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Harvesting Rainwater with Rain Barrels
by Peggy Deland

inexpensive home made rain barrel According to the University of Rhode Island, using rain barrels can save a single household up to 1,300 gallons of water each summer. While you can't drink the water -- at least without first filtering it -- it can be used for almost anything else. Few measures so simple can make such a dramatic contribution towards a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle.

The most common way to harvest rainwater is to set up a chain of rain barrels to collect runoff from your roof. Rainwater collected by gutters drains directly into the first barrel in the chain, which then travels through short lengths of hose to simultaneously fill several barrels. This method, while efficient, produces water that is usually only suitable for watering grass and ornamental plants.

You can also collect water directly by placing clean barrels outside on a rainy day. Although you won't get a lot of water this way, it's unlikely to be contaminated and can be used to water vegetable gardens, wash clothes, or even bathe. Of course, if you're planning on cleaning anything with the water, you'll need to use it before it stagnates or grows algae.

Making Rain Barrels
Commercially-produced rain barrels are readily available on the Internet; most are made from eco-friendly or recycled materials. Of course, shipping costs for products this large can be prohibitive, and the barrels themselves aren't exactly cheap. Depending on where you live, you may be able to get subsidized ready-made rain barrels at a fraction of their usual cost. But by far the most economical choice is to make your own -- a surprisingly painless task.

Homemade rain barrels consist of a large plastic or wooden drum with a faucet mounted near the bottom of the barrel and a screen tied to the top to prevent debris from getting in the collected water. If you want to set up a chain of barrels, simply add small holes near the bottoms of the barrels to snugly fit a short length of hose. There's no need to link together rain barrels for direct collection, but you'll want to do so if you're collecting runoff from the roof.

Safety of Harvested Rainwater
While it's generally accepted that rainwater collected directly from the sky into clean barrels is safe for use in just about any application, experts are divided on the safety of harvested runoff from roofs. Certainly, you should not drink this water. It can safely be used to water your lawn, hose off your car, and -- if it's clear and free from debris -- to wash clothes. The real question is whether you can use rainwater collected from the roof to water a vegetable garden.

Two main contaminants are frequently present in collected rainwater: heavy metals and animal feces. Asphalt shingles and galvanized or copper flashing (used to prevent moss growth) may cause lead, zinc, and other metals to leach into water at toxic levels. And aside from the "ick" factor, animal feces often contain parasite eggs as well as harmful pathogens. It's uncertain whether these contaminants could create a health hazard in vegetables from a garden watered with collected rainwater.