Brown-eyed Susan - beauty in great numbers

Wildflowers in 2010

Wildflowers in 2010

Butterfly crysalis in weed area

Jewel Weed (before climax of blossom development)

Tiger Swallow Tail on fragrant Butterfly Weed

Red Daddy Long Legs on common thistle

Buckwheat in bloom field attracts bees, wasps, butterflies, mammals

Cadidid in vegetable garden

Praying Mantis (Look carefully in center of photo.)
This one was particularly large.

Inexpensive Rainwater Collection Systems

So, you spent many hours to prepare the soil and many more hours to plant seeds and seedlings and now that you are finally ready to enjoy your garden there isn't a rain cloud within hundreds of miles that might unload its naturally clean cargo over your plants and allow them to grow. If you have a water pipe and a spigot in your garden, you are in luck as long as there is water in the pipe. Attach a hose and sprinkle municipal water where rain hasn't fallen in weeks, or use a soaker hose to keep the ground moist - but not every gardener has such luxury in his little corner of heaven on earth, and there is no guarantee the municipal water supply system is not and will never be shut down because of damages, needed repairs, or because of supplies are restricted due to an extended drought. In an extreme situation, there simply is no water availble. If you have a rainwater collection system, you can help your plants, avoid paying for municipal water usage, and possibly even water your garden and/or feed your animals with water that contains fewer chemicals.

This article focuses on gardeners. However, animal tenders and their charges can also benefit from some of the idea discussed in this article. Your chicken, pigs, cows and horses could just as easily be serviced from a rainwater collection system as from a municipal water line.

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Catching rainwater does not add to the problems we face related to water run-off, particularly during and after heavy rainfalls.
  • Rainwater collection can support your fight against natural soil erosion.
  • Water is available even when your public water system is out of order, or when your private well water pump does not work, or is unavailable due to contamination, or for any other reason.
  • Natural rainwater does not include any of the additives typically found in "municipal water".
  • Water collection systems offer the opportunity to mix large quantities of natural water with additives you frequently use to feed your plants, i.e. liquid fertilizers.
  • Rainwater can be used to feed your plants and your lifestock (with exceptions).
  • In an extreme drought emergency, collected rainwater may even help your family survive (properly filtered and boiled, of course).
  • Elaborate systems are used to add special features to gardens such as fountains and running water displays.
  • Rainwater is delivered free of charge. Delivery is included.
  • A well-designed and properly maintained rainwater collection system may increase your property value.
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The Simplest Method for Small Users

The simplest rainwater collection method uses one, or more open containers to catch and store rainwater. A trashcan may work for you, a barrel, a large plastic, or steel drum, or the old bathtub you just couldn't throw away even though it has long been replaced in your house. I use 55 gallon steel drums in my garden but any of the other alternatives work just as well.

Advantages Disadvantages

The open container will catch falling rain, let it accumulate without loss due to percolation into the ground but with loss due to evaporation. The rate of loss depends on weather conditions, humidity and temperature. Most gardeners consider evaporative losses acceptable. Losses can be reduced by covering the containers when it is not raining.

If one container is not sufficient for your needs, put up several, preferably in different corners of your garden so that reservoirs are available where your plants grow.

A drawback to every method using open containers is that they attract mosquitoes. Those little pests lay their eggs in standing water where they develop into larvae that eventually evolve into flying mosquitoes who quickly mature and lay more eggs to repeat the circle. To prevent that, add bacillus thuringiensis to your collection containers in sufficient quantity and appropriate time intervals. This natural product can be purchased in tablet form for little money from garden supply stores. The tablets can be touched with bare skin, dissolve quickly and remain active when more water is added.


Systems for Gardeners in Need of Greater Storage Capacity

Rain water collection systems are a bit more complicated and sophisticated than an open container standing open side up in your garden and involve several parts which, together, form the system. Most people collect water that runs off rooves into gutters and through downspouts into storage containers. Such a system collects much more water than a stand-alone container because the collection area has increased from the open area of the simple container to the area the roof covers, respectively the side of the roof to which the gutter is attached. The difference is dramatic. As of this writing, my collection system has a capacity of just over 110 gallons of rainwater, and I harvest that much from just one good rainfall. I intend to double the capacity this summer and retain up to 220 gallons because I want to have water available in other areas of my property.

To put the difference into perspective, think of a cylindrical container with a 3 foot wide opening at the top. The area available for the collection of rainwater with that container equals roughly 7 sq.ft. (radius2 x pi). The collection area of a small garden shed with a footprint of 5 feet x 8 feet and a flat roof equals 40 sq.ft (5 x 8 ft.), or roughly 5.7 times as much area. A 20 ft x 20 ft garage offers 400 sq.ft. of collection area, or roughly 57 times as much as the single container mentioned first.

A light rain may bring a quarter of an inch of water. Using the open container method, you collect 252 of water which is just a little over 1.1 gallons. We collect more than 6 gallons from the small garden shed and more than 62 gallons from the garage. In other words, the light rain used in this example would already fill one 55 gallon drum that is connected to the roof of the garage.
(7 sq.ft. = 7 x 144 = 1,008; 1,008 x 0.25 in. high = 252; 1 gallon = 231
(40 sq.ft. = 5,760; 1,440 = 6.23 gallons)
(400 sq.ft. = 57,600; 14,400 = 62.33 gallons)

As you can see, even a light rain can give us a large amount of water.

Advantages Disadvantages

Closed containers do not attract mosquitoes and keep dirt, dust, pollen, falling leaves etc. out of your water supply. They do not attract larger animals such as skunks, groundhogs, raccoons, oppossum, dogs, foxes, coyotes to your water collection system.

Closed systems keep birds and small mammals from falling into your container where they may drown and poison the water.

Closed system are, generally speaking, more child-safe than open systems.

The obvious drawback is the price of materials and the cost of construction. However, once installed, a system of the kind described here will last for many years and requires very little maintenance.

Systems that connect to gutters are not as readily movable as containers without connections of any kind.

Unless you integrate your rainwater collection system into your garden design, it may look out of place.

Let's look at the way the system I built is currently set up.

Your local home building material supplier (Home Depot and Lowe's among others) has all the items you need with the possible exception of the kind of container you choose. Home Depot and Lowe's do not sell 55 gallon steel drums which I prefer because of their durability. Drums are actually quite expensive. Most gardeners use used drums which can be acquired for few dollars while new drums are actually quite expensive (from about $100 to $500 depending on size, material used, coatings applied, lid configuration and other variables). Be sure you know what the drum you buy contained before you buy it. Even if you plan to wash it out thoroughly before you use it (which is what I recommend you do), you don't want to spill hazardous and/or potentially harmful chemicals onto the ground during the cleansing process and let them poison your soil and maybe even our aquifer.

The drums must be high enough above ground to allow you to put your watering can, or 5 gallon buckets under the spigot. I accomplished that by resting the drums on building blocks which rest on pieces of concrete I had left over from another project.

Be sure to build your system where it will not sink into the ground over time. The weight of these drums when they are filled with water is so great that you have to expect some sinking. Build a large enough foot that can sustain the weight over many years to come.

Once the system has been installed, it is difficult to raise the drums by any appreciable amount. Do it once, do it right, and never worry about your drums and rainwater collection system again.

Before you cut and glue pieces of the system together, measure carefully, measure again and compare results, and then measure one more time to make sure you considered all pieces and overlaps.

Next, determine how many pieces of the various lengths of pipe you need. Most retailers sell pipe in 10 foot lenghts. To save money, buy as few as possible and cut the pipes to the lengths needed for your project.

PVC pipe is durable, relatively inexpensive and easily cut with a hacksaw. I suggest you cut at your work area in your garden and see how the pieces fit together. Remember that you need a slight overhang where two pieces are fitted together.

  1. I removed the downspout. An elbow was left on the drum on the left for this picture.
  2. A large diameter PVC catcher hangs from the gutter.
  3. Attached to the catcher is a standard size 3" PVC pipe, the "downpipe". Purchase a container of PVC adhesive to be able to permanently bond the two pieces together and be very careful when you apply it. This stuff hardens very quickly and creates a strong bond. You need to be ready to apply the adhesive and immediately put the two pieces you want to connect together without gluing yourself, your clothes, or your tools to the system. I recommend you wear gloves to avoid any contact between the adhesive and your bare skin.
  4. At the lower end of the downpipe is a U-shaped PVC element with a drain plug that screws in/out and can easily be removed and reinstalled. A small rubber gasket on the plug seals the plug against the butt of the "U". It is important to buy a "U" with a drain because you want to leave the drain open during the cold winter months so that water cannot accumulate in your downpipe and the "U" and possibly break the PVC when temperatures drop below freezing. During the warmer months of the year, you want to reinsert and tighten the plug. Use PVC adhesive to attach the "U" to the downpipe.
  5. Attached to the "U" is a short piece of pipe (a "spacer"). Use PVC adhesive to attach those two parts.
  6. Attached to the spacer is a round 90 degree angle (quarter-circle) PVC pipe. Do not apply glue until you have the rest of the system cut and laid out.
  7. Attached to the 90 degree piece is a straight pipe. You can make yours longer, or shorter than the one in the picture.
  8. Attach another 90 degree piece to the straight pipe and adhere the two.
  9. Because I needed to connect two barrels (drums) to my system, I installed a three-way PVC pipe connector (a "splitter") next. Adhere these two pieces.
  10. Cut the short pipe leading off to the left in the picture, attach another 90 degree piece, and another short straight pipe and glue these pieces together.
  11. The last piece on that arm screws right into the bung hole of the 55 gallon drum. Attach that first, then attach the pieces you built in the previous step. Do NOT glue the screw-in end-piece to the other pieces !! You may need to detach the pipe from the drum at some time in the future.
  12. Now that the left arm is complete, let's work on the right arm that leads to the other 55 gallon drum. Again, attach a long straight pipe, a 90 degree piece, a short pipe (spacer) and the screw-in end-piece. Glue the parts together EXCEPT for the screw-in end-piece.
  13. The two arms to the drums are now complete. You can now glue the connection in step 6 above. We waited until now to have flexibility with the installation of the other parts. Once PVC adhesive has taken effect, the parts become inseparable (short of using destructive force).
  14. Now we want to install an overflow. The system would function without the overflow but the added weight of water in the pipes, particularly those hanging from the gutter, is more harmful than potentially beneficial. Besides, you don't want rainwater to splash over the gutter because it cannot escape through the downpipe. Cut a short piece of straight pipe to connect the next 90 degree piece to the 3-way splitter.
  15. Attach the 90 degree piece, another straight piece, another 90 degree piece and a pipe that goes up. Only when all the pieces point into the direction you want should you apply adhesive. Not all of these parts are glued together on my system and they work fine.
  16. As you can see in the picture, I did not want a pipe that leads straight up. Instead, I used two more 90 degree pieces and straight pieces of PVC pipe. I can now change the angle of the pipe pointing upwards, and attach either a flexible hose to the end-piece, or let the water run into a loose gutter that I point to where I want water to run. Alternatively, that end of the overflow pipe could be above an open container. This last step may not be necessary, or desired at your location. Installing a movable arm like I did will give me an advantage if I ever have to make repairs and don't want water in the pipes.

You may wonder what the purpose of the garden hose in the photo is that connects the two drums. Actually, that hose is left over from a previous project and is neither necessary, nor desired for this new application. Rather than have the holes welded over, I decided to just leave the hose and connectors in place.

So, let's quick examine how the system works so far:

  1. Rain water falls into the roof and runs into the gutter.
  2. From the gutter, the water drops into the PVC catcher and runs down the pipe into the "U".
  3. If the opening at the bottom of the "U" is closed , water will rise and eventually flow through the straight pipe into the 3-way splitter.
  4. Due to gravity, the water will run into the pipe in the middle first and fill that pipe up when/if the movable arm at its end is pointing upwards.
  5. Once that arm is filled, water will run into the right and left arm attached to the 3-way splitter and fill the drums.
  6. Once the drums are filled, water will again rise in the middle arm and eventually leave through the end of the overglow arm.

OK, we have a working collection system. The next step, of course, is to harvest water from the drums. You want to install outlets/spigots BEFORE you collect rain in the drums.

I asked the handyman at the Home Depot where I purchased all of the parts for my system how he would attach a spigot to a 55 gallon drum and he led me to threaded metal pipes, about 1 inch long and slightly conical at both ends.

  1. I drilled holes into the drum and installed these metal pipes. This job takes some strength. You don't want to make the holes so large that the pipes are loose. After all, they will have to withstand the water pressure of 50-some gallons of water. Do not drill at the very bottom. Make the holes about 1" (one inch) above the bottom of the drum. Any grid from the roof will collect at the bottom of the drum and won't demage the valve in your spigot.
  2. Screw the spigot onto the threaded metal pipe.
  3. You can apply a layer of silicone as an additional protective measure against leakage but this step should not be necessary if you worked carefully up to this point.

Make sure your spigots are closed and your "U" is closed and your overflow arm is in the "up" position if there is no chance of frost. Your rainwater collection system is now ready for use.

To put the quantity of water into perspective, think of containers which are typically used in gardens. 110 gallons of water from my two 55 gallon drums will fill ...

If you know from past experience how many cans you need to water your plants, you can quickly calculate how much storage capacity you should create.

While my drums stand upright, a neighbor has a similar setup with drums that rest on their sides on wooden frames he built for that purpose. Arguably, that system has an advantage in that the PVC pipes connect to the large bung hole and the spigot connects to the small bung hole already in the drum. This setup saves you from drilling a hole and risking a leak where you attach a spigot. The disadvantages are that his setup requires more space in the garden and the construction of the supporting frame that keep the drums at the desired height above ground, and from rolling away.

If you need a system that allows you to frequently remove the drums, e.g. to take them to another part of your property where water is needed, my neighbor's system arguably has an edge of my upright standing drums. It is much easier to disconnect and reconnect his drums from the pipes than it is with my system. However, if I want to fill another drum to take away to some other place, I simply move the third arm of my system over the bunghole of the third drum to fill it up. Available space and your particular application and needs dictate which of the two alternatives works better for you.

I recommend the installation of a simple wire filter in the gutter to keep leaves and other debris from entering the drums. Leaves will eventually decay in the water over time but pieces may obstruct your spigot.


A Word or Two About 55 Gallon Drums

There are only three decisions you have to make when it comes to 55 gallon drums. Do you prefer plastic over metal, and do you want a lid that can be taken off, or a lid that is part of the drum, and, lastly, do you need food-grade drums for your particular application.

  Plastic Drum Steel Drum Removable Lid Permanent Lid Colors
55 gallon capacity yes yes yes yes many
weight lighter than steel heavier than streel      
screw-on caps made of plastic made of metal      
risk of corrosion no regular steel rusts, stainless steel does not regular steel rusts, stainless steel does not    
freeze breaks drum may break when small amount of liquid freezes inside not likely to break when a small amount of liquid freezes inside      
rodent proof no yes only when lid is on and secured yes  
usable for storage of hard goods wider than bung holes     yes no  


The Next Step Up: Electric Pumping Systems

Any sump pump does a fine job at pumping water out of one container into a hose that you can point in any direction. While the systems described heretofore work on gravity, an electric pump enables you to build a system that pumps water from underground storage tanks.

Advantages Disadvantages

Underground systems have the several advantages:

  • They do not attract mosquitoes and other flying insects.
  • The underground water tank is invisible to the gardener.
  • The underground water tank can be huge and not take up any garden space.

The disadvantages are just as obvious:

  • You need electrical power to run the pump, and therefore either need to connect to the grid, or have a series of batteries, possibly an inverter and an engery collector such one, or more solar panels.
  • Systems like that require more maintenance and a higher investment.

There are so many different systems of this kind out there that we only look at some basic features here. Installing an underground tank can be costly and labor intensive but these systems can be the heart of a water garden project you and your family may enjoy for years.

Rainwater pervolates through the ground into one, or more tanks, and/or is harvested from rooftops. Underground pipes connect the tank to areas of your garden in need to water, to a fountain, a running articificial creek, or some other outlet. Fully automatic systems turn themselves on and off. Other systems are activated with the flip of a switch. Either add an attraction to your garden that can be both visual and audible. Many songbirds are attracted to running water and may become frequent visitors to your property.


The Next Step: More Gadgets

With a few electronic gadgets, you can have some more fun with your water system but you may leave envornmentally friendly territory as you venture in the world of gadgetry.

For instance, install an automatic timer switch to turn your pump on in the morning to attract birds to your fountain so you can watch them while you enjoy your breakfast on the patio, and have that same timer turn the pump off in the late afternoon to conserve energy over night.

Another neat trick requires a motion detector that turns your fountain on as soon as you, or another person, or maybe your large dog, or a thirsty doe, approach the fountain.

Timers, motion detectors and other gadgets require very little power compared to the pump. A small solar power collector with the appropriate storage battery is all you need to run your gadget off the grid. However, the environmental footprint of those gadgets from the collection of raw materials needed for their production, the production process itself, packaging, shipping, displaying at the retail level and transportation to your door step may be disproportionately large compared to the benefit these gadgets provide.

Enjoy your rainwater collection system !


Copyright 2012