rain barrel on patio

During an urban rain event, much of the water is siphoned off and channeled into the stormwater system. Concrete surfaces, roofs, and downspouts help funnel water into the storm sewer, where it is fed into a lake, pond, canal, river, or ocean.

From a gardener’s perspective, many built environments have intricate systems for removing this valuable resource, making storm water scarce, while less desirable tap water is available at our fingertips.

“Tap water may go through a softener, be too basic, or treated with chlorine,” explains Matt Vance, a conservation biologist. “I’ve used collection system water, pond water, or even lake and stream water – and it saved more energy over treated water. A lot of energy goes into treating water, and getting it from there to here.”

Tap water in most areas is treated with chlorine and sometimes fluoride if it doesn’t come from a well. This entails pumping water from its source to a treatment facility, where it is typically chlorinated. Although chlorine is an effective disinfectant, it does have negative human and plant health impacts.

Rain barrel with a rain chain
Rain barrel with a rain chain. Image courtesy of Ken Mayer.

Rain barrels can be used to capture water from the downspouts, reducing storm-water runoff and saving it for future use. If possible, locate barrels as close to garden beds as possible on a platform or elevated surface, because rain barrel hose pressure will not be as strong as your garden hose. Dispersion options are more limited, as sprinklers and long hose runs typically don’t work well with rain barrels.

Because the water is untested, do not drink water from the rain barrels. Some experts also warn about watering edible plants with rain barrel water, as it may be contaminated. For example, animal droppings on the roof could elevate bacteria counts in the rain barrels.

One downside to using water from a collection system is that gardens typically need to be irrigated when there is a lack of rainfall, but this may be when the rain barrels are empty. Storing rainwater for long periods of time can increase contamination concerns, so in such cases, it is preferable to irrigate ornamental plants with the water.

With the rising cost of municipal water and the increasing lack of water resources in some areas, rain barrels are an appealing option to bypass both the water treatment and stormwater systems. Handy people can often make such systems for their properties for around $100.

Feature image courtesy of barb howe

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.