Saving with Rain Barrels & Cisterns

Rain barrels and cisterns are a great way to capture rainwater for later use. Capturing rainwater can reduce the impact of stormwater in an area by compensating for impervious surfaces like roofs and pavement. They also allow you to access free water when needed for things like watering plants. This article shares ideas about capturing and storing rain-water for later use.

April 8, 2019, by Lee Swank, MMS Wetlands Scientist

I know I must be among the majority of fellow Iowans counting down the residual days of winter, in eager anticipation of Wednesday, March 20th, the first day of SPRING! While I do love the variability and changing of the seasons, it always seems winter lasts about 30 days too long. However, spring is on the horizon! The forecast is showing warmer and warmer highs each week and our winter wonderland is slowly melting around us. It’s this melting snow that has me thinking… about water quality and quantity and the various storm water management techniques we utilize.  No matter how big or how small, there is a storm water best management practice (BMP) out there to help better manage and treat urban runoff, and the designs for these various practices can be just as beautiful as they are functional.

Rain Barrels & Cisterns

Whether you are a homeowner interested in ways to water your vegetable garden, or a commercial entity looking to offset your irrigation budget, rainwater harvesting is a storm water best management practice that is easy to understand and relate to.  Small or large, homeowners, community organizations, and businesses are finding creative ways to incorporate rain barrels and cisterns into their landscape. Cisterns and rain barrels perform the same function of capturing and storing rainwater, the difference between the two is a matter of size. Cisterns are usually larger and used for locations such as a commercial building with a larger roof area and thus larger runoff. 
cistern.jpgCisterns and rain barrels can come in many shapes and sizes and the vessel that holds the rain water provides a beautiful blank canvas for creativity to abound. 
Sizing and a plan for water use are important factors to consider when designing and utilizing rain water harvesting methods. You may be surprised just how much water can be collected during a rainfall event. rainbarrel.jpgA 0.5” rain fall on a 1,000 square-foot roof will yield 300 gallons of water! It’s important to design a system to allow for sufficient storage. Once the rain barrels fill, various means of overflow controls can be utilized to direct excess water back to downspouts, or through hoses away from the foundation of buildings/homes. This overflow water can then be directed to additional storm water management landscape features.
Another important factor to consider when installing a rain barrel or cistern is the overwintering plan. (Yes it all comes back to winter again!) As cold weather approaches, appropriate measure should be taken to ensure the barrel or other components of the system don’t freeze and crack:

  • The rain barrel or cistern should be disconnected from the downspout or water source, so water does not enter the system over the winter.
  • A temporary extension should be connected to the downspout/water source to direct water away from foundations or other undesirable areas such as driveways and sidewalks.
  • Ensure all water has been drained from the system.
  • Open the spigot and all other valves in the system and leave them open.
  • If the rain barrel is easy enough to maneuver ideally it should be moved inside a garage or shed to extend the lifespan. Or if able, turned upside down outside and covered. If the cistern or barrel is too large to move, following the above steps should ensure the system will not freeze.

Preparing your rain barrel or cistern for winter is also a great time to inspect the system for any needed repairs and to provide a thorough cleaning. Any screens or filters should be cleaned, and the interior of the barrel rinsed to remove any sediment that may have built up along the walls or bottom.
With sufficient planning and maintenance of the system, rain barrels and cisterns can be a valuable piece of the storm water management puzzle. Over the next few weeks we will be featuring a different storm water best management practice. Stay tuned for our next feature, Rain Gardens!

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MMS Consultants, Inc. provides professional civil engineering and land surveying services — from simple property surveys to complete design and construction management. Since 1975, the firm has successfully completed nearly 40,000 municipal improvement and private land development projects throughout Eastern Iowa.

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