Rainwater Collection: A Win/Win for Austin Homeowners

Anyone who has lived in Austin for a while knows that it is a pretty dry place, and even the least environmentally conscious resident understands that conserving water is a smart move. While residential irrigation accounts for approximately 40% of domestic water consumption on average, in Central Texas that number tends to be even higher—particularly during the prolonged and severe drought we have experienced in recent years.

One of the easiest and most economical ways to lower your residential water use is to install rain barrels. Instead of running your hose or sprinkler system from the general city water supply, you can collect the rainwater that drains from the gutters of your house directly into a storage tank. Then all you do is attach a hose to the tank and fill your watering cans—or install a pump system to power a sprinkler or hose for more extensive watering.

In addition to being free, rooftop runoff water contains no chlorine, lime or calcium, and it tends to have fewer types of sediment and dissolved salts than municipal water. For this reason, rainwater is ideal for everything from organic vegetable gardens to raised planter beds to watering your indoor plants.

Seems simple, right? It really is!

To install a rain barrel, just find a downspout. It’s usually located at one of the corners of your house. You may need to add or remove pieces of gutter or re-route the existing gutter to pour into the opening at top of the barrel. Most barrels have spigots on which to attach a hose or spout. When the barrel is full, you can control overflow by running a tube to direct the water into nearby beds or plantings.

Installing rain barrels makes financial sense, too.

Although in 2009 the City of Austin ended its highly popular rain barrel program, which gave barrels directly to residents, the City still offers a rebate program as an incentive for Austinites to install rainwater harvesting systems. With a rebate rate of $0.50 per gallon of tank capacity, the larger the tank you purchase, the higher the rebate, which helps make even the big barrels more affordable. TreeHouse (a hardware store/garden center located in the Westgate Shopping Center in South Austin) includes the necessary paperwork for the rebate when you buy a barrel, so all you have to do is fill it out and mail it in. Also, rain barrels can be sold sales tax free, so the price you see is what you pay.

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Todd Gardner, Barton Hills Resident

“We want (to buy and install) even more,” says Barton Hills resident Todd Gardner  about his family’s rainwater harvesting. “We have three smaller rain barrels right now, and we want to get bigger and better ones.”

Gardner has been amazed at how much water can be collected during even relatively small rainfalls. He says that after a decent rain that lasts around 20 minutes, the barrels fill up completely because the roof captures so much. Indeed, most estimates are that 1/4 inch of rainfall runoff from the average roof will completely fill a 55-gallon rain barrel. Or put another way, one inch of rain on a 1,000 square foot roof yields 623 gallons of water!

One important factor to consider with rain barrel installation is mosquito control. Because mosquitoes breed in standing water, you will need to take steps to avoid having your barrel become a mosquito farm. The first thing to consider is the design of the barrel. Ones with a simple screen won’t usually do the trick. Some feature a tighter spout attachment and a solid top that seals the barrel and makes it impossible for mosquitoes to enter the structure. Alternatively, for models that do not offer a sealed opening, mosquito dunks, which float on the surface of the water, can be dropped into the tank and are designed to kill larvae for up to 30 days.

Another option is to use the magic of nature’s own food chain by adding a goldfish to your rain barrel to eat the mosquito larvae. Experts recommend one fish per at least 20 gallons of water to keep the toxicity from fish waste under control. Also, the water needs to be at least 32 inches deep to prevent freezing in the winter.

Using rain barrels to help save water will reduce your demand for treated tap water, especially in the hot summer months, and can lower your monthly utility bill. Rainwater diversion also helps decrease the burden on water treatment facilities and municipal drainage systems during storms. Finally, rainwater storage is recommended for general emergency preparedness, or for areas prone to disasters or drought.

With summer drawing to a close (even if the thermometer is telling you otherwise) and fall just around the corner, now is a great time to invest in a rainwater collection system for your home.