Sunday, June 1, 2008

What's that thing in your yard?

At the Saturday Ecofestival during Baltimore Green Week, I built a rain barrel. On the way out of the festival, and here in my neighborhood, everybody has been wanting to know, “what is that?”

A rain barrel is one of the easiest things you can do to make your house greener. Once placed under a downspout, it collects all the rainwater from your roof that would normally be routed into storm drains. A spigot at the base of the rain barrel attaches to a garden hose so that you can water your garden, wash your car, or do whatever you wish with this water reclaimed from the sky.

Impervious area = bad

By collecting rainwater to use in your yard, you can lessen the load on storm drains and local waterways. Think about the typical path of this rainwater: it falls from the sky, travels across your roof, down your gutter, across impervious concrete drains or sidewalks and streets, then finally into a storm drain. Along the concrete sidewalk/street part at least, this water can pick up chemical pollutants that are carried with it all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. It’s much better for the local watershed to receive this water after it has been filtered by your garden plants and soil, which release the water gradually to the subterranean groundwater supply, rather than in a dirty torrent after a rainstorm.

How much impervious surface area is there in your neighborhood? A quick study of my own middle-of-group townhouse showed that 49% of my property is impervious (rooftop/sidewalk/deck/porch), i.e. creates runoff that often travels into a storm drain rather than soaking into the soil naturally.

Reduced water consumption = good

Did you know that residential watering can account for 40% of domestic water consumption in a given area? Using water from a rain barrel can save you up to 1,300 gallons of water during peak summer months: definitely a plus in times of drought and water restriction. Plus, the water you collect from your rooftop is free of chlorine, fluoride, and other substances found in treated public water that your garden plants don’t need.

It’s cheap

Rain barrels can run upwards of $100 for fancy models from local garden stores. However, you can build a rain barrel for as little as $50 at a workshop sponsored by the Herring Run Watershed Association, which is what I did. In my case, I even customized the barrel for my home: the bottom spigot is at the front for easy access, and I located the overflow hose on the left side so that it can run into my existing drain.

It requires little maintenance

To set up your rain barrel, you’ll need a hacksaw to trim your downspout to the proper length, and a few cement blocks on which to set the barrel for better water pressure.

After installation, you simply keep the intake basket free of leaves, twigs, and other debris so that water can flow in freely. The screen on the basket is important for preventing mosquitoes from taking up residence in your water.

If you have a large roof, your barrel may fill faster than you can use the water. For this reason, there is an overflow opening near the top of each barrel, attached to a flexible hose. This hose can be routed down to a drainage area, or connected to a second rain barrel: you can connect as many rain barrels as you like in this manner.

For more information on building your own rain barrel, check out the Rain Barrel roll-out on May 15th at
See here for more info about rain barrels, including how to make your own from scratch: Md Environmental Design Program

HGTV’s Gardening by theYard rain barrel how-to:,,HGTV_3546_2165903,00.html


Brian said...

I LOVE that idea. It's too bad that I live in an apartment with no gutters. When I get a house some day, that will be one of my first projects. Why waste treated household water on your garden?

On a side note, at home we try to conserve water by running the cold water from the shower into a bucket. Just fill it until the water warms up. Then we use the water in the bucket to flush the toilet. Same with the kitchen sink, except we use the water for plants.

ALM said...

Good call on conserving water, G. I started doing the shower bucket thing to water my houseplants with: since my shower is upstairs and water heater is in the basement, I often get at least a gallon of cold water before it warms up!