Confessions of a wannabe rain farmer

Sean McIntryre
Rain barrel system offers easy and affordable water preservation

Reprinted with permission of the driftwood logo

The drought of 2015 came early to Salt Spring. A low winter rainfall and meager snowpack on Vancouver Island and elsewhere in British Columbia’s high country triggered the water alarm before the first daffodils had even begun to emerge from the ground.

As most of us were still shaking off the winter doldrums, community groups, business owners, politicians and property owners had already taken action by busily planning Salt Spring’s inaugural Water Fair. The weekend event, held in late March, was designed as a fun and informative gathering to offer hundreds of islanders the knowledge and inspiration required to not merely cope but thrive through the looming drought.

Guilt-free gardening

My indoctrination came as plans and preparations for the Water Fair got underway. It was during an interview with Water Fair coordinator Sharon Bywater that I became introduced to the idea of “guilt-free gardening.”

Bywater’s relatively modest 2,000-litre (445-gallon) garden irrigation system was among eight stops on the fair’s tour of water harvesting systems. By building a network of rain barrels that get topped with roof runoff whenever it rains, Bywater’s system enables her and her husband to live off their backyard vegetable garden throughout the dry summer months.

“My water consumption does not change from winter to summer,” Bywater told me during our interview back in March. “There’s no noticeable difference.”

I was immediately sold on the idea. Having just finished work on a series of my own raised garden beds destined to get filled with salad greens, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, Bywater’s simple, effective and affordable rainwater catchment system offered some hope that my backyard garden plot wouldn’t saddle my wife and me with a crippling water bill later by late summer.

Starting small

It wasn’t long after my interview with Bywater that I found myself exploring new regions of the internet, pages and videos devoted to rain barrel water harvesting tips and techniques. A quick Google or YouTube search opens volumes of information from backyard DIY rainwater harvesters around the world.

A common first step when installing a rain barrel system, I discovered, is to create a level area in proximity to your home’s eavestrough. Failure to ensure everything is level will leave you with uneven and wobbly water tanks. Trust me, it’s worth breaking out the shovel and taking a few extra minutes to do it right.

Since many people don’t consider large blue water barrels the most visually attractive yard ornament, it’s great to find a spot on a less visible side of your home. The drawback of placing your tanks along the forgotten aspect of your house, however, is that it might take a little longer to access the water.

Once you’ve chosen your site, it’s time to pick up some supplies. Although attractive rain catchment units are available in stores, the price for even a simple water catchment project can add up when you’re paying more than $100 per tank. Budget conscious water catchment enthusiasts can scan classified advertisements on Salt Spring, the Cowichan Valley or the Victoria area for used 55-gallon barrels. These are commonly available, but if you’re having trouble it never hurts to ask around your neighbourhood or a local building supply shop.

Each rain barrel will need to sit on at last four cement blocks. These are commonly available second hand (and occasionally for free) if you keep an eye on the classifieds and are prepared to act fast. Otherwise they can be bought new for a few dollars each. To save some cash and space, I eliminated some of the concrete blocks. How many blocks you use will depend on a mix of personal preference and what fits your specific site.

I used 3/4” sched 40 PVC pipe to link my four-barrel system. How much PVC you require will depend on how large your system will be, so measuring ahead is essential.

Each barrel will have a threaded PVC fitting lodged into a 7/8” hole drilled into the base of each rain barrel. It’s a tight fit so some filing around the edges of the hole may be required. Once the fitting is installed, cover the base with a generous glob of plumber’s putty to make sure the fitting doesn’t leak. A short 10-15 centimetre (4-6”) section of straight PVC pipe will run from the newly installed fitting to a 90-degree elbow that should point towards the front of your rain barrel system. From there, insert another longer straight section of PVC piping so that it emerges to the front of your setup from below the barrel. (The cement blocks should ensure that you have plenty of space beneath the water barrels.)

40 catchment 6
Sean McIntyre’s do-it-yourself rainwater harvesting system.

Except for one outermost barrel (which gets connected to another 90-degree elbow), those longer pieces of pipe emerging from underneath the barrels each get a PVC T-junction. These will all get connected with more PVC piping cut to the appropriate distance. The outermost barrel with a T-junction is connected through an additional PVC section to a tap that enables access to the stored water.

The tanks are filled by connecting a downspout between your home’s rain gutter and an opening in the top of one of your rain barrels. As water flows into the systems, the barrels’ interconnectedness ensures each barrel has an equal water level. It feels like magic, so don’t ask me to explain it, that’s just the way gravity works.

It’s important to make sure the opening is covered with a thin mesh to screen out any needles, leaves or bugs that might otherwise get washed into your storage system. For the same reason, it’s also useful to make sure the size of the hole isn’t too much bigger than your downspout so material can’t sneak in around the edges. This is especially important for people who have cedar shake roofs, which are noted for producing “biologically rich” runoff.

As a last step, it’s crucial to drill an outlet near the top side of one of your barrels. This will serve as an outlet to prevent the entire system from backing up when the rains come fast and heavy over the winter months. Attach a hose or length of eavestrough to carry water away from your home.

Better late than never

By the time I finally completed my system, the dry season was upon us. My 220-gallon system lay empty for much of the summer as my wife and I kept our tomatoes and pepper plants alive with leftover dishwater. I spent months waiting for rain that never arrived. Then came September, when a week of overcast and rainy weather set the first drops into my not-so-new rainwater catchment system. After topping up a few junctions with extra dabs of putty, I was amazed the entire thing held water and remained standing. Within a few days of light rain, my system was already at three-quarters capacity. That’s plenty of water to sustain a thriving, healthy vegetable patch, at least for next year.

Get a 25% rebate on up to $250 worth of purchases towards your rainwater harvesting system! Find out more HERE.