Rain barrels can save money, help environment

Sunday, April 25, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:39 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 26, 2010

COLUMBIA — Conservation of water, storm water concerns and saving money are three things that might convince Columbia residents to buy a rain barrel.

Retired Columbian Ben Londeree had these concerns, but he mainly wanted better water for his fish.

Other ways to conserve water

The age-old saying "if it’s yellow, let it mellow," might be distasteful to some. While it is a surefire way to conserve water, people have a few other options to do their part.

  • Conduct a water audit for your household – this is a way of calculating how much water is used and how much can be saved. The Padre Dam Municipal Water District offers an in-depth worksheet to help its customers calculate water usage within their homes. By assessing the total water used in a household, residents can find where water is being wasted.
  • Fix leaky faucets and running toilets – according to the Maryland Department of the Environment, around 14 percent of residential water is wasted because of this. Upgrading or retrofitting is also not a bad idea. “Water is not as difficult to control as energy,” said David Mars, the energy management specialist for Columbia Water and Light. “Retrofitting is a fairly inexpensive way to cut down on water usage from appliances without buying new ones.” Retrofitting kits even come in dual flush, which allows for a shorter flush and a longer flush. However, if a person is building a new house or getting all new appliances anyway, low flow appliances provide an ample amount of conservation. A toilet that may have used eight gallons to flush in the 1980s now only needs 1.5 gallons. Low flow options exist across all lines of appliances, from showerheads to washing machines.
  • Use rain barrels and water gardens – Rain barrels and water gardens offer ways to conserve water outside the home. Rain barrels collect the storm water that comes out of your downspout, which can then be used to water lawns or gardens when needed.

Rain gardens are those planted with native plants. According to Steve Johnson, these native plants have long root systems that allow them to reach the water table so they don’t need excessive watering. They also slow down water runoff, which reduces water erosion.

  • Change daily habits – turn the water off when brushing teeth, plug the drain when doing dishes, cut five minutes off your shower, these are just simple things that can be done to cut down on water waste.

“Water is a pretty abundant resource in Columbia, so water rates are pretty cheap, and you may not see a huge impact on your water bill by doing some of these things,” Mars said. "But conservation is about doing what’s good for the environment and conserving water can help take care of other issues like soil erosion and trash running off into our streams."

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Rain barrels hold rainwater from gutters until it can be used. Columbia resident Dawn Fredrickson currently owns two barrels. Billy Polansky, also a resident of Columbia, had one at his old house.   

Londeree's garden uses water and water plants as a focal point. Tap water wouldn't do, with all its chemicals, so he sought out rain barrels. “As the rain falls, it picks up oxygen, which is better for my fish, and I don’t have to deal with treating the water to filter out all the chemicals,” Londeree said.

Londeree’s water garden is his main use for the barrels. With 10 50-gallon barrels plus a 250 gallon tank, his rain barrel system holds up to 750 gallons of water at a time. In the dryer months, he still sometimes has to supplement with the tap.

A system like Londeree’s wasn’t cheap. “Each of the barrels cost $8 from the recycling center, and the plumbing cost almost as much as the barrels,” Londeree said. “But my main concern wasn’t about the money. It was that this was good for the environment and good for my fish.”

Fredrickson and Polansky saw their water bill go down, but they had no idea how much. According to Polansky, he used about 20 gallons of water per week from rain barrels. With the price of Columbia water, he saved an estimated $80 a month by not using metered tap water. “We had a garden outside at our old house, but we didn’t have a spigot outside of the building, so it was the only way that we had to water our garden,” Polansky said. “But it worked amazing for us."

For Fredrickson, Londeree and Polansky, rain barrels aren't about monetary savings, they're about what is right for the environment.

But rain barrels are not without their difficulties.

“Rain comes through the gutter system and a lot of trash comes with that,” Londeree said. For the people who use one or two barrels, this isn’t a problem, because there is a screening system to filter out the leaves. With a system like Londeree’s there isn’t a surefire way to keep this from happening because the leaves overrun the screens so quickly.

“I’m concerned with the amount of water coming in to use for my garden. I can’t have leaves sitting on top of my screens, and blocking the amount of water that comes into the barrels,” Londeree said.

Ponlansky and Fredrickson also had their difficulties, but it wasn’t enough to deter them from the benefits of rain barrels. Fredrickson had troubles with too much rain and the barrels filling up too quickly, which spurred her to buy a second one.

Polansky found that rain barrels were easy to maintain, but sometimes smelled a little stale. “The barrel did have a smell to it if the water wasn’t used quickly, but it wasn’t enough to smell up the whole yard or deter us from using the barrels,” Polansky said.

Some people might think insects would be a problem when collecting water outside. However, Londeree, Fredrickson and Polansky didn’t find that to be the case. There are screens on the barrels to prevent insect breeding, “Insects just aren’t an issue,” Polansky said.

Londeree also had to do some foundation restructuring to support the amount of weight full barrels would produce. Typically, rain barrels sit on three concrete blocks, according to Charles Laun, an Americorps volunteer who helps with the installation of rain barrels. Londeree’s system is vastly more intense. “It’s a tremendous amount of weight,” Londeree said. “The traditional system wouldn’t work for my use.”

Londeree said the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks.

“It’s about conserving water, not the amount of savings for me. I actually haven’t taken the time to see if it’s saved money on my bill,” Londeree said. “But if everyone did their part with just one barrel, storm water run off wouldn’t be such a big deal.”

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Mark Foecking April 25, 2010 | 5:22 p.m.

"With the price of Columbia water, he saved an estimated $80 a month by not using metered tap water."

$80 worth of water per month, in Columbia, is about 26,000 gallons. I think there's something wrong with someone's calculations here.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 26, 2010 | 5:57 a.m.

Well, Mark, if your calculations are correct, and I'm sure they are, 26,000 gallons of water is almost enough to fill the "moderator" pool of the Missouri University of Science & Technology's nuclear research reactor from totally empty. We need to put some rain barrels around the campus (in case we should have a "pool" breach).

This newspaper provides lots of laughs.

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