Stephen Barry hasn't turned on his outdoor spigot in a year, but last summer his lawn was as lush as any in the neighborhood. Every drop of water he needed for the season came straight from the sky, captured in rain barrels installed behind his Maryland home.
Barry got the idea when the outdoor education center he works for started using rain barrels at several of its recreational facilities. He was astounded by how much water they captured. "Just an inch of rainfall from a 1,000–square–foot roof produces 632 gallons!" he says. Now he relies on four 61–gallon recycled Coke barrels, painted to match his house, to supply all the water for his landscaping needs. And what's more, his garden looks better than ever, owing to rainwater's freedom from chemicals like chlorine and fluoride, which can be tough on plants. "We don't need Miracle–Gro anymore," he says.
Rainwater collection is an age–old technology that has long been used in arid southwestern places such as Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, as well as states like California and Nevada, where growing populations are stressing limited water supplies. Lately, though, it's been finding new practitioners even in more well-saturated environs, where rising water bills and dwindling rainfall levels are making homeowners think twice before blasting the tap. Stored water can be used for irrigation, washing the car (or the dog), filling the swimming pool, even bathing and drinking if properly filtered. In addition to conserving an increasingly scarce resource, rainwater collection also helps reduce storm runoff—a growing problem caused by the acres of concrete and other impermeable surfaces that go along with booming housing or commercial development.
David Crawford, president of Salem, Virginia—based Rainwater Management Solutions, says business started to take off in his part of the country in the mid–1990s, when the eastern United States experienced a drought that reduced the region's average amount of rainfall by about 10 inches a year. Lately he's noticed a growing interest in the Gulf South, where victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita are trying to find an alternative source of water in case they're faced with another catastrophe. Many of Crawford's clients who live in rural areas hard to reach by local fire departments keep rainwater stored just for fire–protection purposes. By having their own water supply, some of them get a break on their homeowner's insurance of up to 30 percent per year, he says.
If you find yourself coming down with a case of barrel fever, you can find them in an array of styles and colors at hardware stores, gardening supply centers, and websites such as cleanairgardening.com and composters.com. A standard 55– to 75–gallon plastic barrel with a leaf screen, spout, and overflow valve costs between $80 and $200. Those in the market for something a little more luxe can opt for a high–end wooden wine or whiskey barrel. A nice one built by a professional cooper will probably run you $300 or more. Or, like Barry, you can make your own out of recycled food–grade containers.
To get the most bang for your barrel, consider including an overflow tank with your system. It's a second or third barrel connected to the first one via a hose. Whatever you do, make sure the overflow hose at the top of the barrel is placed as far away from your house as possible so you don't end up collecting too much of a good thing—right in your basement.