June 28, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Virtuous

There are three rain barrels connected to the downspouts around our house.  Those rain barrels are in use during the seven-month gardening season, after which they are drained and reside in our basement for the late autumn and winter months.  Because of those rain barrels (and coupled with recycling ‘gray water’), I can state with a clear conscience that not a single gallon of fresh water, pumped from our town’s underground watershed, was used last year in the maintenance of our large garden.  The same is true thus far this year.

The question is, is using a rain barrel an economical decision?  Or, is it one that we make because it’s the ‘green’ thing to do?

Our three rain barrels, all manufactured by the New England Rain Barrel Company, cost us a total of $145.  The least expensive one was purchased through a friend from the town of Dedham for $32.  The other two were purchased from the town of Medfield for $55 each.  All three purchases were subsidized by the state under a since-discontinued conservation program.  In the case of Dedham, the town further subsidized the cost.  At present, the company offers a 55 gallon rain barrel for $75 in ‘bulk deliveries’ to towns in Massachusetts; otherwise, a single rain barrel is $120.

This is the rain barrel that
waters our hostas
The beauty of a rain barrel is that it collects the rain that falls on a roof, flows into gutters, and goes into a downspout.  As little as a quarter-inch of rain falling on 350 square feet of roof will fill a 55 gallon barrel.  If there’s more than a quarter inch of rain, the downspout can be diverted so that the rainwater flows to wherever it would have flowed has the rain barrel not been collecting it.

Another rain barrel benefit is the water that you draw out of it.  It’s air temperature and chlorine free.  Your plants love it.

One of our rain barrels is tied to a drip hose and waters part of our hosta garden. I turn it on when the top two inches of the soil around the hostas is dry.  It takes about two days for the barrel to empty. Two of our rain barrels store water that will be used primarily to keep our 50-plus container gardens properly hydrated.  Since we can’t haul a rain barrel to the containers (55 gallons of water weighs 440 pounds), we fill a collection of two- and three-gallon plastic cat litter carriers; an innovative piece of recycling on our part.  Depending on the temperature and humidity, it can take between 20 and 40 gallons of water to ‘do’ all of our containers.

Let’s say, just to establish a baseline calculation, that each of our rain barrels are filled and emptied ten times over the course of the gardening season.  That’s 1650 gallons of water.  What did we save?

The answer is depressing.  In Medfield, ten thousand gallons of water costs $28.20.  Those 1650 gallons cost a little over $4.00.  The time to pay pack the initial purchase price of our rain barrels is 30 years.  If we lived in Boston, where ten thousand gallons of water is $57.30, the payback is a shorter, but still depressing, 15 years.  However, those barrels were purchased at a steep discount.  Had we paid $75 per barrel, the time to recover their cost would be 56 years; in Boston, 23 years.

Rain barrels also have one drawback that is not usually mentioned in the sales literature: unless they’re drained frequently, the water in a rain barrel can get rather dank.  Put less delicately, old rainwater smells and coats the inside of those cat litter containers with scum.  At the end of each season, any containers that are going to be over-wintered get bleached; the interiors of the rain barrels get washed thoroughly.

So, rain barrels are uneconomic and they can be a nuisance.  But they’re virtuous and, if your town has a water ban in place, they can also be a necessity.  Knowing what I know today (our rain barrels are six years old), would I buy them again? 

The answer: in a heartbeat.  They’re an easy way to practice conservation and to put water on your plants that is, well, pure rainwater.  Call it a small virtue.

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