Jan 26, 2010

Rainy Ruminations

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of rain collecting—though I’m not sure what to call it. Roof rainwater runoff catchment is a bit of a mouthful; rain harvesting reminds me too much of the moisture farmers back on Tatooine. (People reading this blog get Star Wars refs, right?) Whatever it’s called, I’ve opted to set the idea aside, at least for this year. There seems to be a spectrum of roof water collecting, with a huge property retrofit on one end, and a few strung-together barrels on the other. If we could go back in time and rebuild our houses with rain catching systems, and use the collected water for some indoor uses as well as irrigation, I’m sure we could more than put a dent in California’s water problems. Unfortunately, no time machines, and it seems to be up to each of us to weigh the costs and benefits and figure out what we can reasonably do .

I’m not in the market for any major remodeling jobs in the foreseeable future, so was looking more in terms of easy DIY. Say a string of barrels here, a big cube-shaped tank there. I ran into a few minor disincentives, one being that I just hate to take a hacksaw to parts of the house; if I screw up the sawing off of the downspout, then I’d have to replace it and repaint it. Hassle. I don’t want to actually create house problems when they seem to do a pretty good job of creating themselves.

Most barrels that go under downspouts seem to be in the 55 to 100 gallon range, and in a moderate rainstorm that would fill up in just, to borrow a quote form Mr. Chekov in the new Star Trek movie, “Meenuts sir! Meenuts!” Which would mean I’d need to have a chain of connected barrels. In which case they would fill up in, well, a few more minutes. But that’s okay, because they come with overflow valves that you can direct away from your house. But, you have to have room for this chain o’ barrels—and admittedly, at the northwest corner of the house, I do. I could comfortably have three 100 gallon barrels, maybe four depending on how much I was willing to be bugged by a semi-obstruction when opening the gate. I have some other downspouts that could potentially go into barrels, with some creativity, but it depends whether it’s worth a lot of work and money, when the main payoff, I’ve determined, is mostly just feeling good.

A salesperson at a local irrigation supply retailer was telling me that rain water catchment systems make the most sense in places like California, where we go half the year without rain, but I disagree with that. What makes sense in place like California is huge catchment tanks built into the house that are used for irrigation and some indoor uses. These systems are much more common in some (more enlightened and forward-thinking) parts of the world, like Australia. My aunt recently moved into a new house in Queensland and it came readymade with a sleek 3000 liter (almost 800 gallon) tank that collects and filters roof water for use outdoors and in (see photo). My mom (mum) grew up in a house with a rain collecting tank underneath, and that was in the 30s and 40s. We Californians have some catching up to do.

In terms of the little barrel daisy-chains that a DIYer can do, I think that actually makes more sense in the type of climates where it rains some all year—fill the barrels, use the barrels, refill the barrels, reuse the barrels…Granted, that actually is us in winter sometimes. But as far as getting through a six-month rainless stretch, seems to me the most feasible thing is just planting appropriate plants that expect to be dry half the year.

Dry winter spells probably shouldn’t be the problem I make them out to be either. I don’t seem to have the knack for growing winter veggies, so no winter water need there, and once all my natives are established (I so look forward to that time) I don’t think they’ll be too fazed by less-than-soaked winters. It’s mostly the bulbs and wildflower seedlings that I’ll probably always ring my hands over. If they get started but then dry out, I’m afraid they’ll die. So yes, using rain barrels at those times instead of the tap would be nice, but mostly because I find I just love the feeling of pouring rainwater on the ground. It’s like I’m heroically stepping in for Mother Nature or Rain Miser or the Jet Stream, or whoever it is that controls winter weather, on an as-needed basis, and instead of substituting with crappy chlorinated tap water, I’m using the real thing.

I got really into it when our miracle October rain filled up my wheelbarrow and some Rubbermaid bins I’d carelessly left sitting out. And at this point, that remains the extent of my rain catching system. They’re not under downspouts, but they are overflowing. I know it will give me joy to dip a bucket in there and offer it to plants when they start drying out.

In reality, though? I won’t be giving them any water they wouldn’t have got anyway. I’ll just be staggering its delivery, because all the water that falls on our property goes into the yard. The water that falls where the wheelbarrow and bins are flows to a drain, which empties into soil. (It used to flow through a PVC pipe that was hidden in the ivy, out onto the sidewalk, but when I chopped out the ivy I also sawed off the pipe—I wasn’t too scared of hacksaws to do that.) All the roof downspouts empty into drains that lead somewhere in the yard—I didn’t make it that way, it’s just the way it was. Maybe a builder would say it’s wrong. I was talking to a guy from the city building department about a downspout that was draining too close to the foundation, and he recommended piping it not to the sidewalk, but: to the street! So apparently a rain-collecting slot in the collective conscious isn’t quite in place just yet.

But the main deterrent, even for small systems, is cost, due to it will essentially never pay for itself in literal, monetary terms. I found retail barrels to average more than $100 for 100-gallon barrels, and 300-gallon tanks are upwards of $1000. (!) A cool $800 can get you a sleek, low-profile 130-gallon tank. I wondered how long it would take for the water bill savings to compensate, so even though bills make my eyes glaze over pretty bad, and I usually don’t do any actual math on them, this month I calculated the per-gallon cost on my water bill. About .65 cents per gallon. So saving money is not the incentive, which bums me out, because if it were, people would do it. Granted, there are cheaper barrels out there, typically blue food-grade barrels, but a yard has several functions, one of which is looking nice, and the blue barrels, well, they’re not garden art. Being good to the planet and the local community is an incentive, but a properly selected native garden doesn’t impact on those terribly. So the entire incentive for me to spring for a little barrel system would really be the feeling of satisfaction when dipping into the rain supply. For fun, basically. And I may yet do it another year. For this year, I’m keeping the wheelbarrow and Rubbermaid bins out in the rain. If I win the lottery, I promise to have a colossal tank installed under the house.


  1. Jess - great post on rain barrels. I have wanted some for years but we need the rain gutters first (100 yr. old house, gutters removed in last painting). My big problem, though, is that I don't want to buy a huge plastic thing. I really hate plastic. Sigh... Like you my plants don't need much water anyway.

    One suggestion - try growing lettuce, arugula, and Swiss chard for winter veggies. Can't be beat!

  2. Thanks Barbara! I felt a little bad after writing this post because I thought, "Geez, I sound down on water conservation." That's not it at all, it's just it's not easy or cheap. I think what really troubles me is that barrels are so expensive for the moderate amount of water they save, and I have a hard time imagining they are that expensive to produce. To me it seems like water districts and municipalities should be practically *giving* them to people, but instead, the person who wants to save a little water has to shell out a lot of cash. I DO wish to conserve water and hope no one though otherwise! Thanks for your nice post! Someone I was talking to recently said almost the same thing, something like "I don't think I can get too excited by more plastic." Valid point. Plus I was talking to my brothers about pumping water from barrels up to plants located higher, and they pointed out that pumps use a fair amount of electricity so it becomes a lesser of evils thing. Anyway, oops, my comment is longer than my post! Thanks for the veggie suggestions--I should totally be dining on those things now. Next year! I have some trouble keeping the sparrows from feasting on them, but I'm sure that's not insurmountable.

  3. I've had the same interior dialog as you when it comes to rain barrels. Yet I haven't yet said no emphatically. It's just that I can't see them as a net benefit when they would sit empty for 9 months of the year. True, during the winter I could even out some of the rainfall with between-storm waterings, but how does that make up for the initial cost, the loss of space, and the eyesore during the rest of the year?

  4. Hey Brent, you said it a lot better in one sentence than I did in a whole blog post!

  5. We're looking at doing some small scale greywater collection, but I, too, can't deal with a back yard full of plastic barrels.

    (Found you via blotanical, by the way. Hello from East Oakland, and my tiny overgrown yard.)