The second week of 2011 there are three flood warnings and two storm warnings flashing little red triangles in the corner of my screen. In a macabre bit of irony, The Oregonian crumpled on my coffee table just told me “By 2015, typical Portland homeowners will have seen their monthly city utility rate rise from $42.58 to $116 in 15 years.”

The solution is so obvious it’s almost like we’ve been standing in puddles of it for the last two months. Rain barrels, while not a novel innovation even with the term “rain catchment system”, are having a renaissance in Portland. And if you have the skills to place a pan under leaky faucet, you can save a little of our sopping season to help your garden and landscaping flourish, give the environment a little reprieve and save yourself a few dollars this summer. Portland’s own Rainbarrel Man, AKA John Elliote, rain harvesting designer and installer featured on Neighborhood Notes two years ago, offered simple steps anyone can follow to capture rain from their roof to use for irrigating gardens and outdoor greenery.

Step 1: Gather Supplies You'll Need

Jon Elliote, the Rainbarrel Man.
John Elliote, the Rainbarrel Man. Photo © Heather Zinger.

First you need supplies. For containers your options will vary from Golden Grail to utility bucket, depending on your budget and aesthetic aspirations. Elliote recommends, and sells, large plastic drums composed of “chemically inert” material. He said for the purposes of watering a garden for edible produce the only safe container is one with no potential to leech chemicals into the water supply.

“The problem is a lot of barrels say ‘food storage container’ and people get the impression that’s safe,” Elliote said. “But it’s not what was stored in the barrel you need to worry about, you need to make sure the materials used to make it are safe.”

Local wineries sometimes sell wine barrels ideal for outdoor irrigation, and ceramic containers are available online and at gardening centers. For safe plastic, try recycling centers or a knowledgeable installer like Elliote, Harvest the Sky or Portland Purple Water. To use water for gardening a spigot of some kind must be inserted and sealed into the barrel a few inches above the base of the container so clean water can be easily fitted to a drip irrigation line or a hose.

Step 2: Create a Route for the Water

Chris Gibb's uses a chain (left) while Jim O'Conner uses a standard diverter (right).
Chris Gibbs uses a rain chain (left) and Jim O'Conner uses a standard diverter (right).
Photo © Heather Zinger

Next, you need a route to get the water from your gutters to the barrels. Elliote recommends a Watersaver Diverter, available at hardware stores and online. Some do-it-yourselfers develop their own systems like Chris Gibbs, a PSU engineering student with 11 converted wine barrels irrigating the front and back landscaping of his home on Southeast Stark. Gibbs used rain chains, purchased online, to direct water to the containers. “The sound of the water, and watching it run down to the barrels really adds the kind of atmosphere I personally like,” Gibbs said.

Step 3: Choose Method of Delivery to Your Garden

A spigot is the simplest method of delivering water.
A spigot is the simplest method of delivering water. Photo © Heather Zinger

The last essential item for your system is a method of delivering the water from the basin or container to your garden. With any gravity-powered system the most efficient delivery is done by drip irrigation systems, according to Elliote. “You can get the water directly to the roots, and nothing gets wasted or erodes the soil as runoff,” he said. He and several manufacturers provide lines designed for very low-pressure systems, like those dependent on gravity.

Merina Chase, who uses her rain catchment system to irrigate the backyard garden beds and front yard landscaping surrounding her Laurelhurst home, said she has simplified the irrigation process to its essentials:

“I just think it’s easiest to fill buckets at the spigot and carry water,” she said. “The best use is for the kids to play around in the mud anyway.” After five years using barrels, Chase said, caring for plants and outdoor projects was easier with a waterspout in her hand.

Step 4: Find a Location for Containers

Jim O'Conner's decorative stand for barrels in his front yard.
Jim O'Conner's decorative stand for barrels in his front yard. Photo © Heather Zinger

Now that you have the fundamental materials find a location for your containers. Consider the appearance of your home, ease of routing water from downspouts and convenient access. If a location is aesthetically unacceptable, consider wooden covers. Elliote designs wooden-slat covers for barrels. When Laurelhurst resident Jim O’Connor wanted to add two barrels for a new garden in front of his home he built a wooden stand of lattice to avoid visible tubs. He said his wife was pleased with the appearance and excited for the new garden.

To produce enough pressure to effectively use drip irrigation, Elliote said containers should be elevated at least two feet higher than the area you intend to water. Lumber can be used to build a stand, but for a low price Elliote said cinder blocks can support several 55 gallon barrels.

Step 5: Don't Forget About Routine Maintenance

Merina Chase cleans leaves out of a barrel.
Merina Chase cleans leaves out of a barrel. Photo © Heather Zinger

After installing your containers and attaching your irrigation system remember routine maintenance. In warm weather add mosquito prevention to your water. There has been some success using guppies to maintain water quality, but occasional cleaning is recommended.