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Can a Rain Barrel Save Water and Money?

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Q: We are in a mild drought and were wondering if we should be using a rain barrel to conserve rainwater. A local conservation organization sells them, and their brochure says we will save water and money. We want to water our garden and landscape as much as possible.

A: There are some good reasons to save rainwater and useful devices to do it, but a rain barrel may not be the best one for you.

From $75 to $150, there are many rain barrels available that hold from 30 to 100 gallons. You will need to consider how much water you need for your plants. Then figure out how much water you can potentially save from your roof and hardscape. Finally, consider how large of a storage area you need in order to save that much water and how much it will cost.

A little bit of math shows us that a half-inch of rain on a 200-square-foot roof will generate 62 gallons of water — 0.5 inches divided by 12 inches (in a foot) equals .0416 feet. Multiply by 200 to get 8.33 cubic feet, and then multiple by 7.48 gallons (in a cubic foot) to get 62.33 gallons. In other words, a half-inch of rain on a roof the size of a parking place will overflow the average 50-gallon rain barrel.

Once you have a full rain barrel, what are you going to do with it? You don't need to water plants in the landscape as it just rained on them, too. If it rains again before the plants dry out, you will just overflow the rain barrel again. Eventually, things will dry out and you can use the water. How far 50 gallons will go in the landscape depends on the type of soil, water requirements of the plants, when they were last watered, temperature and other weather conditions. A hanging basket or a tomato in the garden can easily consume a gallon a day. Water 10 plants, and the water is gone in five days. A large pumpkin plant can drink more than 10 gallons a day. Larger shrubs, trees and lawns will need far more water than a single barrel holds.

Will a rain barrel save you money? Probably not for a very long time. Clean inexpensive water is what most Americans enjoy. If you are on a well, then you don't pay for water. My water bill shows I pay half a cent per gallon.

A full 50-gallon barrel costs 25 cents. Four full barrels cost a dollar. A $100 barrel would take 400 fillings to break even. With consistent use and the frequency of rainfall in my area, rain could refill my barrel five to 10 times a summer. Ten refills a summer means I saved $2.50, and at least a 40-year payback time on a $100 barrel. Of course, you need to know your water usage, water rate and barrel cost to see your potential savings.

A barrel of rainwater can be great for watering orchids or other sensitive houseplants. It is good water for aquarium fish that require soft water. A rain barrel is great for city dwellers that have a landscape limited to containers with no outdoor faucet.

If you are serious about saving rainwater, you will require a very large container. How many houses are equal to the size of a single-car garage? (Two-hundred square feet in the previous example.) A 2,000-square-foot roof area will fill 10 rain barrels in a half-inch rain. Thunderstorms often drop three to 10 times that amount in less than an hour. Do you have room for 30 to 100 rain barrels?

In our drier portions of the country, new homes and landscapes are being watered with cisterns that hold 30,000 to 200,000 gallons of water. To do this right, you need to do more than hold water. The water needs to be filtered before it goes into the storage system. Smart irrigation systems (SIS) are used to compare the amount of water in the soil, the evaporation rate, soil type, plant type and other factors to decide when to water the plants. Pumps, filters and drip irrigation piping are used to get the water out of the tanks and to the plants.

Underground tanks can be installed under the landscape or driveway after considering the water table. Hardscapes like driveways and patios can direct water into the system, or they can be made of porous materials that allow the rains to soak in the ground.

Another option for existing landscapes with limited room for storage tanks could be the Rainwater Pillow. This flexible storage tank can be installed under a deck or in an indoor crawlspace. They can hold from a few thousand gallons to custom sizes in the hundreds of thousands of gallons. Check the system out at www.rainwaterpillow.com.

E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg, University of Illinois Extension at jrugg@illinois.edu. To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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