Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rain barrel economics

With the first frost already past and the first blast of real winter weather already on its way, Brian devoted a good chunk of last weekend to getting our house and yard ready for winter. At the top of his to-do list: packing up the rain barrel. This is the first year we've had it, so we weren't altogether sure what to do with it during the cold months. If we just left it out in the yard, the water inside would freeze and thaw repeatedly, weakening and possibly cracking the plastic barrel. We thought of draining the barrel and then covering it to keep it from refilling with snowmelt from the roof, but it seemed like once we'd gone to the all trouble of emptying it, we might as well just move it out of the weather altogether. It might last a bit longer without being exposed to freezing temperatures, even when empty—and it would actually be a bit easier to reroute the flow of water from the drainpipe with the barrel out of the way.

The barrel took quite a while to drain, even after being regularly tapped throughout the summer and fall for watering the garden. Once it was empty, it turned out there was a fair bit of sludge in the bottom, apparently dirt that was small enough to slip through the mesh on top. Brian gave it a bit of a scrub to clear this stuff out, but the hardest part of the job was rearranging all the clutter in the shed to make room for it—along with our newly refinished patio furniture, which we figured would probably keep its nice finish longer if it weren't exposed to another winter outdoors.

After removing the barrel, Brian reattached the end of the drainpipe, which we'd removed to divert water into it. The pipe now reaches nearly to the ground, but it's still a bit closer to the house than it probably should be, so we need to buy a little elbow piece to stick on the end and divert water off into the yard. (We have a short straight piece already, but we can't just stick that on the end because the concrete pad is a bit too high.) When spring arrives, we can put the barrel back in its place, rearrange the drainpipe to drain into it again, and stash away the extra bit of pipe for winter. I guess reconfiguring the drainpipe is now one of our regular spring and fall chores, like changing the clocks (and can probably be done around the same time).

Now that the rain barrel has made it through its first summer, I can give a preliminary report on how good a job it did of saving us on our water use. We haven't received our water bill yet for August through October, but I went out and checked the water meter, and I found that since the start of August, we've used 840 cubic feet of water, or 6284 gallons. Add that to the total on our last water bill, and we've used 11,370 gallons of water since early May. In 2013, by contrast, we used 12,866 gallons between May 13 and October 30. Now, we probably can't give the rain barrel full credit for this 1,500-gallon drop, since we also installed a new showerhead last spring that probably deserves a bit of the credit, but I think the rain barrel definitely accounts for a good chunk of it. If we use, say, 30 gallons every time we water the garden, and we watered it from the rain barrel twice a week from July through October, then that's over 1,000 gallons right there. Not too shabby.

Unfortunately, the savings in dollar terms are a little less impressive. Our town doesn't bill us by the gallon for the water we use; instead, it puts our household water usage into one of three tiers. If we use less than 800 cubic feet of water in a billing period, we pay the minimum, $48.73. Anything between 800 and 1000 cubic feet puts us in the second tier, for $62.96. If we use over 1,000 cubic feet, no matter how much or how little over, then we pay the maximum bill of $77.70. So our 840 cubic feet of water use, as you can see, puts us just over the limit for the bottom tier. (Of course, this might also have something to do with the fact that it's been 104 days since our last water bill, while last year the billing period was only 86 days. If we'd had the same billing periods this year, we'd have been well below the limit. I sometimes rather cynically suspect that the borough deliberately tweaks the dates each year to try and put as many households over the limit as possible. But realistically, I doubt that they could actually be bothered to do the complicated calculations necessary to maximize their profit. More likely, they just send out the bills whenever they happen to get around to it.)

In any case, using the rain barrel this summer obviously wasn't quite enough to keep our bill down to the minimum. But on the other hand, last year at this time, we were all the way in the top tier, so the barrel has still saved us about 15 bucks in its first summer alone. Maybe next year, with a little more tweaking, we can actually manage to keep it below the minimum all summer long.
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