By Ken Prescott, member of Bedford Arbor Resource Committee (BARC)
Anyone who gardens should consider using rain barrels. Rain barrels are cost-effective, preserve a valuable resource and often produce healthier plants. For centuries and across many cultures, people collected rainwater for agriculture. Bedford homeowners continue this tradition when they collect and use this natural resource for our gardens.
Many find the expense of municipal water for gardening is becoming prohibitive. Fortunately, In Bedford, homeowners can ask the town to install a separate (second) water meter for outdoor water use, which avoids the sewer charge levied on the indoor meter. The rate for water from this second meter (R3/irrigation) is $8.00 for every hundred cubic feet. Although that is nominally higher than the rate for water gauged by the meter inside the house, household water is also subject to the additional sewer fee, with a combined rate (R2) of $15.10. Still, while an outdoor meter can save homeowners money, even water used at the R3 rate can prove costly. Rain barrels, on the other hand, have a one-time cost for the barrel.
Using rainwater for irrigation helps reduce the depletion of underground aquifers, thereby preserving our supply of potable water, with the side benefit of reducing storm runoff. During droughts, when the town imposes a water restriction, rain barrels provide an alternate source of water that can keep your garden flourishing.
Rainwater is naturally soft, devoid of naturally occurring minerals and chemicals, such as chlorine and fluoride. If we use municipal water, the chemicals added to it for our protection can build up in the soil and potentially harm plant root development and microorganisms in the soil. Overall, plants seem to do better with rainwater than with water from municipal sources.
Tips on rain barrel construction and installation:
Rain barrels come in numerous sizes, shapes, and colors and are made of wood or plastic. Recycled food-grade containers, or containers made of recycled plastic, are a good option, as they divert plastic from landfills. You can obtain these barrels, and information for setting up a rain collection system, from numerous online sources. A few sites are Rain Barrel Source, Woodland Direct, and Clean Air Gardening.
Rain barrels are usually connected to downspouts so they can collect roof runoff. Homeowners with no gutters could consider adding a gutter to part of the roof for the express purpose of collecting rainwater. You can link multiple barrels with a hose on the side near the top of the barrel. When the first barrel fills up, the water will be diverted to a second barrel.
The barrel should be elevated and sit on a solid base to enable easy draining into a watering can or a hose connection. The flow of water is governed by gravity feed, although electric pumps can deliver water to a location higher than the rain barrel.
Barrels should come with fittings installed for water intake and overflow and an outlet for a plastic spigot at the bottom. Some barrels are open at the top, with a covering of wire mesh to keep out mosquitoes and debris, while others have a closed top with an inlet fitting. A closed top allows the use of a “downspout redirector,” which diverts water into the downspout if the rain barrel is full. Barrels without such a redirector rely on an overflow outlet, which should redirect overflow through a hose away from the foundation of the house.
If there is no screen on the top of the barrel, mosquito control “dunks” —medallions infused with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis, an environmentally friendly biological pesticide)—are a good way to keep mosquitoes from breeding. This treatment, which lasts about one month, will not harm garden plants.
A rain barrel should be disconnected and drained during the winter, to prevent damage from water that could freeze in the barrel. After removing the rain barrel, don’t forget to reattach the downspout connections for the winter.
Please note: Rainwater is not potable and should only be used for outdoor irrigation. For further discussion about water quality, see, for example, https://www.tylertork.com/diyrainbarrels/safety.html