Adventures with Rainbarrels
or, How the Cable Guy drilled a hole in my Rainbarrel!
(Most of the links on this page have vanished since I first posted it in 2010. If you are interested, there are plenty of resources on the Internet, just search "rainbarrels".)
In June 2009, Kathy Fisher, owner of The Healing Arts Center of Bristol, hosted a class by Christine Hannen on making rain barrels. This class was part of a project supported by TogetherGreen and the Holston River Soil and Water Conservation District, located in Abingdon, VA. Christine's brochure of information and instructions is available for download, as well as another from The Upper Tennessee River Roundtable. Additional information and help can be obtained from the project supporters above as well as many other sources on the Internet. I am not going to repeat their instructions, so much as to tell of my experiences of what they didn't tell you.
The project was funded by a grant from Toyota, and provided all the materials for construction of the barrel, although the barrels can usually be obtained for free (or very cheaply) and the remaining parts are very inexpensive. If you are at all resourceful, you can probably keep your total cost below $20. You can buy a completed rain barrel for ~$200 from many garden-supply catalogs, but I would not advise spending such a fortune unless you are doing this as a decoration rather than a conservation project. As I will explain below, you will not see that kind of payback. If I were going to spend any amount of money, I would opt for a larger storage capacity (see below) rather than a fancy barrel.
You need to give a little thought into where you will place your barrel. Besides having a good runoff, there are other issues which will become apparent as I describe my own experience, most of which you probably cannot anticipate! We live in a small condo, with a main roof area of 23' x 35' which is split at the peak, giving us 400 sq.ft. front and back. Additionally, we have a back porch, adding approx. 8' x 20' = 160 sq.ft. to the rear. The main area we wished to be able to supply water is in the front; however, there is no place we could put the barrel near the front downspout. I therefore decided to locate the barrel in the back, and ran a hose (obtained for free from a neighbor's trash, because of a bent connection) under the house with a shutoff where it emerged from under the front porch.
The barrel needs to be elevated to provide access to the spigot, and whatever pressure you can get. You cannot get it high enough to get the kind of pressure you are accustomed to from your utility. To supply water, the utility must maintain a minimum of 20 lbs. of pressure, which would require almost 50 ft. of elevation! Regardless of what you do, expect a trickle. Since the yard in our back was lower than the front, I had to elevate the barrel several feet to get it above the ground level in the front. Remember also, that your platform must be stable. A 55 gal. barrel full of water will weigh 440 lbs. You don't want this falling over!
The location I chose is actually on our neighbor's side of the property. The area between our back porches forms a small alcove, which is generally sheltered from the weather. The soil is dry and powdery and a shrub trying to grow there is dry and brittle. I asked permission to put the barrel there, since it is just around the corner from our downspout, out of the way, and not terribly noticeable. I cut away a dead part of the shrub, leveled the ground, and stacked the cement blocks. While I was cutting the downspout and attaching the flexible connector, it began slowly sprinkling. A very short time later, after a light rain, the barrel was full!
Not having really given this much thought, I was somewhat surprised that it had filled so quickly. But do the math: As mentioned above, the barrel is collecting from an area of about 400 + 160 = 560 sq.ft. Forget about converting this to gallons, the 55 gal. barrel is about 3' tall x 2' dia. Using Vol. = πr2h, we have approx. 3 x 12 x 3 = 9 cu.ft. Dividing 9 cu.ft. by the 560 sq.ft. roof area reveals that we need less than 1/60 ft., or about 1/5 inch of rain to fill it!
The summer before we installed the barrel (2008) we had an extended drought. The summer of 2009, after we put up the barrel, it rained all the time. As it turned out, I think we emptied the barrel maybe 3 times. Shortly after the barrel had filled up, our neighbor switched Internet and telecom providers. While out in the back yard one day, I went to check that the barrel was doing ok. Looking around it, I noticed a strange black protuberance in the back. Thinking it was just a bug, I reached to flick it off. It was then I noticed water dripping, dripping, from it, and a large wet puddle at the base. It turns out that the cable guy had drilled a hole through the wall for the cable, obviously from the inside (without checking what he might be drilling into) and had drilled a hole through our barrel (even though it was at least 6-8 inches from the wall)! He had then "fixed the problem" by wadding up some electrical tape and stuffing it into the hole. Well, it was a sorry repair, and besides draining our barrel was dumping a lot of water under the foundations. This was the first time I emptied the barrel, so that I could properly plug the hole. (Photo was taken after cement paver was added, raising height a couple inches.)
A short time after this incident, we had a big thunderstorm come through. The barrel had come with a plastic colander to filter the debris from the runoff. Well, for a light rain this worked well. For this thunderstorm, however, it worked not at all well. The webbing in the plastic colander consumes a large area in relationship to the holes. and the water from the downspout comes gushing into a very small area. Although the total area of the holes is probably adequate on the face of it, in actuality a large portion of the gushing water hits the webbing and splatters out. Probably as much water was overflowing as was passing through the colander (imagine spraying a hose through a plastic colander, and you will get the idea). The dry, powdery ground became a swamp, the concrete blocks sank into the mud, and the barrel leaned into the house!
So! my first modification was to place a 2' x 2' cement paver beneath the blocks, to provide a stable foundation. Of course, this entailed emptying the barrel, unstacking all the blocks, re-leveling the ground, laying the paver, then reversing it all. This was the second time I emptied the barrel, and neither time yet to water the garden. Whew! This was becoming a lot of work! What would be a good modification also, would be to replace the plastic colander with some kind of wire mesh. A perfect solution is those stainless colanders with approx. 1/8" wire mesh; however, these cost about $15! But you really need some kind of strainer that will allow a lot of water to pass freely.
Some of the instructions I have seen also do not consider a heavy rain in planning the overflow. Around here we get a lot of heavy thunderstorms (a lot of people call these "gullywashers"—you know what I mean). You really need to make sure your rainbarrel can handle whatever Nature might throw at it. If your gutters are overflowing, your rainbarrel will too! I don't think a 1-inch overflow is going to handle much; you don't want your foundation washing out. Of course, this also depends upon the area of the roof draining into your barrel—just be advised!
I had originally thought to connect a soaker hose (since we already had one) to the barrel, thinking that it could then just run out at its own pace and not require our time and attention to water. However, the soaker hose is designed to work at utility pressure and still be left on for long periods. The rain barrel has so little pressure, it quickly became obvious the water would probably evaporate as fast as it was coming out! A sprinkler hose with larger holes might work ok, but I have not tried this. We have used a little ring sprinkler successfully, as well as simply watering by hand.
Ok, bottom line.... We're entering our second summer with our rainbarrel. As I said, our first year was very wet and we really didn't need it at all. I think the third (and last) time I emptied it was to prepare for winter to prevent it from freezing! This summer has so far had periods of extensive rain, as well as some very dry spells, and we have used it. I also installed a barrel for some friends, and it has been used there, as well. But, consider that 55 gallons is not much water, what we really need is a large cistern! Several sources I have seen suggest that you install several barrels (as many as you need), but this could soon get out of hand. You can see from the photos that adding several barrels is not practical for our situation, and I expect this is true for many people in town.
As I mentioned above, our 560 sq.ft. of roof area will fill our barrel in only 1/5 inch of rain. But, conversely, our filled barrel will provide only 1/5 inch of water to 560 sq. ft. of garden. We have approx 180 sq.ft. we must keep watered, plus another 250 sq.ft. we would like to water. This does not include numerous potted plants, least of all the lawn! If we only water the must-have, this allows us slightly over one-half inch of water for this. If we do it all, we have 1/4 inch. Obviously, for an extended drought, you need much more capacity. Even though each barrel helps only minimally, I suppose if enough people had them it could have an impact locally. It is a fun project that costs very little to do, but it does require some effort and attention.
Copyright © 2010 Karl W. Swartz — http://KarlSwartz.com
You may freely reproduce and share this text, only if it is not altered and includes this notice.