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Rain barrels are an old idea that has gained popularity in recent years. As the old adage states, 'You don't know the value of water until the well runs dry.'

Carol Shirk, past president of the Dodge County Master Gardener's organization, recently shared ideas for building rain barrels and using them to capture water from roofs for watering plants in the yard.

'Using a rain barrel conserves resources, saves money, helps direct water away from the foundation of your home and is better for the environment,' she said.

According to Shirk, for each inch of rain that falls on a 500-square-foot roof, 300 gallons of water can be collected and used around the home to reduce run-off and the water bill.

She also pointed out that water is a simple, basic need and that, while 80 percent of the earth surface is water, only 2 percent of that is fresh water.

'Rain barrels go back to the Bible days,' she pointed out, noting that Proverbs 5:15 mentions the use of a cistern.

As for the quality of soft rain water, Shirk said it is so much better for plants than well water that often contains chorine or a treatment.

Making a rain barrel

A rain barrel is any large container with a top that the downspout fits into and with a spigot on the bottom to get the water out. It collects rain and stores it for later use when watering flowers, bushes and trees. She does not suggest using rain water, especially the first flush of water in the season, for watering fresh vegetable plants because it could carry e-coli or fecal coliform from birds and small animals.

While rain barrels are available for $70-300 in garden stores, making one can be considerably less expensive.

Recycled food-grade plastic 55-60 gallon plastic barrels are available from local food processors, dairies or distributors for a nominal cost.

Glen Greenfield, Waupun, makes rain barrels as a fundraiser for the Dodge County Master Gardeners. The barrels he makes include a mess screen that prevents organic matter and insects from contaminating the water, spigots for drainage, valves to connect multiple barrels together with hoses and overflow outlets designed to direct water away from the barrel and sensitive areas such as the foundation of the home.

To prepare the barrel for use, either cut a hole the specific size of the downspout and secure the downspout directly into the barrel. Or, cut a large hole in the top of the barrel and cover it with screen or filter.

Then, construct the overflow valve near the top of the barrel. Use a spigot or barbed spout and hose to direct excess water away from sensitive areas.

Add additional spigots and hoses to connect multiple barrels if desired.

Install another spigot a few inches from the bottom of the barrel to be used to drain the water. Seal all fittings and spigots with caulk to minimize leaking.

The barrels Greenfield makes are plain white with colored duck tape to add a little color. Many artistic gardeners, however, paint designs on the barrels to make them an attractive yard d├ęcor.

When painting the plastic barrels, lightly sand to remove the waxy coating. Apply primer according to manufacturer instructions, following with paint. Paints specifically formulated for adhering to plastic surfaces work best.

Apply several coats of polyurethane to protect the paint.

Proper placement

Once the barrel is completely constructed, it should be placed on a level surface and elevated using bricks, cinder blocks, concrete or a sturdy wooden base.

'Keep in mind that 55 gallons of water weighs nearly 500 pounds,' Shirk said. 'Take care to make the base solid and design it in a way that children cannot climb on it or tip it.'

Elevating the base slightly allows easier access for drainage.

Emptying the barrel at least every 10 days prevents mosquito breeding. Mosquito dunks, made from organic material, can be placed in the barrel to prevent larva from forming. A few tablespoons of cooking oil will also suffocate the larva.

'Remember to empty your rain barrel in winter, and place it upside down,' Shirk said. 'Plastic will break if it freezes with water in it.'

Use for Veggies

When Carol Shirk did the Master Gardener presentation on rain barrels and cautioned users against using the water on vegetables, she received several inquiries about the matter.

'Rutgers, and the universities of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kentucky and Illinois, have researched the matter and caution against using rain collected in rain barrels for human consumption or for watering vegetables,' she said.

She said one reason is concern about bird droppings and fecal material from other creatures scampering across the roofs. Also, bacteria and moss grow on cedar and asphalt roofs and some asphalt shingles have zinc particles imbedded in them as moss preventatives. Zinc anti-moss strips also produce toxic chemicals that are unsuitable for vegetable gardens.

Asphalt roofs can also contain other hydrocarbons that leech into the water.

She pointed out that the 'first flush' of rain after a dry spell would likely be the water that would present concerns. There has not been a great deal of testing done regarding the exact level of contamination, however.

Some researchers say the risk is minimal, while others say it depends more on the type of plants, since some plants take up contaminants more easily than others.

If rain water is used to water a vegetable garden, Shirk suggested watering at the base of the plant and not directly onto an edible portion of the plant.

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