Why use rain barrels?
Water that comes to city dwellers in the form of rain is hurried—into storm sewer systems and away by asphalt, concrete, or the roof of your apartment, surfaces that don’t absorb water. Sewer systems in many cities combine household sewage with storm water in the same pipes. Because of population growth since these older sewer systems were installed, sewers overflow when it rains a lot. That means sewage gets dumped, untreated, into rivers and lakes.
In contrast, rainwater that falls on porous ground is filtered through layers of soil and rock and into ground water aquifers or into streams, rivers and lakes unassisted.
According to the City of Vancouver, 40% of household water is sprinkled on lawns and gardens—a madly inefficient way to water plants. Using a barrel to catch the water flowing from eaves troughs is one of the simplest, cheapest ways to conserve water and divert it from the storm sewer system. And if your city or town bans watering during times of dry weather, it may be the ONLY way to avoid having to watch your garden wilt.
Rainwater is oxygenated, unchlorinated (chlorine is bad for soil bacteria, not to mention our air), and warmer than tap water, qualities that actually make it a better source for plants and safer for the environment.
If you use a rain barrel, or if you’re planning on it, make sure it’s childproof. To be safe for kids, rain barrels need to have a secure lid.
Rain barrel set-up
Plastic barrels are used for shipping and storage of nice things like chutneys and olives, and not-so-nice things like pesticides and heavy-duty detergents. Sometimes, the outside of a barrel will tell you what it contained, but there’s no guarantee it hasn’t been refilled with something else. Know where your barrel comes from and make sure it’s clean.
As you probably realize, setting up a rain barrel is simple. (If you rent, you’ll want to check with your landlord first, naturally). However, newly built buildings in many cities have downspouts that connect directly to pipes that divert water right into the storm sewer system. Check out our links to get advice on disconnecting this kind of downspout some cities will even disconnect your downspout for free, or pay you to do it. It’s a good idea to phone your city first and find out.
The downspout of the eaves trough runs from the roof right down to ground level. You’ll need to shorten it enough to get the rain barrel underneath the spout. Basic tools like a hammer, a screwdriver or drill, some nails and screws, and a step stool or ladder should do the job if you don’t have them, borrow.
Most downspouts are a series of aluminum tubes with tapered ends, tucked one into the other and nailed or screwed onto the building with brackets. Undo these brackets, remove the bottom section(s) of the downspout, then set up your barrel underneath and reattach the downspout to the building. Plastic tubing or flexible piping (at your hardware store) can be attached to the spout to direct water right into the barrel, or even more than one barrel at a time.
Where to find them?
Rain barrels can cost as little as $5 and as much as $100. A basic plastic barrel made for shipping can be scored at a garage sale for five bucks or so but again, know the past lives of your barrel, and be aware that you’ll be watering your plants by hand-filling a bucket or watering can from the top of the barrel.
If you’re having trouble finding a cheap barrel, try getting in touch with a local environmental group, or even contact a food distributor or shipping company and ask them. Affordable barrels are out there.
Whistles-and-bells barrels come with a screen filter, an overflow hose (which moves extra water to the garden when it rains a lot) and a tap at the bottom where a hose can be attached. This is the type of barrel you’ll find for sale for about $100 at most garden centres.
Many environmental groups and cities across sell rain barrels at subsidized prices, in much the same way as they offer compost bins for sale. An environmental group in my city sells two models, the basic barrel (with childproof lid) for $20 and the deluxe model for $90.