Monday, June 23, 2014

Roll out the barrel

A week or so ago, we had dinner with some friends. We ate out in the back yard, enjoying the early summer weather, and one of them was showing Brian their new rain barrel. After Brian admired it, our host said, "We have two more in the garage; you want one?" At first Brian took this as a joke, but it turns out he was serious. Mercer County was apparently offering some kind of special deal to homeowners, selling them the rain barrels at cost, and so his wife went a little overboard and bought three of them. He'd installed one and was now trying to avoid hooking up the other two, so he was happy to let us have one of them. He wouldn't even take any money for it; he just wanted it out of the garage.

So last weekend, we finally got around to installing it. The first step, as per the instructions, was to to make a flat and level area for it to sit on—something our yard doesn't have a lot of. The friends we got it from had built a little landing pad for theirs out of cinder blocks, so we figured we'd do the same, but an engineer friend recommended we go one better and make a little bed of gravel for the cinder blocks to sit on to help stabilize them. There were just two problems with this idea: first, while we had some usable cinder blocks just sitting out in the shed, we didn't have any gravel; and second, remembering all the hassle we went through with this stage of our Patio Project made us less than thrilled at the prospect of doing it again.

Fortunately, we were able to work around both problems. The digging wasn't that big a deal, because the hole we needed was much smaller—about 30 inches square—and not nearly as deep. And although we didn't have any actual gravel, we had plenty of concrete chunks left over from the demolition stage of the Patio Project, along with some small chunks of shale that we'd dug out during the later excavation stage. And as it turned out, sitting underneath a big pile of concrete chunks for a year had reduced some of those small chunks of shale to still smaller chunks. So by loading up a wheelbarrow with the smallest bits of concrete and shale we could reach, we managed to get enough material to load up the smallish hole. We even threw in the last dregs of the bag of sand we had left over from filling the patio.

As it turns out, the cinder blocks we had weren't quite the right size to make a 30-by-30-inch square. However, Brian dealt with that by turning the square into a trapezoid, with the smaller end toward the back, and adding a couple of cap pieces on to the sides in front. It's still large enough to support the barrel, and with it in place, the asymmetry doesn't really show.

The next part of the job was to cut down the downspout so it could be directed into the top of the barrel. We already had a long extension piece (shown here) that we'd added earlier to divert water away from the house, so we didn't need to buy any new pieces. However, we had to make both the extension and the spout itself shorter so everything would line up once the rain barrel was in place. At first glance, it looked like it would be easiest to just cut the bottom end off the downspout and then reattach the extension. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, it turned out that this wouldn't work because the bottom end of the downspout was crimped, allowing it to slide into another piece the same size. This meant we had to cut the pipe from the top rather than the bottom. So Brian detached the bottom section of pipe, cut off the top two to three feet, and reattached it, drilling new holes for the screws to secure it in place. We ended up losing one screw in the grass, but fortunately we had extras. In fact, Brian decided to add a couple of screws to secure the extension in place, as well, thinking it might need to be able to handle extra pressure if it was no longer resting on the ground.

Once all that was done, all that remained was to assemble the barrel itself. This was a fairly fancy rain barrel, with a spigot on the bottom to which a hose can be attached, so our first step was to attach the tap. This involved laying the barrel down on its side, pushing the tap through from the front, and then crawling part way inside the barrel to screw on the nut that would hold the faucet in place. Fortunately, Brian's long arms made this job fairly easy. The only tricky bit was manipulating a plumber's wrench inside the barrel, but he only had to do that for the last half-turn. (Sadly, I didn't get a picture of Brian halfway inside the rain barrel, but I'll leave it to your imagination.)

The next job was to attach the lid. Other rain barrels I've used just had a removable top, so you could dip in a watering can or whatever container you planned to carry the water in. The problem with these, however, is that mosquitoes tend to get in and breed in the water. To prevent this problem, this rain barrel came with a cleverly designed lid with a screen built into the top to let in rainwater but not mosquitoes. Between this and the spigot on the front, the top doesn't ever need to be removed, so you just twist it into place and seal it up with a couple of screws.

The final step was to open up the overflow valve. The barrel came with two sort of nozzles at the top, one on each side, to drain off any excess water. However, since you don't want it draining out both sides and pooling around the bottom of the barrel, the two nozzles started out sealed; we had to decide which side to attach the drainage hose on and then remove the plastic seal by chiseling it out with a screwdriver. This job didn't go very neatly, and Brian says if he had it to do over again, he'd choose a different tool, but it didn't seem to do any actual structural damage to the barrel. Once we had it opened up, we attached the final piece of the kit, a flexible plastic tube, over the end of the nozzle, securing it in place with a clamp. Tightening the clamp was actually the most fiddly part of the whole process, but eventually we managed to get it snug. Then we poked the other end of the overflow hose through the fence behind, so the excess water will be diverted into our asparagus bed.

To test the new rain barrel and make sure all was working properly, Brian pulled out the reservoir from our dehumidifier, which had been running all weekend and was holding about a gallon of water. He poured this in through the lid, then opened up the spigot to make sure it ran out smoothly. Turns out a gallon of water doesn't fill the barrel enough to reach the spout, so we ended up having to tilt it, but we confirmed that the whole system works. Brian's only caveat was to be careful when turning the tap, as it's made of plastic and seems liable to break off if it's handled roughly.

With a little luck, our new rain barrel will supply enough of our garden's water needs during the summer to help us keep our water bill in that bottom tier, where it belongs. True, we're only talking about a savings of $14 or so, but every little bit helps—and even if it doesn't save us a penny, it means there's more water to go around for everyone else in town. Plus, as Brian pointed out, it gives him something useful to do with all the water in the dehumidifier from now on.

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