How To: Water Your Garden For Free

Spring is here! It sure feels nice outside, and I'm pretty sure that was the sun I saw the other day. April showers will surely bring May flowers, but what if those same April showers could stay with you for more of the hot, dry summer? Every year there are more and more areas forcing homeowners to stop watering their lawns due to water shortages. Even with out shortages, you may be reluctant to water your lawn and garden simply due to the cost of city water. A few years ago, we were introduced to the concept of rainwater harvesting. The general concept is to collect rain water, from storms large or small, to be stored and used during periods of drought. "Yeah, that sounds great, but how?"

It's far easier than you think. First, a few basics.

This may sound like just another 'hippie/tree-hugger', 'green living' solution with questionable ability to deliver on investment. Well, consider this: For ever 1000 sq. ft. of catchment surface, you can collect ~600 gallons of water for every inch of rainfall. How many gallons per year of rainwater are you missing out on as they rush through your downspouts and aimlessly back into the ground? How many times have you had 5 days of rain per week for a month straight, just to follow it up with 3 months of drought?

To begin collecting, you first need a catchment surface. Don't worry - you likely already have one. It's usually called your roof. Most roofing materials are acceptable, though if you are planning to drink your rainwater, you may want to do a bit more research as some roofing materials are less than ideal. Enamel coated metal roofing is typically best. Asphalt/composite shingles (what most people have) will work, but you'll have to deal with all of the gravel that washes off of the shingles.

While you may have a roof, you may not have rain gutters. These are also quite important. Without them, you are going to have a very difficult time collecting the water running off of your roof. If your gutters are intact and functioning, then read on.

Now we just need a place to store the water. You don't need gigantic plastic vats or underground cisterns to pull this off, though those can be pretty sweet. The simplest way is to use plastic drums. These are typically between 50 and 60 gallons each, about waist high, and easy for a DIYer to handle (when empty that is). Drums made of food-grade plastic and in great condition are easier to find than you may think. Some places sell them - new or used. Used can run you $30-50. Typically you can find someone who works at a warehouse, bottling plant, or factory where these are used and discarded daily. Put your feelers out, and keep your eyes open. Likely these will just require a couple rinses of warm, soapy water to have them prepped for rainwater. With a few modifications - opening in the top, valve at the bottom, and overflow provision- you'll be ready for rain.

That will give you a very basic system. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Mosquitoes love standing water. No matter how small the opening, they will get in and turn it into a breeding ground. Home improvement stores sell non-toxic tablets to help with this. Even still, fiberglass window screening and silicone caulking are your friends.
  • Water + sun light = algae. This is not a good thing as it will clog up your spigot. With water collection being the whole purpose of the barrels, light is the only other variable to remove. The easy fix is to paint your barrels or just be sure they are opaque to begin with.
  • 1 gallon of water equals 8.33 lbs. So your 50 gallons of cloud juice would tip the scales at 416 and one half pounds. Once it has water in it, you will not be moving it. So choose your location carefully. Also be sure to place it on a solid base - cinder blocks work well. Be sure they are solid and level. The last thing you want is for one of these to fall on someone or something.
  • This is a gravity feed. That is unless you've sprung for a pump, which I doubt. Hooking a hose up to your tank's spigot may not do much good unless the end of the hose is lower than the water level in the tank. Even then, we found a garden hose to be ineffective, other than for draining it without making a mess next to the barrel. Be sure you have enough room to fit a watering can or bucket under the spigot.
Barrels specifically made for rainwater collection can be purchased from various retailers. These will run you anywhere from $80 to $200. For us, this was not only about stewardship of natural resources, but plain ol' frugality as well. No deal on the pre-made barrels. We built our own and it really wasn't that tough. It helps to do several at once as you will quickly get the hang of the process. Though it is probably best to do just one for your first as you will likely learn a lot and may want to do something different going forward. We have a DIY rain barrel design that we will be posting next week - complete with materials list, tools list, design tips, system modifications, and drawings. Be sure to check back for it. At our previous house, we started with 2 barrels, but later added 4 more giving us a storage capacity of 300 gallons. With a catchment surface of ~2000 sq. ft., and 300 gallons of storage, our barrels were filled from just a 1/4" of rain. We were quite successful with our system and learned a lot from the experience.

We have lots more to share on this topic, so be sure to check back next week for our follow up post. This seems to be plenty to digest for now. The barrel building tutorial is live! See it here.

***UPDATE*** Welcome Festival of Frugality readers! Please take a few minutes to check out some of our other frugal living articles. If you are new here, find out more about Not the Jet Set here.


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