From the Archives: Water conservation? The sky’s the limit

A rain barrell sits on the side of a home on a block on Elmer Avenue in Sun Valley.

A rain barrell sits on the side of a home on a block on Elmer Avenue in Sun Valley.

(Katie Falkenberg / For the Times)

It isn’t often that it rains in L.A. for six days running, as it did this week. The inches Mother Nature dumped on us may not have cured the drought, but they did more than just wash our cars for free. They offered proof of what many water sustainability experts believe: that much of the water we need at home already falls from the sky and can reduce our dependence on ever-dwindling and expensive-to-import supplies.

If only we could catch it.

I have a variety of rain catchment systems at my house. I’ve written about a type of cistern fencing called a Waterwall that can hold 634 gallons, I’ve modified my parkway with a water-abosrbing mini trench called a bioswale, and I’ve installed a 3,000-gallon infiltration pit in my backyard that takes the rain from my roof and flows it into a drainage pond (not for reuse but to replenish area groundwater). Then there’s my most recent addition: rain barrels.

A few months ago I decided to replicate the pilot rainwater harvesting program that the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation kicked off in Mar Vista last July. The $1-million program outfitted 600 homes with one 55-gallon rain barrel and provided free downspout diversions, plus installation. What the city hoped to get in return was 584,100 gallons of rain stored annually that could be used for outdoor irrigation instead of flowing over paved surfaces, picking up contaminants and flushing out to the ocean untreated. During L.A.'s rainy season, more than 100 million gallons of untreated storm water flow out to the ocean every day.

My plan had only one problem: My house didn’t have gutters. So I hired the same installer the city’s been working with, the Gutter Guy, Jerry DiSimone. And I got the same Chicago Rain Barrel that the city is using -- a re-purposed, 55-gallon pickle barrel made from food-grade plastic. It has been retrofitted with a wire screen on top to filter out debris, a spigot on the bottom, a connector in case homeowners want to string together additional barrels, and an overflow valve in case the barrel fills up.

My barrel was set up on a foot-tall platform of cinder blocks and concrete pavers to aid water pressure when I tapped it. It was under one of six downspouts, where it would catch the rain from a 293-square-foot section of roof. I planned to use the water to feed the raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and kiwis planted nearby.

For the first couple rains of the season, the barrel was sufficient. It filled to capacity, and there was enough time between rains for the soil to dry out for the water to be useful. I just attached my usual garden hose, turned the spigot and went to town. It was quite the cheap thrill not to be using municipal water.

But for this last batch of storms, I realized my barrel was going to need some friends. If we got the 10 inches the weather forecasters predicted, my little pickle barrel would be overwhelmed by the 1,735 gallons headed its way. Doing the math (roof square footage multiplied by rainfall footage multiplied by 7.48 gallons per cubic foot multiplied by the 95% runoff coefficient of an asphalt roof surface, as suggested by rain harvesting guru Brad Lancaster), I figured I needed 30 more rain barrels to hold it all.

That, of course, was ridiculous. I don’t have that kind of room, I didn’t want that eyesore, and buying that many barrels would have set me back about $3,750. I was game to purchase two more.

Rain barrels, as logical as they seem for a drought-impacted area like ours, are surprisingly difficult to find in L.A. The usual suspects -- Home Depot, OSH -- began to carry them in stores only recently, and my local outlets only carry one style apiece. I reached out to a Mar Vista mom-and-pop called Rainbud. Like the L.A. pilot program, Rainbud also uses pickle barrels. Unlike the L.A. pilot, those barrels are locally sourced and hold an additional 5 gallons.

Last weekend, I picked them up from Rainbud, then went to OSH to get the supplies to connect them. The connectors cost about $25 and took about 15 minutes to set up. And just in time. The rains kicked in Sunday, and by Monday they already had filled all the barrels. During that time, my home received 3 1/2 inches of rain, according to my scientific bucket method.

The rains overwhelmed my system long before they were done. I’m now looking into something I’d ruled out long ago because they’re butt-ugly: Agricultural water tanks that I could hide along the side of my house. I’m hoping L.A. officials do likewise before rolling out a rainwater harvesting program citywide this fall. Rainwater presents a huge opportunity. Rain barrels are just too small to hold it.

For Carpenter’s past columns on green home improvement and sustainable living, go to Comments: