Rain Barrel Workshop

Terry & Rain Barrel Kit
Terry & Rain Barrel Kit

Last Saturday  I went to a rain barrel workshop at Edge of the Woods Nursery put on by the Saucon Creek Watershed Committee. For $35, they provided the tools, the materials and help to build a 55 gallon rain barrel. Rain barrels help slow down the flow of water off of roofs. Suburban sprawl with its McMansions, additional roads, big box stores, big parking lots and lawns have caused many areas to become flood prone that never had this problem before. Rain showers now cause flooding, erosion and water pollution. 70% of water pollution in our lakes and streams comes from rainwater run-off. 80% of water falling on grass lawns runs off. Anything we can do to slow the flow and allow more of this water to filter through plants and soil will help to prevent flooding and pollution.

The simplest step that we can take to slow down the flow of water is to place rain barrels on our downspouts. This reduces the amount of rain flowing across the ground by catching the first 55 gallons in a rain event, saving it to be used on dry days. This reduces the amount of nonpoint source pollution. Rain barrels provide some additional benefits as well. 30% of our water is used for lawns and gardens, on average. If you use captured rainwater to water your garden and lawn you reduce your water and sewer bills and save drinking water resources. Rainwater is better for your plants than city water that has been chlorinated.

Mosquito screen
Mosquito screen attached to bottom of PVC toilet flange with duct ring

Now you can buy fancy, good-looking rain barrels from various gardening catalogs and some big box stores; or you can make them fairly inexpensively from a salvaged, food additive barrel and a few parts from the hardware store. The thread taps are pretty expensive, so try to borrow these from a plumber or join a gardening club or watershed association that can buy them corporately to sponsor events like the one I attended on Saturday.

Here’s the recipe:

1 food grade plastic 55 gallon drum. (SCWC gets theirs from a local recycling center.)
1 PVC toilet drain flange
2 sel-tapping 3/4″ hex-top, slot screws
1 dryer vent duct ring
about a square foot of nylon window screen
1 brass 1/2″ hose spigot
1 nylon 3/4″ thread, garden hose coupler
epoxy putty

Electric drill
handheld jigsaw
Adjustable wrench
4-5/8″ hole saw
3/4″ garden hose thread tap
13/16″ hole saw
7/16″ drill bit
thread tap for 1/2″ hose spigot
screwdriver or hex driver bit


Top of Rain Barrel Complete

Use 4-5/8″ hole saw to cut a hole in the top of the barrel, leaving enough flat surface around it to place the toilet flange. Attach screen to bottom of flange using the dryer duct ring.  (See photo above.) Trace and cut space on the side of the hole for the tightening screw to fit, so the flange lies flat, screen side down in the barrel.

Drill hole for spigot near the bottom of the side of the barrel using the drill bit. Consider carefully how you want to place this according to how the downspout will enter it, so you will have convenient access to use the water. Tap the threads and screw in spigot. Near the top of the barrel but still on the flat part of the side of the drum, cut the hole with the smaller hole saw for the overflow fitting. Use the larger tap to thread the opening, then screw in the hose coupler. Work the two parts of the epoxy putty together until it is a uniform color. Partially unscrew the spigot and the hose coupler. Work the putty into the threads and retighten, packing it all around to prevent leaks.

Your rain barrel is complete!

Tapping the barrel for the spigot
Threading the the hole for the spigot

Don’t drink the water from your barrel. If you have asbestos shingles (very old roof) or treated wood roof or a copper roof with a zinc anti-moss strip, do not use the water on edible plants. It is fine for flowers and lawns, though. Clean the bug screen periodically. In the winter, either take it in or leave the spigot open with no hose attached to avoid freezing and thawing from splitting your barrel.

Attach a hose to the overflow with the outlet somewhere like a soaker in a flower bed.
Spigot sealed with epoxy putty

Are Lawns Green?

From the time I was six until I was twenty, we lived in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Golden Valley is a suburb of Minneapolis. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was home to General Mills, Honeywell’s MIRV control plant (making it the #16 strategic nuclear target for the Russians), Carl Sandburg Junior High (right across the street), Glenwood Hills Hospital, Theodore Wirth Park and Golden Valley Country Club. We were told that the village took its name from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. This was Steinbeck’s journal of the time he bummed around the country with his standard poodle, Charley. They sat down in a field of amber grain and John said: “Now this truly is a golden valley!” I now know this is not true, but this is the myth of the place that we were taught at Carl Sandburg. Poetry apparently trumped science. Travels With Charley happened in 1960; the village was incorporated in 1886. By the way, Carl Sandburg attended the dedication of the school in 1959 and our family was there and we met him. I don’t remember. I was only four at the time and wasn’t that interested in poet/historians yet.

At any rate, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The point of this whole ramble through Golden Valley is that the valley still had some golden fields when Steinbeck may or may not have travelled through with his poodle in 1960. By the summer of 1961 my dad had built our house in a subdivision of the last one. The fields of wheat were gone. We had a clean, new suburb with lots of green lawns.

But how green are lawns?

Before we get into the whole chemical fertilizer, gas power mower, crabgrass killer end of things; let’s take a look at just the idea and physical presence of lawns and see how things add up.

Why do we have lawns, anyway? Years ago, in a magazine called Country Journal, there was an essay on lawns on the next to the last page. From it I learned that the idea of the individual lawn came from English and northern European aristocracy. It was a sign of great wealth. It indicated that you had so much land that you could afford to mow some of it. You already had more than enough for your crops, more than enough for your livestock, more than enough, even, than for your herbs and flowers. You had so much land, in fact, that you could afford to intentionally waste some of it. It was the epitome of conspicuous consumption. This idea was carried forward to American farmers. It was a sign of prosperity and overabundance to have a small lawn around the farmhouse.

Then came the mechanization of farming with its accompanying great migration into cities. Those who managed to benefit from industrialization and centralization chose the same sign to advertise their prosperity. They had enough wealth to have a piece of ground that they could mow without even having to farm at all. On top of that, came the expanding middle class with the idea of a consumer society. Then came the cold war with its xenophobia which led people to want to have a buffer zone between themselves and their neighbors, as well as enough space to build a bomb shelter in the backyard. Then came the urban race riots of 1965 and 1968 that caused more people to be afraid of cities and flee to the perceived safety of the suburbs. Television evening news with its “If it bleeds it leads” policy combined with the economy of showing all the news that is convenient (i.e., urban) only reinforced these fears. White flight from the cities has caused so much urban sprawl that on a night time flight from Philadelphia to Minneapolis in 2000, I saw only suburbs below.

Just the fact of lawns existing, increase the need for transportation, because they increase the distance between us. Paradoxically, lawns cause more land to be paved as we need more and longer roads to get around them all to get anywhere. The more paved land there is, the higher the incidence of flash floods with its damage to life and property, not to mention the accompanying erosion. Lawns take land out of agricultural production and deplete wildlife habitat.  By the lawns being clipped short, they do not produce as much oxygen and sequester as much carbon as would a farm, pasture, meadow or woods with undergrowth.

By taking land out of possible agricultural production, we have limited our opportunities for energy independence by means of biofuels. Although I have looked into the possibility of replacing my lawn with switchgrass or poplar trees to produce home heating fuel.

The bottom line is: No matter how green they appear to be, lawns are not green.

Next time, I’ll talk about the effects of lawn maintenance and some greener options.