It’s been a rainy, rainy June on the east coast. Sun has peeked out for maybe an hour here and there, but otherwise it’s been gray, dismal, and all around not summery. It’s a drag, no question about it! But despair no more—there happens to be one exception to this depressingly soggy month. For those residing in the wet areas, you can save actually money by saving your water. You think that’s rain you feel on your shoulders? Nope. That’s actually cash money falling right from the sky. And for the sake of making lemonade out of June’s lemons—I invite you to save money this rainy month by collecting your rainwater, for drier days to come. Start by creating a simple rain barrel.
Project Time: Afternoon.
Energy Saved: Low. Catching rainwater preserves the mechanical energy of the falling water created by solar distillation and releases it later when plants need it.
Ease of Use: Easy.
Maintenance Level: Low to medium. An occasional cleaning may be required, and some spring and fall maintenance is likely in colder areas.
Skill Levels: Carpentry: Basic. Plumbing: Basic.
Materials: 55-gallon food-grade barrel or premanufactured rain barrel, 45-degree turn that matches existing gutter, self-tapping metal screws, extra length of downspout, two wood posts at least 4 × 4 × 8, scrap 1 × material, nails OR 6–8 cement blocks (8 × 16). If modifying regular barrel: 3/4-inch PVC bulkhead fitting or other 3/4-inch fitting with gasket, 3/4-inch hose bibb (sillcock), fiberglass or metal window screen.
Tools: Wood saw, hack saw, drill, drill bits, level, ladder.
The barrel. Rain barrels are often sold at garden shops and agricultural supply stores. Typically they are 55–80 gallons and made of solid black polypropylene plastic that will hold up well for 20–25 years. Some enlightened municipalities sell discounted barrels or hold rain-barrel-building workshops.
Modifying a regular barrel. All that distinguish a rain barrel from a food-grade barrel are a perforated, screened top to let in water but keep out mosquitoes, a hose bibb (also known as a sillcock or wall hydrant) about a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the barrel that a hose can be attached to, and an overflow spout at the top.
Suitable food-grade barrels are not hard to find for free; just make sure the one you use didn’t ever contain anything caustic. Large food producers are often willing to part with extras to whoever bothers to ask. Locally, we know of folks who have been given barrels by a Coca-Cola bottler, a pickle company, and a salad dressing maker. It’s worth spending a little bit of time on the phone asking around if you’re otherwise going to have to pay retail for a rain barrel, especially if you want more than one, because modifying a food barrel is relatively easy. There are also Web sites like www.freecycle.org where you can find useful materials for free in many parts of the country. Look for a waste or scrap exchange in your area!
For the faucet we like to avoid threading our own fittings, which takes a specialized tap tool. Instead, you can use what is sometimes referred to as a “bulkhead fitting” to make the watertight connection through the tank. These can be hard to find in home improvement stores but are readily available and inexpensive over the Internet. Browsing through the plumbing aisles you might find an even better fitting to use, for example, water heater pans include a nearly perfect fitting that can be unscrewed, with a gasket already attached.
Drill a pilot hole (with a spade-tip bit or small hole saw) into the barrel about 6–8 inches up from the bottom that matches the part of your fitting (whether threaded or straight) that will go through the tank wall. If you’re using a bulkhead fitting, remove the locknut from the fitting, leaving the gasket on the body. Insert the body through the hole in the tank from the inside, trapping the washer between the inside tank wall and the fitting. Screw the locknut back onto the outside of the fitting for a leak-free installation. You may need to employ a friend to hold one side to get it tight. Next, screw the hose bibb onto the fitting. Depending on what type of fitting you ended up with, you will need either a male or female hose bibb.
Next you’ll need to either drill holes in the top or cut a chunk out of the lid to let in water. If you’re cutting many holes, use at least a 3/4-inch bit and make at least a dozen holes, mostly in the middle. This will produce lots of obnoxious plastic filings, so do it someplace where you can sweep them up and throw them in the trash. If you decide to cut a square out of the lid, a jigsaw or hacksaw will do the trick. You should attach window screen (fiberglass or metal) to the top of the barrel to keep mosquitoes from entering. Drill pairs of small holes along the edge of the top and then weave scrap pieces of wire through the holes and the screen in about 10 different locations. Alternatively, you can place a large piece of screen over the top of the entire barrel and tie it down around the outside perimeter with wire or twine. The downspout will rest on top of this screen.
In case of downpours when your tank is full, make an overflow drain on the top of the tank. You can follow the instructions above for the faucet hole, but install the overflow drain not more than an inch below the top of the tank. It is also possible to attach barrels one to another via the overflow port.
The stand. Getting that rain barrel up off the ground at least a few feet will mean more water pressure and easier watering. Depending on the lay of the land and where your garden is, you may want it to be up as high as 4 feet, although making a steady stand that high is a little more difficult and rain barrels that high up look somewhat strange.
The easiest and most reliable stand is made from stacked pairs of cement blocks. Level the area underneath where your barrel will go, usually directly in front of your gutter, although you can use side turns for your gutter to move it a few feet to the left or right. Place a pair of blocks side by side, preferably with the holes facing up, as this is stronger. Alternate direction for the next set and build up the base to the desired height.
For a wood stand, cut four 4 × 4 posts to the desired height. Using scrap wood, make a square by nailing equal-length boards to the sides of the four posts about halfway up. The length of the sides should be slightly larger than the diameter of the barrel so the barrel can sit on top without overlapping the edge. Add another row of boards around the top, and then nail in scraps of wood on top to support the barrel. Do a thorough job of nailing and use boards at least 3/4 inch thick, because a full rain barrel can weigh more than 400 pounds.
Level the stand and put up your barrel. If you don’t have an overflow faucet on your barrel, be conscious of where the overflow will go. You don’t want to cause erosion.
The downspout. Full rain barrels in cold climates can freeze solid and potentially burst, so in most of the country it’s wise to remove the barrel during winter months. Black barrels that get plenty of sun can keep water above freezing in marginal climates, but you are taking a risk leaving the barrel full. Cold climates make dealing with the downspout a little more difficult, as the removed barrel will leave the curved downspout high above the level of the home, potentially spraying the home or causing erosion during drainage.
The best way to deal with this is to keep the existing length of downspout intact and purchase additional gutter (measure the width before you go to the store) for the rain barrel. Basically you’ll be making a summertime section of gutter for when the barrel is in operation and then replacing it with the original gutter when it starts to get cold.
To install the new downspout, once your barrel is in place, remove the old downspout and with a hacksaw cut a new piece of downspout that will end about 6 inches above the tank. Attach the new shorter piece of downspout to the gutter. Next you will cut a second short piece of downspout that will run from the wall to the top of the tank. Measure from the new downspout to the tank at approximately a 45-degree angle and take into account the added length of the 45-degree piece that will connect these two pieces (probably adding about 2 inches). Cut a piece of downspout to this length, and attach it to the 45-degree turn using some self-tapping metal screws, and then screw this whole piece to the downspout along the house.
The other option is to use a length of flexible gutter to connect the gutter to the barrel. You may find it more difficult to keep this in place, however.