Next time it rains, think about how much water you could be collecting in a rain barrel. For every inch of rain that falls on a 1,000-square-foot roof, you can gather about 600 gallons of water. (See References 1, page 10).The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that at least 36 states are anticipating water shortages by 2013; by utilizing rain barrels for non-potable water needs like landscaping you can help reduce the strain on municipal water supplies while lowering your water bill. (See References 2) Keep in mind that local regulations may prohibit using rain barrels or catchers (see References 6).
Lower Your Water Bill
Water treatment facilities use a considerable amount of energy delivering clean water to your tap and treating your waste water, and they pass on the costs to you. Every year the average household spends up to $500 on water and sewer bills, according to the EPA (see References 3). Using rainwater rather than city water for plant irrigation can save you money. Watering plants during the peak months of summer with collected rainwater will allow most homeowners to conserve about 1,300 gallons of water (see References 4).
Help Your Garden Thrive
Most of the water we use to irrigate our plants is drinking water. In fact, the EPA estimates that 40 percent of a household's total water use is dedicated to watering plants and lawns. Rainwater is nature's free source of the high-quality water that contains no chlorine, calcium or lime. In this way, rainwater is actually better for most plants than chemically-treated water --- it's softer and lower in acidity. (See References 4) It can also be used to top off the swimming pool or wash the car. Note, however, that roofing materials may contain hazardous chemicals; therefore, the National Resources Defense Council recommends you avoid using rain barrel water on edible plants (see References 5).
Reduce Stress on the Water Supply
Meeting the demand for water involves dams, reservoirs, surface-water withdrawals from natural water bodies and wastewater treatment facilities. Irrigating with collected rainwater reduces the stress on these facilities, as well as the need for new construction. Take a look at the city of Bellingham, Washington: If each of the roughly 35,000 occupied households used rain barrels for watering its lawns and gardens during peak summer months, the EPA estimates that the city would save more than 45 million gallons of water per year (see References 4 and 5).
Preserve Water Quality
Urban runoff is a major cause of water and beach pollution. In urban areas, much of the rainfall hits roads, sidewalks and rooftops, where it picks up contaminants like oil, animal feces and trash and carries it into storm sewers. Rain barrels can help preserve water quality by catching some of the runoff from rooftops before it runs into the storm sewers, and storing it for later usage to water lawns, trees and shrubs.
- Texas Water Development Board: Rainwater Harvesting; Dr. Hari J. Krishna; 2002
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Water Efficiency
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Benefits of Water Efficiency
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; What is a Rain Barrel?; August 2009
- Natural Resources Defense Council; Garden Better With Less Water; Solvie Karlstrom; August 2010
- New York Times; It's Now Legal to Catch a Raindrop in Colorado; Kirk Johnson; June 28, 2009
Suzanna Didier's work appears in online publications including the National Geographic website, SFGate and Local.com. She is an avid cook who lives on a hobby farm, direct-markets organic produce to local restaurants and has taught at the preschool, elementary and college levels. Didier holds a Master of Arts in education from the University of Oregon.