Friday, August 28, 2009

Rain Barrel

We had a pretty big rain storm yesterday afternoon, and all I can say is, wow, that barrel fills up fast! I guess 54 gallons isn't that much when you're talking about the amount of rain that lands on your roof - it took about 20 minutes. Everything worked as it should, although the barrel reached its full capacity just as the downpour was at its heaviest, and the overflow hose couldn't handle the deluge. Water poured over the top of the barrel onto the ground, although this wasn't too big of a problem since the concrete below slopes directly to another storm drain 6 feet away. Once the rain leveled off to a moderate level, though, the overflow hose was able to handle the excess water with no difficulty. Here's a quick video of the rain barrel in action during moderate rainfall:

Today we tested out the soaker hose to slowly drain the barrel while watering the garden, which worked like a charm. The weather forecast calls for some more thunderstorms today, followed by a whole week of sunny skies, so it'll be nice to have the rain barrel to carry us through the dry period.

Philadelphia has a big problem with storm-water runoff, particularly in South Philly. There are so few trees, parks, and otherwise permeable surfaces down here that when it rains, just about all of that water goes into the sewer system. Parts of our sewer system are OLD. Like, 100 years old. It cannot handle it. I won't go into all the details of how our sewer system works (check out this link for more information), but let's just say that when we have a big rain, water that should be going to the sewage treatment plant ends up spilling over into the local rivers and/or backing up into our basements - it's a real problem.

The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) is trying to do something about that. Rather than digging up all the small-diameter pipes that carry storm water under our streets and replacing them with large-diameter pipes, they're taking a less invasive, more environmentally friendly approach that includes experimenting with permeable concrete, curb bump-outs that allow long stretches of flowers and trees to be planted, and mass giveaways of rain barrels. Yep, they're giving them away through workshops that they're having all over the city. The rain barrels collect water that's running off your roof and headed toward the sewers. So far, PWD estimates they've given out over 1,500 rain barrels, keeping over 5 million gallons of water out of our sewers during peak storm times. The water collected in the barrel can be used to water your plants or wash off patio furniture. If you don't use the water, you can at least release it gradually after the storm, when the sewer system is not as stressed.

We got our rain barrel last week, and decided the best place for it would be at the back of the little alley that's formed between our house and the patio wall. However, this meant I would need to reroute the downspout from the front of the alley to the back where the barrel is. Easier said than done.

Our downspout was made up of two 10-foot long aluminum tubes that ran straight down from the roof to the storm drain on the ground. My plan was to remove the lower tube, insert an elbow joint angled toward the back of the alley, and then insert the second tube into that. At the end would be a short, flexible piece of plastic downspout that would angle right into the barrel.

After a trip to Home Depot for the supplies, I got to work. It was 7 PM - about an hour of daylight left. I began by trying to separate the lower downspout from the upper downspout. They were connected together really tightly. What they were not connected to tightly was the wall of the house, and the whole thing came crashing down. I spent the remainder of the daylight trying to separate the two downspouts without damaging them (which I eventually did) and then putting it back up temporarily until I had more time to assemble things properly. This involved Betsy standing on a ladder holding the downspout up while I stood on the patio wall and tried to hammer in a temporary holding spike while not hitting Betsy in the head. Success on all counts, just as we lost all daylight.

The next day after work, things went more smoothly. I connected the elbow to the upper piece of the downspout, and mounted it back onto the wall of the house. The lower part of the downspout ended up being to long, so I had to cut it with a hacksaw. Then I mounted one end to the elbow and the other end to the wall. Finally, I added the flexible piece of downspout and angled it toward the barrel.

Two hoses leave the barrel. One connects to a spigot at the bottom of the barrel. It's a soaker hose that gradually releases water through the material of the hose itself (it "sweats"). This runs along the patio wall and into the garden, where it rests on the ground among the plants. Whenever we want to water the garden, we just turn on the barrel spigot and let the hose sweat for a while.

The other hose is connected to an overflow valve at the top of the barrel and is thicker than a typical garden hose. During a heavy storm, when the barrel fills completely the water will leave through this hose and flow into the storm drain where the water used to go before we got the barrel.

While we were putting this all together, I was reminded of my grandpa, who built a huge concrete cistern behind his house to collect rainwater from the roof. Pipes led from the cistern back into the house, where he used the water for showering and washing dishes - he built this back in the late 70's! The rain barrel is small potatoes in comparison, but I could imagine the fun he had figuring out ways to re-route and re-purpose water.

Now all we have to do is wait for a rain storm and hope the whole thing doesn't fall off the side of the house. I'll keep you posted.