By DONNA DeFORBES/ecoRI News contributor
Rainwater collection dates back to ancient civilizations, from simple clay pots in Southeast Asia to complicated cistern systems of the Roman Empire. Today, it most often takes the form of rain barrels, which are popping up in residences across the country.
Placed under a shortened downspout, rain barrels capture water from your roof and gutters and store it for reuse. On average, an inch of rain falling off a 1,000-square-foot roof can result in 600 gallons of free water for the homeowner. That water can then be used on your lawn, shrubs and flower gardens; to wash your car, bike or house windows; or to clean yard tools and other outdoor equipment. Because rooftop contaminants — bird droppings, bugs, dirt, pollen — rainwater isn’t drinkable and you should follow safety guidelines before using it on vegetable gardens.
Happier wallet. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans use 40 percent more water during the summer on their lawns and gardens. You can reduce your water bill — and save 1,300 gallons of water — by using just one 55-gallon rain barrel during those peak summer months and emptying it weekly.
Happier plants. Garden plants and soil prefer natural “soft” rainwater to the harsh chemicals found in tap water such as chlorine, lime, calcium and sodium. Rainwater is filled with micro-nutrients and is highly oxygenated, which makes plants more drought-tolerant and helps build healthier root systems.
Happier bays. Water from your roof and gutters normally just falls to the ground as runoff, where it mixes with dirt, oil, pesticides and other contaminants before heading into the nearest storm drain. Excessive runoff spills over into area streams, rivers and bays. Capturing rain before it hits the ground reduces this contamination that contributes to marine pollution.
Happier communities. Having your own water source reduces the burden placed on the municipal water supply, especially during the summer. It also reduces the risk of local flooding and comes in handy during watering restrictions. These benefits have caused some states to offer tax incentives for homeowners who install a rainwater harvesting system; unfortunately, there is yet no such incentive in southern New England.
The most common rain barrel is the 55-gallon drum, which costs about $100-150 with components, and typically comes in green, brown, blue or gray. However, you can find artsy rainwater storage containers upward of 80 gallons and disguised to look like terra cotta planters, metal urns or brick walls.
DIYers can make their own barrels from food-grade drums often found cheaply on Craigslist. You can also buy linking kits that connect barrels together to capture more water.
The Rhode Island Water Lady offers standard 55-gallon barrels, helps develop community awareness programs, and offers tips on water conservation and how to paint your barrel.
Before buying a barrel, use this this online calculator to estimate how many gallons of water you can collect from your home. You’ll need to know the estimated dimensions of your roof as well as your city/town’s average annual precipitation. Consider how many barrels would best suit your home’s watering needs.
You should drain your rain barrel before winter, when freezing temperatures can cause hoses to crack or barrels to burst. Use this time to clean the inside of the barrel, removing any debris from the screen or spigot. Store it in a basement, garage or upside down in your yard.
Rhode Island resident Donna DeForbes is founder of Eco-Mothering.com, a blog that explores ways to make going green fun and easy for the whole family. She is a contributor to Earth911, MammaBaby and author of the e-book “The Guilt-Free Guide to Greening Your Holidays.”