For the last couple of weeks I’ve been searching for rain barrels that are both functional and economical. Unfortunately, function is very hard to find and nothing worth having is cheap.
Our reason for wanting rain barrels is the quality of the water. We’re on city water here, which we’ve stopped drinking because it’s full of bad things, in addition to poisons like chlorine and fluoride.*
We’re trying to be good stewards of our bodies and of the land. We have two large compost piles. We mulch with fragments of our own shredded trees, and we use no pesticides or chemical fertilizers of any kind. Given all of that, it makes no sense to pour city water onto the soil and kill the very microbes we’re trying to encourage.
We know our city water is bad news from a long period of research which produced very gloomy results. Our water comes from a local river, which is disturbing enough in itself (Where do fish poop? For that matter, where do fishermen poop?). The point where our water company takes water from the river is a few miles downstream of a Federal Superfund Cleanup site. That means the site (the old city dump for industrial and commercial waste, closed in the 1960s) has been designated as hugely toxic. It is also located right next to the river, smack dab on its shores, and the underlying geology is free-draining shale, as in drains right into the river, as studies have shown. So, although it is a massively poisonous site, the feds have designated it as “no action,” because in fact there isn’t anything they can do that won’t make the problem worse. So much for the “cleanup” part of the site’s designation. Disturbing it, even to clean it up, would no doubt be disastrous. I sure can’t think of a safe or effective way to do it.
At the very least, though, the local authority could stop taking our drinking water from this river just a few miles south of the site. Appallingly, when I talked to the head of the water company, he said he had no knowledge of the superfund site. It’s in the incorporated town, whereas the water facility is located in the county. As Water Boy reminded me, (making it sound like he was referring to a remote and foreign land where natives dressed in coconut hulls and ate raw lizards) “I have no jurisdiction there.” He made it clear that he had no interest in the issue, either. He’s following all federal and state laws, and that’s good enough for him. I’m pretty sure he drinks bottled water, too.
After we moved here to this bucolic five acres, we both started experiencing joint pains, tiredness, soreness in our muscles. Some of this is due to the natural aging process, but the timing of our symptoms was an obvious red flag. Nevertheless, it took me several years to wonder if the water was playing a part in our conditions. So a few months ago we started drinking spring water from a named, certified source. It’s a pain in the butt, not to mention the wallet, but I’m not going to drink poison. How much arsenic and xylene do you want to ingest? I’m guessing none. And of course in any chemical test you only find the things you are testing for. Who knows what these chemicals brew into when they mingle for decades, lying under a layer of styrofoam and on top of asbestos covered by old refrigerators? Nothing good, I’m sure.
It’s true that city water is cheap, and that’s certainly a consideration. But how can cost matter when it’s full of things I can’t drink? And if I can’t drink it, how can I feed it to my plants and saturate my property with it?
What I Need in a Rain Barrel
Rain barrel construction might seem like a no-brainer, and in some ways it is. You can certainly set a big old wooden barrel in the middle of the garden and fill it from a well, as people have done for centuries. When you need water, dip a bucket in. I guess you could do the same with any large container. But, for me, there are so many other considerations, all to do with functionality.
Many rain barrels on the market today are attractive, but appearance is the least of my concerns, as anyone who knows me personally will be happy to tell you. A well-functioning rain barrel is going to be a workhorse. It has to handle hundreds of gallons of water in a way that is sensible and effective. Criteria:
- Of sufficient size to be useful.
- Located close to point of use.
- Durable, UV resistant.
- All spigots and drains in sensible places. Enough room to get a watering can under a spigot.
- Effective and sufficient filters.
- A sensible overflow system.
- A good winterizing system.
- Secondary spigot for attaching a soaker hose, if needed.
What’s Out There
The market is overflowing (sorry) with rain barrels. I’ve seen them at Whole Foods, standing out front looking green and ecological. Predictably, they are very expensive and they apparently come with none of the downspout diverters, filters, and attachments I need.
Amazon.com is full of rain barrels as well. We recently became Amazon Choice members, which enables us to order merchandize at inflated prices (yes, even higher than many other current selections!) and pay no shipping costs, thereby fooling ourselves into thinking we’re getting a great deal. This does pay off on heavy or bulky items, so ordering a rain barrel from them might be feasible. But the selections! And the reviews! Here’s a doozy:
The Lump O’ Plastic, which is described as having a “realistic rock shape.” As you can see it’s just about a realistic as all those other pseudo-rock shapes on the market, the ones that are designed to hide “unsightly” things like water meters in your yard by covering them over with absurd plastic globs. Even if it did look realistic, it would only make your friends and neighbors wonder why you had a giant rock leaning against your house and why your downspout drained into it. Note the spigot, which is about high enough to fill a teacup from. See the tiny hole (design afterthought) in the top front, presumably to prevent suction problems. Mosquitos actually are clever enough to enter that hole. Where’s the filter? The user obviously has to cut her drainpipe to go in the top – so what happens in the winter? Here’s what one purchaser had to say about it:
“The rock shape looks fine, but the spout for the spigot was plastic, they used so much glue it looked really terrible. The box was all torn, came in one piece and do understand it may be hard to use.
Also the spout thread was partially damaged so not sure if it was a returned item sent to me. so it didn't help that the rock was a little flimsy so it was hard to turn the spigot in there. I wished they had done it for me. As much as I said that, there was so much shaving it filled the spigot and couldn't figure out why I was only getting drips.
Ignoring all the errors in punctuation and syntax (one must or one will go blind with apoplexy), I wonder why the reviewer concluded that “it’s okay.” Does he or she expect to receive faulty merchandise? And even with these issues, the product was given a three out of five stars by this reviewer. Still, he or she is calling the product “the rock,” so I guess it must look a lot more realistic than it does online.
Here’s another totally silly rain barrel, along with the official product description:
“The top is the only of its kind that acts as a planter space and also self-drains when excess water is present. There is also a channel built into the rim, which diverts overflowing water to the front and away from the barrel and home foundation. You can have peace of mind that you're helping the environment by conserving water and giving your garden the best water it can get, devoid of harsh chemicals and rich in nutrients.”
In the first place, no one needs a planter on top of their rain barrel. In the second, what about all that dirty water that drains from the planter into the barrel? Also, how will I water those plants? I sure can’t get a watering can under that nozzle. And where is the filter?
The “overflow” (see that lip at the top front?) is pathetic. Judging from the description, the water in the barrel rises to the top, soaks the heck out of that poor sad plant, and then gushes out of the lip onto the soil in front of the barrel, about a foot and a half away from the foundation. Wouldn’t take much time for the overflow to gouge a canyon in front of the water barrel, and the entire front of it would be covered in splashed mud from day one. Also, the same problem with winterizing – I’d be left with a dangling, sawed-off downspout. Lovely. At least it’s only around $100. What a deal.
The worst part for me, in many ways, was that the manufacturers claim rainwater is “rich in nutrients.” Rainwater contains no nutrients at all, and if they don’t know that they are incredibly ignorant about their own product.
What’s Wrong Here?
All of the products offered on Amazon – as well as the ones I’ve seen in stores – have at least some of the flaws I’ve noted above: they don’t provide adequately for filtration, overflow, or winterization, and in most cases you can’t fill a watering can from them if installed at ground level, which is the height at which all these rain barrels are displayed.
Rain barrels look pretty at ground level. However, a decent-sized rain barrel can weigh over 500 pounds when it’s full, so it needs a very stable foundation. It also needs elevation – not only so a watering can is able to fit beneath the spigot, but in case a person wants to attach a soaker hose. The higher the elevation, the greater the water pressure at the spigot.
All of these commercial barrels are designed for one purpose - to get people to buy them. Whether the consumer is happy afterward, whether they work properly, whether they do the job in the most efficient way, is obviously not something these manufacturers are concerned with. Their designs (and descriptions) make it clear that, although they do understand profit, they don’t understand rain barrels. Or drainage. Or rain. Or winter freezing. And so on.
So Here We Go
A couple of years ago I was noodling around online and I found a small local company that installs rain barrels, cisterns, etc. It seemed like a very good idea to me and I called them and had a chat. I then filed them away in my memory banks (unreliable at my age). Recently, when we stopped drinking city water, I thought of this company again. I asked them to come out for a consult, and I was pleased with the professionalism of the owner.
All of the items on my list were answered well and fully. I was impressed with everything I was told.
The estimate was higher than I thought it would be, but estimates always are. The total, as it turned out, was exactly what it should have been if I’d bothered to sit down and add up the costs of the individual items, as detailed on the company’s website.
So now we’re in a holding pattern. I have some secondary questions and I’m waiting for answers in e-mail. When I get them, assuming they’re satisfactory (I’m pretty sure they will be) I’ll schedule the installation of three large rain barrels, two with soaker hoses. There are also separate downspout filters that trap debris before it enters the barrel, as well as various screens inside the barrel and at the point where the soaker hoses leave. These are much more permeable than regular soaker hoses, to accommodate the barrel’s lower water pressure, and their lengths have been calculated scientifically. The barrels will be on two-foot platforms of concrete blocks, and a watering can will easily fit under the spigot. Winterizing will be a breeze.
Very excited here, feeling greener. Updates to follow.
|*When we found our current dentist, I told him that I would allow no fluoride in my mouth. He needed to know this in regard to cleanings and other proposed treatments. He reacted with astonishment and ridicule. “Don’t you know it’s good for you?” he asked. No sir, I don’t. What I do know (and so should you, Mr. Tooth Man, because it’s well within your field of supposed expertise) is most other developed nations, including all of the EU, have banned fluoride in their water because it is a poison. In addition, no study has ever shown fluoride to be of the least use in preventing cavities. In air and in the soil, fluoride is identified as a toxic substance. Anyone who wants more information can find it quite easily online. Anyone but my dentist, that is.|