email protected] or call (757) 761-1553. The best part – he’ll deliver your rain barrels in his Toyota Prius.)
The stand made it much easier to access my rain barrels, plus, the three feet of height gave them a little bit of head pressure, and improved water flow. And the 3-foot stand made it easy to fasten a hose to the spigot (a simple feat that was nearly impossible when the barrels sat on the ground).
Another 10 blogs could be written about the benefits of rain barrels, but in short – for gardening – rain water is better than chlorinated city water. While chlorination keeps us humans from getting cholera and other nasty bugs, that chlorination will also kill off the microorganisms in the soil that helps plants thrive.
And there’s a financial incentive, too. Experts say that 40% of our summertime water use comes from the outside spigot.
In the process of using these rain barrels throughout the summer, I learned a lot of practical lessons. Below are the top 10 most important things I learned.
1) Height is important. For every foot of height you add to your stand, you’ll gain .43 psi of head pressure. If you could manage a ten-foot stand (not advisable for safety reasons), that’d give you 4.3 psi. From a practical matter, the three-foot stand (pictured above) put the spigot at the perfect height for me. And if you’re working with a raised bed garden (like mine), you’ll need the extra height so that water can flow easily to your thirsty plants.
2) Weight is also important. Water weighs about 8.3 pounds per gallon. Those rain barrels hold 60 gallons. That’s 498 pounds per barrel, and I’ve got three on one stand, so that’s almost 1,500 pounds of weight (when the barrels are full). That’s a tremendous amount of weight and you should plan accordingly when building your stands. This summer, when my barrels run dry, I’ll have to pull them down and add cross-bracing to the stands. You’ll note in the picture that they’ve started to lean hard to the left. Cross bracing would have prevented that.
3) Placement. My three rain barrels are located in my back yard, underneath a busy downspout. Water comes from the main roof (which is slate), flows down to the smaller roof and into my rain barrel. With 10-15 minutes of a good downpour, all three rain barrels are filled up full.
4) Pre-screen your rainwater. These rain barrels have a four-inch floor drain in their top, with a piece of mosquito screen affixed. Too many times to count, I’ve rejoiced as a summer storm pours rain from above, only to find that the four-inch hole became hopelessly choked with the debris from the gutters, and very little of that delightful rainwater actually entered my rain barrels. My solution to this was simple. I took the aluminum-framed screen from an old storm window and stuck it on top of the rain barrel. That solved my problem. The large surface area of the aluminum screen allowed water to flow even after that first pile of gunk came washing down the spout.
5) If you’re building/making your own rain barrel, put the spigot in the right place. When my neighbor saw my rain barrels, he ran out and bought some materials and made his own barrels. Every single one of his five rain barrels has a spigot at the half-way point on the barrel’s side. This means that he’ll only be able to use 50% of the water in the barrel. Not a good design. There are also entire blogs devoted to building your own rain barrel. The barrels shown here are food-grade olive barrels, used to ship olives here from overseas. Learn more here.
6) Don’t get bugged. Mosquitoes are naturally drawn to stagnant water and rain barrels provide the ideal breeding ground. Screens will stop some of that, but not all. One year, I had mosquitoes crawling in through my overflow pipe. Adding several drops of baby oil to each rain barrel will create an oily film in the water, and should stop mosquitoes from laying eggs in your rain barrel.
7) One downside to this rainwater fun is that you’ll now have to keep your gutters cleaned out. If all that precious rainwater is cascading over the front edges of your gutters because the downspouts are blocked, your rain barrels won’t do much for you. And if your house is sheltered by large trees (like mine), this can be a perennial problem.
8) When the barrel runs dry, remember to turn the spigot off. Sounds simple enough, but somehow, it’s so easy to forget this little detail. Many times, I’ve gone outside to check my rain barrels after a hard rain, only to find that I left the spigot open and all that rainwater went in through the top and out through the spigot.
9) Maintenance. About once a year, I rinse out the rain barrels with city water. The bottom gets a layer of crud in it and the smell is horrific. I’m not sure about the microbiology of all that decaying matter, and maybe it’s just dandy for the garden, but the stench will knock your socks off.
10) Keep water away from the foundation. A surprising amount of water can be discharged through your overflow pipe. Make sure that water is directed away from the house.
11) Your downspout might not quite hit the sweet spot on the rain barrel. A little extra piece of aluminum downspout is probably the simplest solution. I used a piece of Plexiglas, which also does the job nicely.
12) If a drought hits, and you don’t want to use chlorinated water on your lovingly maintained and chlorine-free tomato plants, you can fill one rain barrel with city water and let it sit for several days. The chlorination will dissipate in time and you’ll have chlorine-free water. This isn’t the ideal, but in a pinch, it’s one way to keep your garden chlorine free.
13) Enjoy. I’ve had a lot of fun playing with my rain barrels. And look how my garden grows!
When we were kids, we’d sing this little ditty.
See, see my playmate,
Come out and play with me
And bring your dollies three
Climb up my apple tree
Holler down my rain barrel
Slide down my cellar door
And we’ll be jolly friends
Again, I highly recommend Mike’s Rain Barrels. Contact Mike at [email protected] or call (757) 761-1553. The best part – he’ll deliver your rain barrels in his Toyota Priuss.
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