How to capture rainwater safely
Here's what you need to know about rain barrels to guard against bacteria and disease — and get the best water quality.
Susan Kroll wasn't squeamish about installing a rain barrel. Having lived in Thailand, where huge, impressive rain jars abound as part of an ancient tradition of capturing water from the sky, she hardly worried about turning her home into a scene out of Dogpatch, adorned with an old oak barrel rotting amid algae and mosquitoes.
After moving to the Pacific Northwest, she grabbed the chance to install a new 55-gallon plastic cistern at the home she rented, finding rain harvesting no less appealing in the temperate-forest "drizzle capital" of Bellingham, Wash., than in the tropical forests of Thailand. (Bing: How much does it really rain in the Pacific Northwest?)
"We get so much water naturally here in the winter, suffering through droughts in the summer, that it just makes sense to try to save from one season to help the other," Kroll says.
That first barrel multiplied to seven after she and her husband, Sergio Moreno, moved into their own house. Saving money on her city water bills was a bonus; plus, the first rain barrel she acquired for her landlord came free through a special water-conservation subsidy sponsored by the city of Bellingham. The rest came cheaply, some through a rain-barrel-making workshop.
Rather than leaving the blue and black plastic barrels unadorned: "Sergio painted several with mountains and river landscapes," she says, laughing about how he incorporated one spigot emptying whimsically into a river scene.
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Even if you don't live in a rainy place — in fact, especially if you live in a sunny or arid place — using harvested rainwater can make a significant dent in your water consumption. Water for lawns, flowers and food gardens can make up as much as 40% of homeowner water use in the summer.
Like many municipalities, Bellingham encourages rainwater harvesting.
"We just don't need to be watering our plants and landscapes with precious supplies of drinking water," says Anitra Accetturo, a water conservation expert at Bellingham's Department of Public Works.
Among other environmental benefits, rain barrels also ease the growing problems of storm-water runoff, which carries pollutants that slide off pavement, roofs and gutters, by rechanneling water into the soil.
Today, Kroll's gardens have grown to 10 beds each of annuals, perennials and native plants, as well as a variety of fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, tomatillos, several varieties of chili peppers, lettuce, chard, cabbage, broccoli and herbs.
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"Now," she says, "I'm a rain-barrel junkie."
The benefits of these age-old devices are well-understood, but if homeowners don't properly install and maintain them, they can cause more harm than good.
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Typically, rain barrels hold anywhere from 20 to 150 gallons of water in big plastic or metal drums. If they are not hooked up properly and tightly, with a mesh screen, they can quickly turn into a breeding ground for mosquitoes, attracting rodents and vermin and becoming hazards for pets and their people.
"Living in Thailand made me especially careful to avoid mosquitoes," Kroll says, "because dengue fever and malaria are realities there."
For this reason, she is careful to make sure that the top of each barrel is clamped shut and screened to keep insects out and that barrels are positioned to avoid water overflow so water can't collect beneath them.
This is my first year using a rain barrel with a submergible pump. It is very dry here in Virginia and I only use the water for shrubs and not grass or vegetables. I am surprised at how little irrigation can be done with a 55 gallon barrel. As such, I cannot imagine how much water my neighbors use to irrigate their yards and then listen to them complain about having to do maintain them with cutting, fertilizing, grass killers, and pesticides. Water is a commodity and those who misuse it pass the cost on to everyone.
In the western USA surface water is owned privately. This is known as prior appropriation and simply means that somebody else already established a use for the water and you have no right to take it away from them. If you are building a new house, theoretically, you could have an engineer write a letter demonstrating that the runoff from your new improvements such as the impervious driveway, patio, etc is enough to offset the amount you are withholding in the barrels. This is known as augmentation. However if you have an old house you would need to purchase rights to the water. You can buy and sell raw water rights from many different companies, but I don't know how many of them would want to deal with such small amounts. If you can find one who does, it would certainly be cheaper than buying treated water from the city to water your lawn.
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