Rain barrels are a great way to collect fresh, naturally pure water. Rain, if properly filtered, can be a very clean and natural water source. Though it must be checked for portability, in many areas rain water is non-polluted and is safe for drinking. Often the pollution found in rain water comes either from airborne particles that the rain contacts as it nears the ground, or that it picks up on the roof and in the gutter (which consists of airborne type pollutants that have settled). Reverse osmosis or other filtration methods used after the rain is gathered in the rain barrel can be a good solution to this problem. If the rain water is only going to be used for gardening and cleaning purposes, filtering it is, of course, not as critical.
Once the rain barrel has been placed under a down spout it simply begins collecting water. But this is only part of the work involved in having a rain barrel. In order to keep them at optimum levels of function, rain barrels must be maintained. The following are some tips for maintaining your rain barrel:
Drain Rain Barrels in the Winter
It’s important that rain barrels be drained before the first freeze. This is especially true in the case of wooden rain barrels, but it is true in general. As water freezes it expands and can easily crack a wooden or even fiberglass or plastic rain barrel. People use all kinds of things for rain barrels – even garbage cans – and each material will have its varying resistance to cracking, with plastics and metals being the most resistive. But no rain barrel should be left full when the temperature drops below freezing. At the very least, a big and cumbersome block of ice will form that is heavy, can damage the barrel even if it doesn’t break it, and will have to be broken up and disposed of.
Store Wooden Rain Barrels in Cool Environments in Winter
Just as ice can crack a wooden rain barrel, a warm and dry environment can as well. Usually it is the lid that cracks in this type of environment. After months in the warmth, the wood can buckle and crack. Thus, either store a wooden rain barrel in a cool basement or even leave it outside. As long as it is drained thoroughly (as gone over above) and the lid is put on, a wooden rain barrel should be able to withstand a winter environment and this is actually preferable to leaving it, say, in a heated garage. Care should be taken that it has some form or shelter from direct precipitation, even if it is only the eaves of a house.
Control Algae and Mosquito Growth
Algae can grow in rain barrels making the water less potable or even clogging up spigots and hoses running from it. If the water is only going to be used for gardening, some algae can actually be helpful by enriching the water with various nutrients that plants find useful and healthy. However too much of is undesirable.
Bleach can be added to rain barrels when they are almost empty. About two ounces is all that is required. This will control bacteria and algae growth. Another strategy is to paint rain barrels a dark color such as black or dark blue. This will make for less reflected sunlight and a lower water temperature which will discourage algae growth. Finally, keep lids on rain barrels to prevent leaf and other debris from getting into it and encouraging algae growth.
Mosquito dunks can also be placed in rain barrels to prevent mosquitoes from hatching in the standing water. Mosquitoes are pesky pests and having a bunch of them hatching from your rain barrel is unsanitary.
If rain barrel water is going to be used for drinking, some of these methods are not recommended as they will introduce chemicals which will then have to be filtered out later. Chances are if you have a simple downspout barrel, you won’t be using it as drinking water anyway. There are specially constructed rain barrels that have mesh inlets that exclude insects and debris, and certain chemicals that may be used to maintain water purity (stay away from chlorine). Make sure to get thorough instruction on how to install, handle, and maintain rain barrels for potable water before drinking from them.
Check for Leaks
Rain barrels can develop leaks over time. In many cases these leaks can be fixed with caulking. They should simply be inspected by observation on a hot day and dry surface such as your driveway. This will reveal generally where leaks, if any, are occurring. A subsequent more detailed inspection should further reveal the leak source. Additionally, If the rain barrel is made from fiberglass, fiberglass repair kits sold at hardware stores can be used to patch them.
Rain barrels are a great way to put the water from precipitation to good use. They should, however, be carefully maintained so that they are safe and reliable, and so the water in them is as fresh as it can be.