This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune online Brand Publishing "From House to Home" section, and on Menards.com.
Rain barrels are simply the easiest and cheapest way to conserve water and garden more organically. Here are some common questions and answers about rain barrels to help you decide if one, or more, is right for you.
What exactly is a rain barrel, and where do I put it?
A rain barrel is a large container that holds between 50-100 gallons of water. It is made of hard plastic. It connects to a downspout — the vertical conduit that directs rain from gutters down the side of your house and onto the ground or into your city's stormwater system. The barrel is placed outside next to your house where the downspout is located.
What do I do with the water collected in a rain barrel, and how do I get it out?
Use rainwater on garden plants, small lawns, planters and houseplants. There is an opening near the bottom of the rain barrel where you can connect a hose. This works especially well if you place your rain barrel on bricks or concrete blocks, says homeowner Paul Cusimano of Barrington, Illinois. "That way, gravity draws the water right into my garden hose."
What are the advantages of using a rain barrel?
According to rainready.org, a program of the Center for Neighborhood Technology that addresses urban water issues, there are many reasons for using a rain barrel. An obvious advantage to homeowners is reducing their water bill. Also, organic gardeners like the idea of using pure rainwater instead of city water treated with chemicals tough on plants, such as chlorine.
There are also advantages to your community. When combined with your neighbors' efforts, disconnecting downspouts from a city stormwater system and installing rain barrels reduces the risk of basement flooding in your area, CNT reports.
What if my rain barrel overflows?
Rain barrels are actually made to overflow and there are several ways to manage that, says Harriet Festing, director of the RainReady program. "When you consider the fact that a half-inch rainstorm on a 1,000-square-foot roof yields about 312 gallons of water, there will be extra water. There is a downspout diverter you can buy, so once the rain barrel is full it sends the water back into the storm sewer system and prevents overflow. You can also daisy chain your rain barrels so when one fills up the other one takes the overflow."
Additionally, rain barrels can be set up to slowly trickle the water out over time.
How can I keep the water in the rain barrel clean?
The best way to keep it clean is to use it, so clean water is constantly cycling through, Festing says. Also, you can put a piece of mesh over the opening in the top to keep particles out. Some rain barrels come with screens.
Can I drink the water from my rain barrel or give it to my pets?
"It is best not to drink the water from a rain barrel or give it to pets, because the water can capture particulates from the roof, or from the air," Festing says.
What happens to the rain barrel in the winter?
In cold climates, the rain barrel needs to be disconnected from the downspout and drained. The easiest thing to do is simply reattach the piece of downspout you originally removed when you installed the rain barrel.
What do I need and are they difficult to install?
You can find everything you need at your local Menards® store. To set up your own rain-harvesting system, you'll need tools and accessories that will attach the rain barrel to the downspout, connect a hose to the rain barrel, and reinforce your rain barrel's configuration. And, if this DIY rain barrel setup is a bit daunting, you can always purchase a rain barrel kit.
There are plenty of resources at rainready.org to help you determine if your property is appropriate for a rain barrel, where it should be placed and instructions on installing one.