Opinion: All I want for Christmas is a rain barrel system that works

The college kids wanted us to rip out the frontyard. I wanted to save my succulents, wildflowers and towering trees. My husband didn’t want any more weekend work.

We all want to do our part to help fight the drought in California (Well, most of us, anyway). But figuring out how to make a difference can be daunting—especially when everyone in the family has a different idea of what needs to be done.

I came of age at the time of the original Earth Day (remember the 1970s?) and the rare political alignment of millions of Americans working together toward a healthy, sustainable environment. We’d never heard of water sold by the case in plastic bottles. We shopped at the neighborhood farm-fresh co-op. We had no plastic shopping bags. We put bricks in the toilet tank to save water. We joined “Clean up your neighborhood” days. Bikes were de rigueur because of the oil crises.

Most of us still continue to do what we can — recycle, reuse, repurpose, clean up — and we want to participate in helping our planet where practicable. But — life happens, and sometimes it gets in the way of causes.

Basically, my family got lazy. And I suspect mine isn’t the only one.


After the drought came to stay, however, my teens — now listening to the environmental messages all around — preached the righteousness of reusable water bottles and adapted to the multiple-use fabric shopping bags. And they lectured me on the need to “go green!”

“Tear out the front lawn.” “The backyard too!” “Just do it!” “Save, Save, Save,” they chorused after taking another too-long shower. “After we go back to college” -- of course.

Tearing out the yard entirely wasn’t going to happen under my watch.

My solution? I ordered a big new rain barrel.

The idea makes sense: Why not collect some of our occasional SoCal “sky water” and put it to later use in those brick planters someone (OK, maybe me) located so inconveniently under the eaves?

In a fortuitous bit of kismet, Descanso Gardens in La Canada was offering a free installation tutorial for anyone who pre-ordered from Rainbarrels International of North Carolina. Done.

Hundreds of us packed the hall to hear how to put these repurposed olive storage containers to use—capturing as much water as possible, without losing it all to evaporation or creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Accomplishing these goals sounded pretty straightforward:

--Place your barrel on level ground, and set it on two concrete blocks (high enough to allow access to the faucet so you can actually use your water, but not so tall as to require earthquake braces here in California).

--If your house (or garage or shed) has rain gutters, take off the curved downspout. Cut the roof-to-ground spout about a forearm’s length above the top of the barrel. Reattach the down spout aiming in the center of the barrel lid at the screen-covered opening.

--If your house does not have gutters, use a commercial rain chain or a less expensive length of rust-resistant chain from the hardware store. Install a short length of horizontal gutter above the rain barrel, cut a hole in the middle of that partial gutter and hang the chain from it. The rain chain will “guide” a stream of water into your new barrel.

Simple, eh? Not exactly.

Turns out there are a host of complications – especially if your installation site lacks gutters. (And if your spouse will only study the problem during the commercial breaks of televised sporting events.)

For example: for that new partial section -- plastic or metal? (Local hardware stores offer them in either variety in 10-foot lengths, but won’t do a cut. So back to the store for a new saw.)

How do you then attach those partial sections? Should they be capped at the ends? How long should the length of chain be? What’s the best way to level the ground for the barrels? Oh, and not just any hose will do for the attachment to the faucet, if you actually plan to make use of your collected rain.

Too many decisions. Not enough time.

Darn. The first rains arrived.

Our not-yet-installed pioneer rain barrel, marooned at the edge of the garage, collected a few measly inches, while the buckets under the gutters spilled over faster than I could empty them with the watering can.

Clearly this rain barrel thing wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Sticking them outside and expecting nature to take its course wasn’t happening. Setup and location clearly mattered.

When the next rain came, we were better prepared.

Drip, drip, drip off the roof into newly installed partial gutters, down redirected downspouts and … into not one but three glistening terra-cotta-colored rain barrels! Finally, the 56-gallon barrels were partly full.

The next sunny, warm day we hooked up the hose to see what happened. A pitiful dribble leaked into those dry beds under the eaves. Shortly thereafter, the dribble stopped.

Not exactly a raging success (or torrent).

As we’ve discovered, collecting rainwater is a process—one we’re still perfecting. Fingers crossed that with a few more serious drenchings, our barrels will be full enough to one day let loose on our thirsty trees. (Rainbarrels International, which really does answer personal phone questions, confirms that a half-full barrel should provide enough pressure for a steadier stream.)

We’re almost on our way to “redirecting” that “lost” rain to our brown yard. Score one for us and our world… Almost, anyway.

And if we never manage to drench those dry beds, well, at least we’ll have a few drums of water waiting around for when the Big One hits.

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