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Rainbarrels - A Great Place to Start

by Doug Pushard

These days rain barrels are very easy to acquire. Most garden and landscape stores stock them in a wide variety of colors, sizes and shapes.

Rain barrels typically start at about 55 gallons and go up to several hundred gallons. A typical 55-gallon barrel is about 18 inches wide and four feet tall and made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), but they can also be made of other materials including clay, wood, glass and metal.

Not only can sizes and materials vary but also the design. Gone are the days of plain, brown or green food-grade barrels. Like the one in this picture built by Santa Fe’s own RainVessels, they can be custom designed to fit almost any style. The barrels become part of the building’s architectural design and no longer have to be hidden away in the back.

Pre-made rain barrels come equipped with both a faucet spigot on the bottom and a screen on the top. The screen on the top keeps out the critters and the debris and the hose bib on the bottom lets the water out. It is also good practice to have an overflow spigot near the top of the barrel. The overflow spigot prevents the barrel from overflowing near your foundation. It can be as simple as another hose spigot — anything to allow the barrel to drain. In the city of Santa Fe, rain barrels equipped with overflow spigots and screens qualify for a rebate (www.santafenm.gov/water_conservation).

When installing a rain barrel, the ground should be level and packed to provide a solid foundation — a full, 55-gallon barrel will weigh more than 400 pounds. Extreme care should be taken if the rain barrel is to be elevated. It should placed be on a solid foundation built to support weight; not on empty cinder blocks. The weight of the barrel will damage cinder blocks over time and the rain barrel could potentially tip over.

Chasing an empty barrel across the yard on a windy day is no fun. Put a small block or large rock in the bottom of the barrel when it is installed to prevent it from being blown away in a strong wind.

Barrels can be installed under downspouts or rainchains or just under a canale. All will capture the rain, but the quantity of rain will vary. Downspouts will capture almost all the rain, a straight drop of 10-12 feet off a canale less rain, and rainchains somewhere in between.

The hose bib at the bottom of the barrel can be attached to a short hose to water nearby plants. There isn’t enough pressure in a small rain barrel (i.e., 55-200 gallons) to push water out of a long hose. Alternatively the spigot can be attached to a low-flow soaker hose and be left open all season long. There are specific low-flow soaker hoses for this intended purpose and these unfortunately are not the ones available in most hardware stores.

Another option is small, low-flow utility pumps. These pumps weigh less than two pounds and are intended to hook directly to a hose spigot and plug into a wall outlet. They are easy to move and use and they create water pressure very similar to normal household water pressure. Additionally, they can be easily detached and stored in the hose [do you mean house?] in the winter or when not in use.

Speaking of winter, it is critical in freezing climates to take care of your rain barrel investment. During winter, the rain barrel should be moved away from the downspout and not used. The bottom spigot is the area most likely to freeze and break. Clients of mine insulate the bottom hose bib and swear it works; this may suffice in mild winters, but hard freezes will bust even the hardiest metal fitting.

The bottom and lower sides will also crack over time as the water in the bottom of the barrel freezes and thaws repeatedly. Larger barrels and insulated barrels like those sold by RainVessels can be used to capture winter precipitation, but smaller barrels should always be emptied in freezing climates.

Rain barrels can be linked together to inexpensively expand water storage over time. The barrels are connected at the bottom of the barrel and not the top. This allows water to “level” between the two barrels. When connecting two barrels it is important to make sure the connection is large enough (i.e., not a typical ¾” hose) to allow smooth and quick flow between the barrels. An unlimited number of barrels can be linked in this fashion providing up to thousands of gallons.

Catching the rain near your house and directing it to plants provides multiple benefits. The plants will appreciate rainwater more than municipal or well water because it does not have the chlorine of city water or the minerals (i.e., salts) of typical well water. Rain barrels allow rainwater to be directed away from the house, walls and foundation, thereby reducing the possibility of water damage to the house. Lastly rainwater is free and will always be free so rain barrels allow you to use a healthy resource indefinitely and without cost once the barrel is installed.

Small barrels provide an easy way to get started and can easily be installed by one or two people. An empty, small rain barrel will typically weigh about 30 to 40 pounds. You may want to consider hiring a rainwater professional to install larger barrels as they are heavier and bulkier. Rain barrels are a great way to start catching the rain. They are easy to install, readily available and allow us to make good use of nature’s bounty.

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