Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Fresh water is an essential part of life, and it has become a scarce resource on our planet. Those of us who have always had just about as much water as we could want sometimes lose sight of this fact. Catching rain water for your garden is one way that you can use less of available running water supplies. Your garden doesn’t require drinking quality water, anyway, and rain water is free with just a little effort, a one-time investment, and some minor maintenance. Your system for capturing rain can be as simple as setting up a big bucket or barrel under a roof gutter downspout. You can then use the water collected this way on gardens or flowerbeds. Other more complex rain catchment systems involve modifications to one or more barrels or storage tanks (cisterns) for above or below ground storage.

Your rain barrel can be quite simple.
One of the easiest and cheapest way for collecting rain water is to use a 55-gallon plastic barrel. These can be purchased from large builder’s centers or even be discards from food manufacturing facilities. Just be sure that the barrels are food-grade plastic (HDPE#2) . One barrel usually costs much less than $100. If you buy one second-hand, be sure that they have only been used for foods or drinks and not for construction or to hold chemical or petroleum products.

There are many designs for rain barrels on the Internet. Here are some general instructions. Turn the barrel upside down, drill a hole for the spout and another hole to insert an overflow pipe. It’s best to set the barrels (and tanks) several feet off the ground on a stable pallette or platform. That way you can use a garden hose directly from the barrel to the garden with a gravity-fed water flow or attach it to irrigation tubing that runs through your garden beds. It’s important to keep overflow rainwater away at least ten feet from your foundation. You’ll also want to cut some wire screen wider than the opening to the barrel and fix it firmly to the top of the barrel with an industrial-strength, rubber band. This keeps large pieces of trash, rodents and insects from getting into your rain barrel.

If you live in a small to average-size house in an area with plenty of rainfall, you may collect several thousand gallons per year. That’s a lot of water. Just remember that the roof should be free of asbestos, tar, and gravel. You don’t want to put that stuff in your garden. And be sure to check to see that there aren’t any local ordinances that prohibit the installation of visible rain barrels or containers. Once it’s built, your rain barrel will need only a little maintenance from time to time. First, you’ll want to check the screen on top to make sure it’s still secure and that it doesn’t have any holes or tears. And, about once a year, it’s a good idea to clean out your barrel. Give it a good scrub with a hard bristled brush and a 1:1 solution of water and white vinegar.

Rain water can be a part of emergency preparedness
In an emergency situation, your local water supply may be shut off for periods of days or weeks, and you and your animals will not survive more than a few days without water. If there’s major trouble, either you’ll have to leave your area completely or have a plan that involves stored water. In some areas, there may be other sources of water from lakes, rivers and wells, but not everyone can get to them or has a means of transporting water. Remember one gallon of water weighs 8 pounds, so they can’t be toted easily from one place to another. Storing water ahead of time is a more reliable solution.

And we’re talking about a lot of water needs. As an estimate, plan for about 2 to 3 quarts per day or about 7 gallons per week per person. Two adults will require about 56 gallons of water in a month (one standard rain barrel) and 168 gallons (3 rain barrels for 3 months).  Even more water is necessary for cooking and sanitary needs.  And, even in places with a lot of rain all year long, one large rain barrel won’t be enough for several people. You’ll probably need to put in a cystern, if you want your rain water storage to last  more than a few days. And, of course, you'll need to  make adjustments for water filtering and purification.

But you can capture a fair amount of rainfall by putting in a valve in your barrel and diverting water by a series of pipes (PVC or hoses) and valves to other barrels. Once the bottom of the first barrel is full, it will start diverting water to more barrels. The great thing about this system is that it works by gravity, allowing rain water to go uninterrupted to the second (and subsequent) barrels. When it starts to rain, the debris from roof runoff falls into the first barrel and tends to stay there. All the other barrels are tightly topped so that there are no more openings where garbage may enter. After it rains, simply close off the valve to the second barrel and drain the first barrel. Use or save the water in the first barrel for general, non-consumption use. Next, empty it out of all visible trash and wipe it dry with a clean cloth. Then, replace the top screen and open the valve to the second barrel, and you’re then ready for the next rainfall.

Since small trash and tiny insects can pass through a regular wire barrier, you’ll need to put a fine-mesh screen over the opening into the catchment container.  You'll also have to purify your water. A guideline for water storage is a mix of 1/8 teaspoon, or about 8 drops, of regular, unscented chlorine bleach to each gallon of water for purification.   If the water has been sitting for more than a few days, agitate it back and forth before drinking. This puts the oxygen into it - something your body can’t do without.  But, drinking water sanitized by chlorine bleach can cause intestinal and other health problems after a few days. So, you’ll have to look for a better purifying method for your stored water. You’ll find a number of good quality filtration systems by searching the Internet. They can be expensive, so look for one that suits your budget.

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