Rain water harvesting with a rain barrel is a smart, energy- and water-conserving way to keep your yard and garden green and flourishing all season long.
It also makes sense to store rain water rather than send it into the ground near building foundations and basements, where it can cause foundation damage, wood rot, mold, mildew and a host of other problems.
Rain water harvesting systems can be as simple as a big bucket under a gutter downspout, or as complex as a whole-house system for drinking water and other uses that requires multiple cisterns, filters and storage devices. Most people, however, choose something in between.
Rain Water Harvesting: Why Bother?
Rain water has many advantages over most municipal water supplies. It's free of chlorine and other chemicals, making it ideal for plants -- especially exotic indoor plants. And in areas where rainfall is unreliable, and water restrictions prevent lawn watering, rain water harvesting is the best option for dry-weather gardening. It's also free, which appeals to homeowners in cities with rising water rates.
Rain water advocates note that rain water can be better for indoor use because it's naturally soft and contains few if any of the minerals that make water hard. Properly filtered, naturally soft rain water can be used as drinking water and laundry use, though most people skip the filtering and just use it for gardening.
Choosing a Rain Barrel
Many styles and sizes of rain barrels are available at hardware and gardening supply centers, ranging in price from $50 to $300. These simple rain water harvesting systems are ideal for people with sloped roofs and gutters that channel rain water into a downspout.
Most rain barrels are made of plastic or fiberglass, though some are made of ceramic, wood or non-rusting metal. Ideally, a good rain barrel should have a screen to filter out leaves, a lid to keep insects out, and a spigot for a hose attachment. Better-quality rain barrels resist sun damage and have some way of linking two or more rain barrels together (usually through an integrated hose system).
Some have pumps for moving the water out, but a gravity system is cheaper, more reliable and more energy-conserving. A pump might be necessary, however, for hilly yards or spaces where it's more practical to keep the rain barrel at a lower level than the garden.
Maintaining a Rain Water Harvesting System
Most rain water harvesting is pretty hassle-free -- the rain falls and you catch it in a barrel. Easy, right? But a little maintenance goes a long way.
Roofs and gutters should be kept free of branches and leaves (of course, this is true even if you don't have a rain water harvesting system). Filters are needed to keep twigs, leaves and other debris out of the water, and a lid should fit securely over the barrel to discourage breeding insects like mosquitoes.
And in winter months, drain the rain barrel completely -- or at least 3/4 -- to keep ice from expanding or breaking the rain barrel.