Green Water: A Look at Rain Barrels

by Jan 27, 2016Across the Cape Fear, Brunswick County, North Brunswick

As the Southeast’s rain deficit creeps on and on, a lot of people are looking for greener ways to use our precious water resources. Or maybe some just want to save their geraniums.

No matter our motives, rain barrels have been big news lately, declared as one panacea to parchedness. The concept seems simple enough: A large drum collects rainwater runoff from your gutters or straight from your roof, and you can then use that rain to water plants and wash your car, all while feeling better about your household’s impact on the environment. But are rain barrels really worth it? How do they work, and how easy are they to use? And how much of a difference can they really make, anyway?

You’ll find believers in Brunswick and New Hanover counties. Soil and Water Conservation Districts in both places have designed entire programs around educating citizens about rainwater collection and selling rain barrels from one top North Carolina distributor at discounted costs as part of their general conservation efforts in each county.

Mamie Caison, who directs the program based in Brunswick County, says that rain barrel technology has made a sizeable difference to her: “I have one at my home, and I would say probably about 95 percent of the time when I’m watering my plants out on my deck, I’m using water out of my rain barrel.”

Caison’s rain barrel is the model sold by both programs. It’s a 65-gallon container. Picture a black, three-foot tall barrel made of 100 percent recycled plastic that’s manufactured here in North Carolina. The all-plastic construction means that the whole thing expands and contracts at the same rate with the temperatures of the seasons, reinforcing overall durability. At the top of the barrel, there’s a small opening with a screen over it about the size of a compact disc. The mesh screen helps keep mosquitoes and other insects out, and the rain barrel also comes equipped with a child-proof lock.

If bugs do somehow lay eggs in the water anyway, hardware stores sell special nontoxic drops designed to kill the insects but not the plants that are nourished by the water.

To use the barrel, simply adjust your gutter’s downspout so that the water will flow into it. If, like many coastal houses, your home lacks a gutter, you still have options. Some users place rain barrels beneath where water naturally flows from the “V” of their roofs. Others install one gutter, say on their garages, to direct water into the rain barrel.

For situations when it rains and pours, rain barrels also come equipped with an overflow hose, which can be directed into another receptacle. Some really innovative citizens link several rain barrels together via their overflow hoses, ensuring enough spare water to feed plants, wash cars and pressure-wash the driveway.

Is it really so necessary to use precious drinkable water when we hose off our dogs or wash the sides of our houses? Dru Harrison, who directs the Soil and Water Conservation District in New Hanover County, makes the point: “Think about it. Our tap water is treated water, which we use for everything. But you don’t need tap water to wash your car. You don’t need treated water to wash your surfboard. You don’t need treated water to water your hedges.”

Basically, she says, the only truly necessary uses for treated water are drinking and bathing. In fact, it’s actually more beneficial to nourish plants with water straight from the clouds than from the tap. “They prefer that untreated water, water that’s got some of those nutrients that haven’t been taken out.”

Purchasing rain barrels can also be a boon to the wallet, although, Harrison says, to see significant water bill relief, you’ll probably need more than just one 65-gallon barrel.

If you make that decision, it turns out you have a loads of options. An Internet search turns up pages of commercial and Do-It-Yourself sites, and the special discounted rain barrel sales  here in southeastern North Carolina are part of a statewide Community Conservation Program that’s been up and running for several years now.

In Brunswick County, the Soil and Water Conservation Program held its first rain barrel sale last spring. “We took orders for a little over a month over the phone,” says director Mamie Caison, “and then there was a pick-up day at the government center.” Caison’s program gets its barrels from Raleigh based company Rain Water Solutions and sells them at a 25-percent discount.

“This is just a step to reach out to the community,” Caison says, “in order to continue to make a difference to water quality and assist landowners with some of the expense.”

The Brunswick County rain barrel sale is set to take place again in spring 2009. Those wishing to learn more can call (910) 253-2830.

The Soil and Water Conservation District in neighboring New Hanover County has been holding a similar annual sale with a similar discount, also partnering with Rain Water Solutions. But Director Dru Harrison says their program is now on the fast track. “The demand’s been so high that we’re ramping things up,” she says.

In partnership with Wilmington City Stormwater Services, the New Hanover–based Soil and Water Conservation District now holds a rain barrel sale once a month. At press-time, they were still working out specifics in terms of location and day of the month, but Harrison says that interested consumers can find out more information by emailing or calling (910) 798-6032.

There are other options available as well. Those who don’t want to wait for a monthly or yearly sale can head over to Progressive Gardens at 5732 Oleander Drive, which sells the same brand of rain barrels, although without the special discount. And Cape Fear River Watch also sells the rain barrels to its members through its website.

Or, of course, you can make your own. New Hanover County’s Harrison cautions do-it-yourself rain barrel crafters to make sure they have both a tight-fitting lid, to prevent mosquito infestations, and an outlet for overflow, so that the extra water doesn’t seep into the one spot, possibly damaging the house’s foundation.

She also tells the story of one especially intrepid neighbor she knows who made her own rain barrel from a 55-gallon trash can. When it rains especially hard, Harrison says, this woman will stand out in the storm and dump the extra rainwater into another receptacle, by hand. The woman knows her neighbors think she’s crazy. But it’s worth it for that good plant-water. And to know that in terms of environmental impact, she’s making a difference.

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