Drops in a bucket

SATURDAY'S HERO

Catching rainwater in a barrel can lead to savings for your wallet and can help save the environment

June 28, 2008|By ROB KASPER

If you're looking to be more green this summer, or if at least you'd like your garden to be, a rain barrel could be the solution.

The old-time practice of collecting rainwater is becoming increasingly popular in urban, environmentally conscious communities. Rain barrels are not only good for the environment - conserving water and reducing run off - they make watering your plants a little easier on the pocketbook, as well.

Rain barrels are sold online, at big-box hardware stores and at make-your-own rain barrel workshops held by local watershed associations. These groups also sell ready-made barrels.

FOR THE RECORD - A June 28 article in Go Today on how to make a rain barrel gave incorrect sizes for two drill holes on the side of the barrel. The top hole, or overflow hole, is 1 1/2 inches wide,. The bottom hole or tap hole, is 3/4 inches wide.
The Sun regrets the error.

The barrels range from fancy wooden vessels that once held wine and cost hundreds of dollars to simple, not exactly stunning-looking plastic drums that once held a component of fountain soda and cost about $70.

Catching rain in a barrel does several good things for your household budget and more for the environment, barrel advocates say. Tapping the barrel to soak your garden and lawn cuts your water bill. A rain barrel can save most homeowners about 1,300 gallons of water during the peak summer months, according to the Maryland Environmental Design Program, part of the state's Department of Natural Resources.

In communities like Baltimore City, which use water-meter readings to compute an additional fee for sewage use, the savings could be doubled. If, for example, the water meter reports you use 100 gallons less of water, the sewage-use bill also drops by 100 gallons.

In addition, rain barrels divert water from storm drains and decrease the impact of runoff. After big storms, the deluge of water cascading into streams from parking lots and other impervious surfaces, causes flooding and erosion, said Darin Crew, watershed restoration manager at Herring Run in Baltimore.

This cascade of water creates so-called "flashy streams," Crew said, in which the height of the water and the channel fluctuate, making it difficult for fish and other wildlife to thrive, he said. Most of the streams in the Baltimore area - Herring Run, Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls, included - are "flashy," he said.

Crew conceded that preventing one barrel's worth of water, 55 gallons, from gushing into a stream is a proverbial drop in the bucket. But he said the long-term effects of using a rain barrel can be both incremental and psychological.

During the spring, summer and fall in Maryland, one rain barrel could go through the cycle of being filled and drained some 20 times. That adds up to 1,100 gallons of water that would have gone down the drain, or more precisely into a storm sewer.

When you get a rain barrel, you also buy in to what the advocates call the "culture of rainwater collection."

Barbara and Frank Cutko have two rain barrels at their home near Belvedere Square. She is planning to add more. She waters her flower beds with soaker hoses connected to the tap at the bottom of a barrel.

An avid gardener, she said catching rain in barrels is a good way to cope with the weather cycles of a typical Maryland summer.

"We get few drizzly days in the summer, when the rain soaks the ground," she said "Mostly we get thunderstorms and the water washes away. A rain barrel salvages the water," she said.

Thunderstorms fill up her rain barrels, then in a few days, when her garden needs a drink, she taps the stored water.

There are drawbacks to using rain barrels. All barrels are not gorgeous. The plastic ones usually have to be gussied up, or integrated into the landscape. Cutko spray-painted her white plastic barrels to match the siding of her home.

The system relies on gravity to move the water, so there is a limit to how far a hose can extend from the barrel. Mounting the barrels off the ground, which is required in Baltimore, helps the water flow. Connecting the rain barrel to a downspout requires cutting the downspout with a saw. Also, the expansion and contraction caused by ice in the winter usually prompt rain-barrel owners to take the vessel indoors and out of service during the coldest months.

A while back, on a humid afternoon, I watched Crew and his colleague Ashley Traut transform a couple of 55-gallon plastic barrels into rain barrels.

The transformation process consisted of cutting three holes in the barrel. The first hole was the largest, an opening about 8 inches wide, cut with a spiral saw called a Roto Zip that is designed to cut circles. This inlet hole, Traut said, was where the flow from the downspout would enter the barrel.

Later, Traut fitted a basket with a wire mesh top into this hole. This basket, he said, would catch debris and keep mosquitoes from entering the barrel.

He used a power drill to cut the second hole - about 3/4 inch - near the top of the barrel. This was a hole for the overflow valve. He used the drill and a bigger bit to cut the third hole, near the bottom of the barrel. This opening, which was about 1 1/2 inches wide, which would house the tap valve.

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