barrelrain.jpg It can be easy to get lost in the technical details surrounding rain barrels. Terms like “impervious surface,” “stormwater runoff” and “velocity” are frequently used phrases amid a discussion on the benefits of using this eco-friendly device on your property. But the truth is, if you zoom out and look at the big picture, installing a rain barrel has a range of benefits – the most prominent being water conservation. In addition to being kind to the environment, you also stand a good chance of being kind to your wallet since your utility bill could decrease by using a rain barrel.

So, what is a rain barrel?

Rain barrels crop up in discussions often in a variety of venues, be it an environmental forum or a municipal meeting concerning stormwater-related issues. While many people readily recognize the term, the exact function of a rain barrel is oftentimes misunderstood. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers a good synopsis of what exactly constitutes a rain barrel. In its simplest form, here’s what the federal agency has to say: “A rain barrel is a system that collects and stores rainwater from your roof that would otherwise be lost to runoff and diverted to storm drains and streams.” Here are a few other tidbits about the nuts and bolts of rain barrels: 
  • Structurally, they are generally composed of such materials as 55-gallon drums, a vinyl hose, polyvinyl chloride (or PVC) couplings and a screen grate to guard against debris and insects. 
  • Here’s the good news (for all you not-so-hands-on folks like myself!): They are relatively easy to assemble. 
  • The supplies needed to create a rain barrel are inexpensive. 
  • They’re unobtrusive. In most situations, they can sit snugly under a residential gutter down spout.

The benefits of creating a rain garden are numerous

Take in this thirst-inducing picture for a moment: The sun is blazing, the temperatures are soaring and there is not any relief on the horizon. It has not rained for a while, and you are growing concerned about the vegetation on your property. Regardless of what climate you live in, you likely have encountered this scenario at some point. Almost inevitably, we all seem to encounter droughts – although, some people definitely endure them more frequently than others. But even beyond the extremities of droughts, the temptation to bring out the sprinkler can be strong when rain is not plentiful and your grass transitions from that lush green color to the unsightly brown appearance. In the summer months – a time when water bills generally spike – the EPA estimates upward of 40 percent of a home’s water use is devoted to lawn and garden watering. Rain barrels can counteract this scenario! Here are some facts about rain barrels and how they can be useful in the dry summer months: 
  • On average, a rain barrel can save a homeowner 1,300 gallons of water during the peak summer months. That adds up! 
  • The collected water, used for a productive purpose, is saved from running into storm drains and streams and reduces the likelihood of water pollution. This is where the environmental benefits come in. 
  • By virtue of their design and purpose, they collect water and store it for when it is needed most. 
  • In the summer months, collected water can be used to nourish plants and items in gardens, wash your car and top off a swimming pool. 
  • The water stored in a rain barrel falls into the “soft” category – in other words, it lacks the chlorine, lime and calcium that is sometimes present in our regular municipal water supply. 
  • This naturally derived water is ideal for vegetation and even such regular household tasks as car washing and window cleaning. 
Here’s another important point about rain barrels: They can help prevent flooding. While really extreme rainfalls will inevitably result in rain overflows, having your own homemade collection system will help in counteracting some of the destruction, disruption and devastation that can result from flooding. When it comes to flooding, rain barrels can be especially preventative in developed areas with heavy amounts of impervious surface (that phrase I mentioned at the very beginning of this article). Impervious surfaces include roofs, sidewalks and parking lots, in addition to any other surfaces that prevent water from draining.

How do I use a rain barrel?

Rain barrel kits are available at a number of home improvement and hardware stores. If you struggle with mechanical issues, as I do, this could be a good first step in using a rain barrel. Once you have everything assembled, here is a good list of dos and don’ts on the use of a rain barrel. The below information comes courtesy of the City of Kearny in Nebraska
  • The water you collect in your rain barrel should be used only for outdoor purposes. In other words, do not use it for bathing, cooking or drinking. Rain barrels are not designed to completely replace your municipal water source. 
  • It is imperative you keep the lid on the rain barrel secure at all times. By doing so, you will prevent children and animals from falling into the barrel and drowning. 
  • If you live in a colder climate, be certain you disconnect the rain barrel during the winter to avoid damage to the device. If you’re anything like me, you might vividly recall accidentally leaving that bottle of soda/pop in the freezer a little too long, in your quest to cool it quicker, but notice the plastic container split. The same can happen to a rain barrel. 
  • In addition to disconnecting the rain barrel in late autumn, drain the entire system and the hoses used to connect the device. Store the entire system – the barrel and the hoses – in a protected area during the period of hibernation. 
  • The screening device mentioned earlier in this article is important for numerous reasons. You know how mosquitoes love stagnant water? Rain barrels can be a breeding ground for these pesky insects. But a screening device will prevent this from occurring.