Collecting rainwater

One theme of this blog will be about "green projects" to save money and/or not be a dick. Let's start with an easy one: Get some rain barrels.

Most hardware stores carry them, but don't get them from there - they usually come with a huge markup. Spend some time to look for specialized places in the area. We got ours from some place in Lemon Grove, 30 miles away, but they cost less than half the price at the nearby Home Depot.

Before you even get too excited about this project, keep in mind that if you live in California, having 20 rainy days per year means that you won't get much water. Don't expect wonders here. You'll be lucky if you even get a thousand gallons of gray water in a year.

Putting them up is technically easy: You just put them under the downspout of your rain gutters. Oh wait, you don't have gutters? Get some. It seems to be common in California to save that expense, but you'll be better off in the long run if you get your home retrofitted. Your foundation will thank you.

Since we had our gutters installed at the same time when we got the barrels, we had the option to ask for a rain barrel diverter, as you can see in the image. It doesn't matter though, you can easily adjust existing gutters to work with your barrels.

The cheaper rain barrels inexplicably have a solid lid that doesn't let any water in. For that, just cut a hole through the lid where spout is and glue some mosquito netting on the underside. The picture should make it clear that we're talking gray water here. If you drink this stuff, you're an idiot.

Some barrels have connectors to automatically manage overflow. That doesn't work as well as you'd hope in a confined space - see how the connectors have a tendency to move up, which prevents the water from flowing into the next barrel. Remember that the surface level of the water needs to be at least as high as the highest point in the connector, or else the water won't transfer. When you get your first good and proper rainstorm, be sure to come outside and check up on the barrels to make sure the water fills up all barrels. You may need to space your barrels farther apart to prevent the hoses from moving up and stopping the flow.

The barrels usually come with a faucet at the bottom, but those are typically so low that you can't even comfortably fill up a watering can. it's a lot more fun emptying these guys with a proper sump pump: Put one straight into a barrel (use the one right under the downspout), attach a garden hose, and start watering your plants. Make sure the pump has reasonable oomph - it should be half a HP at the very least.

All in all, this is a pretty straightforward project, but one that most people don't really think of, at least based on the reactions I got. It's not particularly fulfilling in Southern California where an entire summer passes without rain, but every little bit helps.