Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Getting The Most From Your Rain Barrels

Having a rain barrel seems to be a craze these days. Everyone seems to have caught on to the idea that adding more water to our already strained storm water system isn’t such a good thing and has started disconnecting their downspouts from the storm water system. Add the benefit of free, un-chlorinated water for the garden and it seems that these large round plastic objects seem to be sprouting up around houses all over town. Some of them brightly decorated and others still donning their original blue or black color.

When looking around the neighborhood, it is also apparent that the craze has left a few people puzzled as I see just as many of these barrels sitting or on their sides, not functioning the way that they should. I’ve had my rain barrels for two years now and they have evolved a bit over time. I figured that it was a good time for a quick primer on these garden beauties and to give some hints on how to get the most out of them.

Getting the barrel
I got my barrel on e-bay. Several years ago, they could be cheaply purchased from several local dealers. Unfortunately, the demand has made the prices skyrocket a bit. The initial costs of mine were 35 bucks each. I believe that most municipalities still have these available through some public entity for roughly the same price. In Chicagoland, there are sources with the City of Chicago as well as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

Sprucing them up
My barrels were grey, an unattractive grey. Most barrels are recycled food containers and are opaque white, blue, or black. I chose a flat green paint for my barrels as I didn’t want to draw too much attention to them and wanted them to blend into the garden. How you decorate your barrel is only limited by your imagination. For some great ideas of transforming your barrels into works of art, you can check out some photos in PDF form on the League of Women Voters website or better, take a walk around downtown OP and see some of these beauties for yourself.

The set up
Putting the barrels into action is maybe the most involved part of the process. Position the barrel under the downspout of your home. In order to get good water pressure from the nozzle and for easier access to it, it is also important to get the barrel off the ground. At my place, I have them standing on two concrete masonry units. Cut the downspout just above the barrel top and direct the spout into the barrel.
There are a couple of small concerns that should also be addressed. The first one is having something on the barrel to prohibit mosquitoes from breeding in your barrel. For this, the downspout can sometimes be hermetically sealed to the barrel. This is a little difficult so most folks put a screen over the barrel, yet under the container lid to prohibit the mosquitoes from getting in.

The second concern is overflow. The average barrel fills up quickly, in almost minutes during an average rainstorm. Most barrels are outfitted with a connection at the top of the barrel for an overflow hose. This is the simplest way of handling excess rainwater and it can be directed into your garden area. There are other systems that can be found online that connect to your downspout and redirect water to the ground, a storm water line, or another barrel.

In the wintertime
The rain barrels don’t function so well in wintertime. Barrel owners have a series of views on what to do come winter. I’ve always been concerned about the life of the barrels so hope to prolong it by reconnecting the downspouts and let them drain directly to yard and planting bed areas. I store the barrels upside down, under the eave, to keep them dry. I know of some local folks that just keep them connected without problems so far.

Going all out
One way to make the barrel more maintenance free is to attach it to a soaker-hose and snake the hose around your garden. I've had mixed results with this as the hose seems to get clogged or not have enough water pressure in it to work after a month or so. Sometimes I flush it out by hooking it up to a spigot or I just get lazy and resort to my watering can.

There are other ways to enhance the experience of the rain barrel in your garden. At my place, to disguise the screen at the top, I have placed pebbles and stones to give it a sort of fountain experience.

I also removed my downspout entirely and installed rain chains to add to this “fountain-like” experience. These are also available online and even at local garden stores. I got mine at Target. The overall look and sound in the rain is pretty nice, even with the rush-hour traffic in the background.


Black Dog's Photographer said...

Thanks for the post on rain barrels. I'll be moving soon and I really hope to incorporate a rain barrel or two. The tips are very helpful.

DeAnne said...

the rain chain is pretty sweet!

jay said...

I only have one question - what to do when it rains nearly every day of the week and all three of your rain barrels are full? That is just hypothetical... Its just been such a crazy 2 weeks for rain (with more on the way)! Seriously, thanks for the great tips. Not enough info out there on basics like winterizing.

Tiny Oak Park Bungalow said...

Yeah Jay, both my barrels are full and the overflows have been working overtime. I think last summer was similar - Id din't turn on the hose once all summer. I am guessing we are in for the same thing this year. BTW, I also use the water for minor cleaning jobs: pavement areas that get muddy, garbage cans, and stuff like that.

Becca said...

What a timely post. After seeing all the barrels around the village, I've been thinking about buying some for our yard. I'm disappointed to see they so blah colored. Does anyone in the area sell pretty rain barrels? P.S. Love the "fountain experience."

Tiny Oak Park Bungalow said...

I don't know anyone that sells pre-painted ones but then again, I haven't looked.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post! I've had my rain barrel since early April, and I'm not sold on the burnt red color. Did you use exterior latex, or something more durable? I am smitten with the rain chain and the pebble ideas. Thanks for the ideas!

Tiny Oak Park Bungalow said...

I used Rustoleum "American Accents" spray paint. I think the color was "basil" or some similar herb.

Anonymous said...

Just curious--I recently acquired a rain barrel similar to yours. My main concern is the overflow.

Does the little garden-size runoff hose do the trick in a serious storm?

I am afraid of backup.

I've seen some diverters you install in the downspout, but they only work if you have the rain barrel being filled in the closed fashion.

Tiny Oak Park Bungalow said...

There is always overflow that is beyond the capacity of the small hose - it just spills over the side of the barrell and into the yard. It is never a big deal for me. I think the folks at Humphrey House (see sidebar) have a diverter. You may want to check their blog for how they installed it.

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