All summer long we hear about increasingly strict water bans, a rise in the number of wildfires and multi-year droughts in many regions of the country. The good news is an old practice — using rain barrels — is coming back to help people reduce water use.
Installing 55-gallon rain barrels under your downspouts has several benefits:
Rain-barrel water is not subject to community-watering restrictions. One caution: most cities do not recommend using rain-barrel water for food plants.
Water is naturally soft with no additives or excessive coldness to irritate plants.
You save money on your water bill.
You lessen pollution in rivers and lakes by reducing storm-water runoff.
I have eight barrels at four downspouts. It doesn't take long for them to fill. About half an inch of rain fills all barrels, giving me over 400 gallons of water. Best of all, rain barrels are inexpensive to build. Here’s how you can construct your own in an hour or two. The cost: about $37.
¾-in. pipe tap
15/16-in. drill bit; 7/8-in. bit will do in a pinch, and a spade bit is OK
1-7/8-in. hole saw
2 adjustable wrenches
6-ft. of cord
Utility knife or file
Plastic, food-grade barrel. We got ours at Western Container in Minneapolis. Try “Containers” or “Barrels” in the telephone directories or by searching online. Get one that contained non-toxic ingredients. Open it and smell before you accept it, because some foods are nasty to clean up! Oil will come out with a little detergent, but eggs — ick!
28 x 28-in. section of fiberglass window screen
¾-in. male faucet, ¾-in. female pipe coupling or brass nut
1-1/16-in. washer (i.d.)
1-1/2-in. barb fitting to straight female pipe thread and inner fitting
1-1/4-in. sump drain hose (end sleeve is 1-1/2-in. to fit over barb).
If you want to add barrels to the system, you will also need two ¾ x ½-in. or 3/4 x 5/8-in. barbs to MIP adapters
About 12-in. of garden hose
Depending on your preferences and what’s available at your local DIY store, you may need to modify these plans.
1. The goal is to remove a bit less than half of the barrel top (or find a barrel with a removable top.) You want the hole large enough to clean the barrel at the end of the season, but you also want to leave enough material, especially at the edges, to support the shape. Drill a few practice holes in the to-be-removed section with the 15/16-in. bit; this gives you the hang of working with plastic and holding the drill perpendicular to the surface. Bear down when cutting through with a spade bit, or it will buck and gouge the edge of your hole.
2. In the to-be-removed section, practice threading a few holes with the pipe tap. Keep the tap at a right angle to the surface; if threads are at an angle, fittings will not screw in snugly, which can cause leaks. Use two adjustable wrenches clamped on the tap, pointing opposite to each other, to turn the tap without pushing it out of line.
3. Put on eye protection and use a small-toothed blade on your jigsaw to cut out the semicircle from the barrel top. Use a utility knife or file to clean up the burrs.
4. Decide where to make the faucet and overflow holes. If you are going to add barrels, decide on the location for the hole that will connect the barrels. Cut a 1-7/8-in. hole near the top for the overflow (2-1/4-in. if using the right-angle fitting). It may not be a watertight seal, but it doesn’t need to be.
5. Drill and thread a hole to screw the faucet into. Put the big washer on the faucet so it will end up on the outside of the barrel, and screw it in carefully. Brass is a lot harder than plastic, so start slowly to avoid tearing up the threads. Secure the faucet on the inside with the large nut or pipe coupling. The washer and nut strengthen the barrel around the faucet area and keep the faucet from moving relative to the plastic, which will ease the strain on the threads of turning the faucet on and off. Note: If you can't get a pipe tap or just prefer not to thread the hole, try using nuts, rubber washers and caulk to prevent leaks.
6. To hook up additional barrels, make another threaded hole and the bottom of the barrel where you determined you would connect the barrels. Insert the hose barb. Since these connections won’t be subject to as much stress as the faucet, washers aren’t necessary. Later you can cut a short length of garden hose to connect barbs.
7. To paint your barrel, get a spray paint for plastic and prepare the surface according to the instructions.
8. Secure the screen over the top of the barrel with cord. The screen reduces the number of leaves and shingle granules entering the barrel, which helps prevent the faucet from getting clogged. It also prevents small animals from falling in and drowning, and it keeps your barrel from becoming a mosquito breeding ground.
9. Remove the lower part of your downspout and place the barrel under it. Adding an elbow may help divert the water into the barrel. In harsh winter conditions, you may be better off removing the barrels from under your downspouts and replacing the length of downspout until temperatures are consistently above freezing.
10. Wet the inside of the barrel and scrub out any algae growth, and it will be ready to go next spring.
Rebecca Chesin collects rainwater for her half-acre garden in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area of Minnesota. Her husband, affectionately called “The Labor Pool,” ably assists her with projects. See their website about rain barrels at http://tinyurl.com/2t8h9p.