Sunday, June 8, 2014

Rain barrels, Part 3: Epic fail

In the spring of 2011, I published a post titled "Rain barrels:  What's hype and what's helpful".  In that post, I cited the main drawbacks to using barrels.  By simple mathematics, they are highly unlikely to "save you money on your water bill", as many vendors and municipalities claim in their promotional language.  Furthermore, they are not very "green" for the simple reason that many brands leak so badly that they quickly become useless and must be tossed out with the trash.

I got my first rain barrel, a Systern model, during a City of Houston distribution campaign a few years ago (I lived in Houston before moving to League City).  It appeared to be well-made, but it quickly developed this huge stress fracture in the front of it.  The City of Houston actually replaced it for me free of charge (and did so for other folks whose barrels had also failed), but my replacement began leaking even more quickly than the first one had.
So rather than conserving water, many of these barrels instead waste peoples' money and proceed to take up space in landfills.  In so doing, they tend to serve as an overall public deterrent to water conservation in accordance with the "once bitten, twice shy" principle.  Any consumer who has gone to the expense and trouble to install a rain barrel only to have it leak like a sieve is not going to be very open to future conservation measures-in-kind.  And I don't blame them one bit.  
The City of League City recently undertook its own rain barrel campaign which saw about 200 takers, according to Galveston County Daily News (paywalled).  I am not familiar with this brand but I sure hope that those 200 buyers have better luck with their barrels than I've had with mine.  
In my original hype vs. helpful post, I also enumerated the positives to owning a rain barrel.  They can be convenient for spot-watering in certain scenarios and, as long as you can somehow keep them from leaking for a number of years, consistent use will at least allow you to recoup your expenditure on the barrel itself, even if you don't see a positive impact on your water bill.

But that's a really, really big "IF".  What I'm going to do below is show you a series of photos that tell a brand new rain barrel story with a surprise ending.  If you're a regular reader of this blog, you must think that my entire life is one endless procession of rainbows and butterflies because every home improvement project that I lay my hands to magically turns out to yield a benefit that is ten times worth the effort I put into it.  Well, I'm here to tell you that ain't true, and this story will illustrate it in spades.
I was inspired to install a new rain barrel in this central alcove of our front yard for the sake of convenience.  Because we have a four-car lateral attached garage (three spaces across and two spaces deep in the middle), our house is a full 60 feet wide.  While we had the foresight to order the builder to install garden hose faucets on each of the front corners (east and west), we didn't think to order one for the middle. Therefore, I must unroll 30 feet of hose in order to water my front-bed flowers.  And when I'm finished, I must roll 30 feet of hose back up again.  I spend more time unrolling and rolling hose than I spend watering the flowers.  It's a ridiculous waste of time and energy that could be avoided by keeping a barrel of water right here where it's needed.  
However this is our front yard I'm talking about, and so whatever I install here has to have maximum attractiveness.  I fell in love with this Sam's Club offering (left side of photo).  It has a nice textured surface, the color coordinates perfectly with our brick, and there's a planter in the top of it so that you can put plants that will grow and cascade over the side and disguise the fact that the rain barrel is even present.  
Tap to expand.  Basically this is a reference to the fact that POAs and HOAs cannot prohibit residential rainwater harvesting in Texas.  However, it is within their authority to place limits on how homeowners design their systems, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they're going to want to see installations that are as attractive as possible.  And I can't blame them for that.

Screengrabbed from this Texas Water Development Board site.  
Dry fit, before I created a stable base.  With screening plantings and whatnot, you can see that this barrel could be made to be inconspicuous.  
Let me walk you through creation of the base and downspout diversion.  Most people don't realize how heavy rain barrels are (including manufacturers who under-engineer them for the stress loads they must bear).  When full of water, this barrel will weigh almost 500 pounds!!  (65 gallons x 7.5 lbs/gallon).  That requires a stable base or it could become a safety hazard (what if it tipped over and fell on a child?).
I started by removing one of our foundation shrubs.  
Then I scraped off the mulch to expose the sand layer emplaced by the builder.  I used a tamper to compact it.  
Soil compaction is good exercise for the core and arms.  
Addition of limestone gravel to help with under-drainage.  Also compacted.  
On top of the limestone, a layer of decomposed granite and then cinder blocks on top of that, making sure to keep everything absolutely level.  
12" x 12" caps on top of the cinder blocks.  
This basically creates a robust 2' x 2' pad.  And the open sides of the cinder blocks can serve as toad houses.  
Except in my case, I blocked off the toad-house holes so that the surrounding soil and mulch would not spill into them.  
Now for the barrel preparation.  This one needed an overflow hole to be drilled.  Very important because excess water needs to be conveyed away from your slab.  
A rain barrel is, indeed, a good idea - but only if it is properly designed, constructed, and installed.  

Overflow port successfully drilled.  
Some simple fittings from the hardware store for the overflow tube.    

You can pick up these white plastic flex pieces for about a buck and a half at hardware store.  Here you can see the top planter in the barrel.  
We simply re-routed the existing downspout. If I were keeping this assemblage, I would paint the white plastic piece to match the downspout so that it looks cohesive and inconspicuous. 
And then the blue overflow hose is tucked into the existing flex tube that the downspout had originally been placed in.

It's not too ugly, is it??  You can tell that, when re-mulched and when trimmed out with screening vegetation, it would not be an eyesore.  
Now for the fatal flaw in this otherwise-exemplary home improvement story.
In order to test the final configuration, we (sigh) unrolled 30 feet of garden hose and ran the water into the rain gutter to simulate rainwater run-off.  

And guess what happened next??  
No rainbows and butterflies today!!!

It was only upon testing in situ that we discovered that this barrel is badly defective.  The side seams were not welded properly.  An uncountable number of pin-hole leaks down the sides immediately made themselves apparent.  
OMG, somebody shoot me - it never occurred to me that this barrel might leak badly right from the moment that it rolled off the assembly line.  It never occurred to me to test the barrel for water-tightness even before I took the store labels off.  I'm used to rain barrels failing 3 to 12 months into their operation.  This doesn't even rise to the level of infant mortality - this damned thing was stillborn.
Wikipedia's explanation of the bathtub curve, which describes the nature of engineering failures. Apparently many would beg to differ with me on my essential distinction between "infant mortality" and "stillborn".  
Sigh.  My bad, obviously.  And obviously, I do not recommend that you purchase this particular rain barrel.
Out of stock?  Really?  And how many other hapless would-be-greenie consumers in our local area have experienced what I've shown above??

Screengrabbed  on June 8, 2014 from this site
So I am now the proud owner of three (count 'em) non-working rain barrels.  I've begun to turn my attention to ways in which I might somehow retrofit or otherwise adapt one or more of them in order to recoup some measure of functionality (liners? structural supports? internal coatings?  some combination of the above?).  If I figure out what these things are good for other than disposal in a landfill, I'll publish a follow-up post.

Meanwhile, best wishes to the 200 of you who recently purchased rain barrels from the City of League City.  May you have better luck with your barrels than I have had with all of mine.

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