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Rhonda J. Ferree

Rhonda J. Ferree
Former Extension Educator, Horticulture

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Rhonda Ferree's ILRiverHort

Rhonda Ferree's Horticulture Blog

Rain barrels reduce tap water use during summer

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, lawn and garden watering makes up nearly 40 percent of total household water use during the summer. Is there a way this season to cut back on using the tap?

"One way to reduce outdoor water usage and conserve water is to collect rainwater," said Jennifer Fishburn, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. "A rain barrel is a system that collects and stores rainwater. A typical one-half-inch rainfall will fill a 55-gallon barrel. It is estimated that a 55-gallon rain barrel can save about 1,300 gallons of water during the summer."

Fishburn added that rain barrel water collection can reduce the use of drinking water for outdoor purposes, reduce the amount of storm water that enters ponds, streams, and sewage systems, and reduce off-site flooding. Some outdoor uses for collected rainwater include washing vehicles or watering flowers and lawns, she said.

"Rainwater is a favorable source of water for plants as it doesn't contain chlorine or salts," Fishburn said. "Water collected in rain barrels should not be used for drinking water for humans or animals though."

Because of the possible risk of contamination, Fishburn said there are conflicting reports on whether or not rainwater collected from roofs is safe for vegetable crops. "The water may have contaminants such as leaves, dust, bird droppings, and other airborne materials."

The roof is the most common area to use for rainwater collection, Fishburn said, and rainwater can still be collected from most roof systems except for those made of old tar and gravel, old asbestos shingles, or treated cedar shakes.

"Place rain barrels at a current downspout. This will require modification of the downspout. If the building doesn't have gutters, place the barrel directly under an area of the roof that sheds a lot of water," she said.

Home gardeners can purchase several styles of ready-made rain barrels. A few key features to look for include a good-quality plastic barrel, tight-fitting parts, screens over any open areas, and an overflow, Fishburn explained.

Metal spigots (sillcocks) will last longer than plastic, she added. Openings larger than one-sixteenth inch can be entry points for mosquitoes. An overflow pipe will carry excess water to another barrel or away from the building structure.

"There are many patterns for do-it-yourself rain barrels," she said. "If you make your own, be sure to use food-grade barrels and avoid containers that were used for harsh chemicals.

"Elevate the rain barrel by placing it on top of concrete cinder blocks or a platform. This will provide clearance for connecting a hose or filling a watering can and provide additional water pressure. To avoid the possibility of the barrel tipping over, make sure the platform or blocks are level. When full, a 50-gallon barrel can weigh more than 400 pounds. Keep children and animals away from rain barrels," she added.

To use the water in the rain barrel, Fishburn recommended attaching a garden hose or soaker hose to the spigot, or drain water into a bucket or watering can.

"Barrels need minimal maintenance–periodically clean screens, make sure all parts are tight fitting, and inspect for cracks. White or light-colored barrels are more prone to cracking and algae growth. In late fall, drain and rinse barrels and store them upside down with the spigot valve open," she said.

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