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Rain barrels support the environment

Clean, fresh water is a limited, precious resource. On average, nearly 30% of our daily water use is attributed to lawn and garden care.

Tap water, which is water sourced from the main supply of the local water treatment plant or a private well, often contains chlorine and other chemicals. While tap water is safe for consumption, it may not be the best option for our garden plants.

Rainwater is the best source of water for plants, and collecting water in rain barrels benefits people, plants, and the environment.

Collecting water from rain decreases the amount of treated water you need to water your lawn or landscape, reducing the amount of water purchased from municipal sources or used from your well supply. People also benefit from using rainwater when cleaning garden tools, filling fountains, extinguishing campfires, and washing cars.

Holding rainwater in barrels offers access to water during times of low water supply. Plants benefit from rainwater because the rain is free from added chemicals. However, the environment derives the most significant benefit from capturing and applying rainwater. Installing rain barrels under downspouts is a low-cost practice that can help reduce the amount of rainwater, or stormwater, that could become runoff and carry pollutants from your property into streams, lakes, and rivers.

Installing barrels to collect rainwater requires planning and supplies. To begin, identify a location where excess water falls from your home's roof. Two possible locations include an existing gutter downspout or the “V” of a roof where water gathers and pours to the ground. The location you choose should be able to fill the rain barrel rather quickly during a rain event.

Rain barrels can be purchased or built. You can make a rain barrel from a 50- to 80-gallon plastic barrel. Other materials needed for your rain barrel include: a sealed lid; a screen to prevent mosquitos, bugs and debris from entering the barrel; a hole at the top for water to flow into the barrel from a downspout; an overflow outlet; a faucet near the bottom of the barrel; and a garden hose connecting to the faucet.

Once the location is secured and supplies are purchased, create a solid foundation for the rain barrel by placing gravel, stone, or rock under your barrel. Adding pavers on top of the gravel base can create a level surface.

To ensure the best water flow, increase the gravity water pressure by raising the height of your rain barrel above ground level. Stacking several concrete blocks to raise the barrel above ground level will help provide support and height, allowing you to place a bucket under the faucet at the bottom. Place a wire mesh cover over the rain barrel to help prevent debris and mosquitoes from entering the barrel.

If you think mosquitoes are breeding in the barrel, you may put in mosquito deterrents with Bt (Bacilius thuringiensis), a natural mosquito pesticide. Bt kills mosquito larvae but is harmless to birds, fish, wildlife, and pets.

Attach a hose to your overflow outlet on the side of your barrel to manage overflow and ensure you are putting that rainwater to good use. You can run the hose to landscaping, an existing flowerbed, a lawn area, a pond, or a fountain. Most rain barrels can be easily modified for overflow water to be directed back into their gutter system, or larger overflow pipes can be connected to move a more significant water flow to other parts of the landscape. Other creative solutions for managing overflow are to install bioswales designed to slow the rain runoff and rain gardens that capture and store excess rainwater.

Rain barrel maintenance involves cleaning the tank and screens periodically to remove debris. Dirt will collect inside the barrel over time, leading to a bitter smell. Drain the barrel and rinse the inside with a vinegar-water mixture to eliminate the odor. Afterward, allow the barrel to sit overnight before filling it with rainwater.

Roof-collected water can contain leaf litter, bird droppings and chemicals from roofing material. Use rainwater collected on inedible plants such as lawns, flowers, shrubs or trees. At the end of the fall season, drain and disconnect the barrel, as freezing and thawing can cause cracks in the barrel.

With time and attention, you can collect rainwater to use through the summer and into the fall gardening season. Penn State Extension You can learn more about rain barrels at extension.psu.edu/rain-barrels-information-and-guide. Periodically, Penn State offers workshops on making and using rain barrels extension.psu.edu/rain-barrel-workshop. Check the link to learn when upcoming workshops will be held.

If you have questions about rain barrels, call the Penn State Extension Master Gardeners of Butler County at the Garden Hotline at 724-287-4761, ext. 7, or email the Master Gardeners at butlermg@psu.edu.

Julie LePere is a Penn State Extension Master Gardener of Butler County.

Julie LePere

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