Friday, March 27, 2009

DIY Rain Barrels: Harvesting the Sky

Both of my boys have passed out; Jules on the couch with Bell Bell squarely on his chest, Spicy Barracuda snuggled in bed with Guadie guarding his feet. This leaves me awake to listening to the fire dwindle down and Jules' heavy breathing. I like the stillness of the nights especially with the rain falling outside. Our rain barrels have filled much faster than anticipated and have increased from two to four with another couple coming as tax returns are deposited.

The increase of our rain barrels required a trip to the hardware store, some discussion among various male employees about the right way to secure specific things (thank you Ron, Scott, and Val), and me dutifully pushing the cart because I'm way out of my element.

The hooking up of our rain barrels and outfitting them to work properly was all Jules. He was amazing! I can use the truck to acquire them from the industrial supplier, I can haul them home and wash them out, and then I can stand back and realize I'm clueless on how to make the rest of it work. Jules tried to show me plans. He tried to explain. But, it wasn't until we had all the pieces home and he was actually outfitting the first barrel that I really was able to figure out what all was going on. Now that the process has been repeated four separate times, I get it quite well and could probably do one myself. So here goes with me trying to explain...

Materials for 1 Barrel
1 3/4 inch hose bib (1/4 turn)
1 1/2 inch coupling 2 inch extension
1 package rigid sealing lock nuts (found in electrical conduit section)
1 roll 1/2 inch Teflon tape (520 inches)
2 2 inch ABS Male adapters with Lock Nut
1 2 inch ABS pipe (the really long one)
2 2 inch ABS pipe elbows (90 degrees)
1 can ABS cement
1 downspout adapter
1 flexible downspout
1 cheapo plastic garden pot with 9 inch diameter
1 roll of screen (like for a screen door)
9 1/2 inch screws
6-8 miscellaneous screws
large rubber band

Power drill with 1/2 inch drill bit
adjustable diameter wrench
Dremel (so helpful, but not imperative)
X-acto knife
Jig Saw
black Sharpie marker
hack saw

Drill multiple small holes into the base and 2 inches up the sides of the 9 inch garden pot. This will allow for the water to freely enter the rain barrel, but for junk from the gutters and mosquitoes to be screened out. Unroll the screen and cut two sections 6 inches high by 18 inches wide. Make an X with the screen over the opening of the pot. Press it down into the pot so that the base and side holes are completely covered (and in some places overlapped) with the screen. Wrap the screen around the lip of the pot using a spoon handle to push it underneath. Have another set of hands screw the 9 1/2 inch screws around the edges, working as you go, to secure the screen inside the pot. This pot will sit in the hole you are going to drill into the top of the rain barrels, and hold down the newly rerouted downspout.

In order for water to enter the rain barrels, you need to cut a sizable hole in the top. The most important thing to remember when cutting the holes into the barrels is that you are dealing with water. This means the seals need to be tight and in order for that to be the case, the holes need to have smooth edges that are just barely big enough. Remember, you can always remove a little more plastic, but you can never put the plastic back after you've cut too much.

Find an item in your house that has a 9 inch diameter. It can be the lid to a standard juice pitcher (that's what we used), a bowl, a jar, it doesn't matter as long as the diameter of the lid is 9 inches. Trace the outline of this lid onto the center of the rain barrel. Use the 1/2 inch drill bit to drill three successive holes about 1 millimeter from the the traced line. This will allow you a starting place to begin using the jig saw to roughly cut out the hole. Come as close to the line as you feel comfortable without going over it. Once the hole is cut, use the X-acto knife to scrape any squiggly edges of plastic. If you don't own a Dremel, see if your neighbor (father, brother, sister, mother, mail man, coworker, anyone you can think of) does. Though the Dremel is not so imperative you should go buy one solely for this project, it is so helpful. Use the Dremel to router away the last remaining plastic up to the line, leaving a smooth buffed edge. At this point, put the screened pot into the hole to check that it fits. The lip of the pot should hang over the edge enough to keep it securely fastened and prevent mosquitoes from entering.

Remove the pot from the hole and set it aside. Now that you have been sure it fits, you won't need it again until the end. Drill a hole 1/2 inch in diameter about 4-6 inches from the bottom of the barrel, making sure to X-acto and Dremel the edges of the hole. Using the 1/2 inch diameter, two inch long coupling extension and the package of rigid sealing lock nuts (they look like lock washers with a nice rubber gasket) you will next create the spout of your barrel. The basic idea is that you screw the extension into the hole sandwiching the barrel with the washers on either side. This is significantly easier said than done! If you know someone with freakishly long arms (Jules is 6'4" tall and fits this description) make them some cookies and recruit them for this mission! In all honesty, this process caused much cursing from Jules and a lot of frustration. In the end the first barrel was the only one we used the extra rubber gasket for. The later barrels still have the interior washer, but no rubber gasket. This removal increased the threadability so that Jules could really get the washer on. If you are careful with your seals, the double washer is a bit excessive for all the frustration it causes.

Whether you decide to sandwich the washers or not, here is the process for the spout. Place rigid sealing lock nut onto the coupling making sure the blue washer is facing the threads. Next wrap the threads with an ample amount of Teflon tape. Don't be stingy with this stuff, it is amazing! Using some serious brute strength screw the tape covered threads of the coupling into the barrel until you start to smuch the rubber gasket. This should be a very tight fit. If it isn't the pressure from the full barrel of water will cause a leaky spout and much annoyance later. If you are feeling gung ho and really up for a challenge, have your freakishly-long-armed friend use a wrench to fix the other rigid sealing lock washer (rubber gasket facing the barrel) to the other side of the coupling on the inside of the barrel. This is done by tipping the barrel over and having the person lay on the side, straining to reach the spout and fix the coupling. This is by far the hardest part of the process.

At this point your barrel is almost complete. The only other task is to complete the overflow valve. We had no idea how fast our barrels were going to fill up. I honestly thought the overflow valve a bit superfluous, but now see its importance. Without this valve, once your barrel fills, the water would begin back up and soon flood from any place possible. Not good. The overflow is used to direct excess water away from the foundation of your house and into a safe runoff area. The other benefit of the overflow valve is to fill other barrels. The overflow valve connects very easily into another barrel causing them to fill in succession after the initial barrel reaches maximum capacity. For anyone living somewhere with even moderate rain this is a great way to increase the amount of money saved on irrigating a garden. In our city, we also receive a generous deduction in our sewer bill with every downspout we detach into a rain barrel set up. At any rate, the overflow is necessary whether to fill another barrel, or merely to save you from flooding.

To create the overflow you will need to find the center line of your rain barrel. On most this is a simple process of finding the molding lines which run right across the top. Follow these lines down about 4 inches from the top of the barrel and trace the diameter of the ABS pipe on the side of the barrel, centered around the mold line. Use the 1/2 inch drill bit to drill a couple of successive holes in the plastic as done previously to begin jig sawing a hole. After the hole has been cut with the jig saw be sure to X-acto cut and Dremel the edges for a secure seal.

With the hole in the top and now a hole in the side, you can adequately rinse out your barrels. This is important not only for the smell (ours were used and thus had quite a pungent aroma within them) but also to remove all the pieces of plastic which have been cut, Dremeled, and X-actoed into squiggly little bits. These are not things you want clogging up the spigot of your barrel when it is full of 35+ gallons of very cold rain water. So remove both caps from the top of the barrel and take a hose to the inside. It took about three different rinsings and shakings for the barrel to really be rid of all plastic and smelly remnants. Though they look big the barrels are very, very light. They are merely bulky. However, you will most likely get a bit damp and dirty doing this so keep that in mind.

The overflow valve is a very simple attachment consisting of two Male ABS adapters with lock nuts. The adapters sandwich to either side of the rain barrel and create a place for a piece of ABS pipe to securely fit and maintain a nice seal. The adapters should have a white washer inside of them which also helps form the seal. When coupled with Teflon tape and a liberal slathering of ABS Cement, the entire connection is quite watertight. If you are wanting to hook up successive barrels, the overflow would fit directly into another male adapter on the next barrel creating a bridge for the water to flow across. The length of this bridge is determined by the size of your rain barrel stand. Our stand was designed to hold five barrels making the overflow pipe about six inches long. Between four and six inches is a good size.

Wrap the threads of one male adapter with Teflon tape and screw the adapter directly into the barrel. Just as before this should take an output of some brute force as the connection should be very tight. From the inside of the barrel, screw the lock washer over the threads sandwiching the barrel in between. Use the hack saw to cut a 4-6 inch section of ABS pipe and fit the pipe into the male adapter so that it sticks out from the barrel at a 90 degree angle. Use the ABS cement as directed to liberally slather the connection. This stuff dries fast and doesn't like to come off of your hands. If the overflow is fitting into another water barrel, the second male adapter would be sandwiched around the second water barrel and the ABS pipe would fit across. Both connections would be covered in ABS cement to ensure no leakage around the seals.

To have the single barrel set up, fit one of the 90 degree ABS elbows onto the end of the ABS pipe and point the opening toward the ground. Measure the length from the opening of the ABS elbow to the ground and subtract 2 inches from that length. Use the hack saw to cut a section of ABS pipe to this measurement. Fit the pipe securely into the elbow and attach the second 90 degree elbow to the end of the vertical pipe. Point the elbow in which ever direction you would like your water to overflow. At this point you can either fit another section of ABS pipe out of the elbow on the ground, or you can let the water run off from there. Cut a 6 inch by 6 inch square of screen and fold it over the end of your overflow pipe (or elbow) securing the screen with the large rubber band. This is to ensure that mosquitoes don't fly through the pipe and lay eggs in your rain barrel. Do not use the ABS cement on your overflow connections. If you ever decide to add onto your rain barrels you will have to buy completely new pipe. The cement does not come off. It was designed by NASA or something and is crazy adhesive!

You now have a complete rain barrel set up that merely needs to be connected to the gutter. Unhook your current down spout and set it aside. We haven't really figured out a very good thing to do with the old downspout so anyone out there who comes up with a neat idea, let us know. Attached the downspout adapter to the base of your gutter system with a few miscellaneous screws and the flexible downspout to the other end of the downspout adapter with a few more miscellaneous screws. The flexible downspout will probably have to be shortened, just be sure you allow for enough tension that it is pushed taught into the water barrel. Line your water barrel set up on the stand and place the screened in pot (from the beginning of this process) back into the top hole. Manhandle the flexible downspout into the screened in pot so that there is enough tension for the downspout to keep the pot in place and the pot to keep the hose in place.

The learning curve on this process was very rapid. By even the second barrel, Jules was moving at a much more rapid rate. The repetition of drilling, jig saw cutting, X-acto trimming, and then Dremeling the holes is exactly the same for each incision and thus leads itself to some significant muscle memory. Secondly, as we have begun such projects as the rain barrels and their stand we have slowly acquired the necessary tools and workmanship to be able to attempt future endeavors. Combined with the added bonus of Guadelupe's expert supervision, we have been able to accomplish much more than I would have felt comfortable with alone.

The entire project (and indeed our complete lifestyle simplification) has been a process of slowly gaining more and more knowledge to be useful in the future. We are relying on each other and talents we never knew the other (or ourselves) possessed. The moral, I guess I'm trying to convey, is to not be intimidated by the magnitude of a project such as this. Make a list, take it to the hardware store, talk about it with guys like Ron, Scott and Val. Get to know your neighbors by asking if anyone has a Dremel, power drill, or hack saw. Tell them what you are doing, let them know they can come and help. Strike up interest not only for yourself, but to make social connects with others. We did not know what we were doing before this and are learning as we go. If you take your time and thoughtfully progress through, you'll come up with great results.

Another great resource we discovered was Instructables. Type in rain barrels, green house, deck, or whatever else you might have been fantasizing about building. The directions are great, with pictures and process explanations all along the way. Be willing to surprise yourself and your family; Jules certainly did with us. (Can you tell I'm really proud of him!)

2 thoughts:

JM said...

Thanks for the comment the other day! We are beginning the process of molding our outdoors into some semblance of order this year and I have brought up the idea of rain barrels to the husband. Interesting to read about it here.

Granola Girl said...

We were amazed at how fast they filled. We're local like you are, only across the river, and in one weekend of rain we filled 1 1/2 of our 55 gallon drums. I always knew it rained a lot, but never really quantified how much fell!

Yoshida Foods International will sell them for $10 a piece if you decide to go with them.

I'm glad if the comment helped. We aren't planning on having another, but much of the family seems to think otherwise with the extent of advice they keep giving us :) Hopefully it can help someone.

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