Saturday, October 14, 2006

Rain, Part 2

First, some lessons learned in trying to set up a rainwater collection system:

Lesson 1: Water is heavy.
As they say, "A pint's a pound, the world around," which means that a 55-gallon barrel holds about 440 lbs (200 kg) of water. So before you start collecting water, make sure any cinder blocks or other platforms are level and solid. The mud that collected under my first rain barrel softened the ground, which caused one cinder block to sink, which caused the barrel to tip over, crushing some nearby plants. If you don't have a solid base, you may want to put down some rot-resistant planks down to distribute all that weight.

Lesson 2: No really, water is heavy.
I changed my mind about where I wanted the barrel, but it was already full. I had to use up all the water before I could move it, and that took quite a while. Even a 1/4 full barrel is a pain to move.

Lesson 3: Use only round containers.
I tried storing water in a rectangular container, but the weight and pressure of the water bowed out the sides, which meant the lid would no longer go on. With a circle, the pressure is even all the way around, so it won't bow.

Lesson 4: Plan for good drainage.
If your rain barrel is already full, and it starts to rain, what happens? Make sure you have a way to divert excess water away from the base of your rain barrel, and away from your foundation. I can almost guarantee you that the first time it rains, your barrel will be full. You should also take into account what would happen if your barrel ever develops a leak.

So after several mistakes and mis-steps, and these lessons in my head, I've got a setup I like. It's probably a little overly elaborate, but it does what I want. For the record, what I want is to have water for the garden. You may have other ideas, so the way I did it may not work exactly for you. I had a few specific things in mind.

First, I wanted to have a closed barrel. That eliminates the possibility of mosquito breeding and cuts down on dirt and debris getting into the barrel. If you have an opening at the top of your barrel, you probably at least want to cover it with screen. A closed barrel is certainly not a necessity, it's just a personal preference.

Second, since I was minimizing debris in the bottom, I wanted to be able to get every last drop of water out of the barrel. Our roof doesn't have any overhanging trees, so leaf litter, twigs, and the like are not a problem. If you expect to have a little sediment and debris build up at the bottom, you'll want an upright barrel with a spigot a few inches up from the bottom, so the dregs will not clog your spout.

Third, I knew I would have almost no water pressure coming out of my barrel, so it was either filling up a watering can or running a soaker hose along the ground. I went with the soaker hose option. (Our old house had a raised deck. The rain barrel sat on the deck, which provided a good bit of water pressure for the gardens below.)

On the barrel nearest the raised garden beds, I ran a length of regular hose from the rain barrel to the edge of the first garden bed. Then I put in a splitter with shutoff valves on the two outgoing hookups. One side went to a soaker hose (with the little rubber disk that's supposed to inhibit water flow removed). The other side of the split went to another short section of regular hose, which went on to the next garden bed. Then another splitter to another soaker hose. I don't know if I could get away with a fourth split due to the low water flow rate, but I might try it next year.

The second barrel just had a short length of regular hose and then a long soaker hose that went through some extra tomato plants, some sunflowers and some corn. I have a third barrel, but I haven't set it up yet...

Because I needed several short sections of hose, I bought some of those little threaded hose repair pieces, and some capped hose repair bits for the dead-end soakers. I cut some existing hoses into the lengths I needed and used the repair peices to create several short hoses. The splitters and other pieces can be found at just about any hardware or garden store.

All in all, the setup works pretty well, though it may not scale up tremendously. I haven't discovered the limit to how far the water will travel with only one cinder block of elevation, but it'll make it through 20 ft of regular hose and another 20ft of soaker hose without any trouble. The higher you can raise the source, the further the water will go. I hope to add a second layer of blocks at some point.

Now to get the water from the downspouts to the barrels, I used a product called the Garden Watersaver. It allowed me to have the closed barrel setup I was looking for. The other nice thing about it is that if the barrel fills up, the back-pressure will cause the water to back right up the feeder hose, and any excess will just continue down the downspout and drain away like it used to. (Note that this back-pressure will not work with just a trash can with a lid on it. If you try that, you'll just get water leaking out around the lid. You'll need some kind of overflow tube or something.) The narrow feeder hose also cuts down on the debris a little.

The other nice thing about this type of setup is that you can connect multiple barrels together for some serious rainwater storage.

The Garden Watersaver site also describes a simple little cinder block & wood setup that keeps a closed barrel on its side, and tipped just right so that the entire barrel can be emptied out. (You have to scroll down toward the bottom of the linked page to get the exact details.)

The downside of a closed system is that you have to be more careful with very cold temperatures. If you remember from your high school science class, ice takes up more room than water. If the ice can't expand, you can break your barrel. But I don't water during the winter, so I just drain the barrel and cap the feeder line at the end of the growing season, the same time I put the hoses away.

The upside of this setup is that all I have to do is wait for dry weather. To water the garden I just walk out and turn on the spigot, and then in a couple hours, turn it back off again.

So there you have it. It's not the prettiest setup ever, but it's very functional. Maybe next year I'll block it off with some lattice and grow some nice vines over it or something. If you want aesthetic, call Beo and Mia. And if you really want to get serious about rainwater, check out Beo's article on rain gardens.



At 10/14/2006 9:29 PM, Blogger Madcap said...

Water is heavy, you say? ;-)

And wet. We didn't get our barrels set up this year, so we had water in our basement and small lakes all over the yard this spring. I'll have to bookmark these posts for next year.

At 10/14/2006 11:48 PM, Blogger Beo said...

Thanks for explaining deatils and theory here more than I have on my site. I will try to do a step by step on how I make mine in the next week or so when I get a minute. Your math of on the weight has caused me to stress ground prep more with my customers-given that my 1.5 barrel set up weighs 150lbs DRY!


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