Home & Garden

Rain barrels, ‘smart’ irrigation examined

Wichita is trying to encourage water conservation in the wake of the drought, and, in the garden department, a recently introduced rebate program carries incentives for people who want to buy rain barrels and “smart” irrigation controls as part of the effort.

People can receive as much as $75 toward the purchase or construction of a rain barrel, and as much as $100 toward the purchase of a “smart” controller for a sprinkler system.

But the new equipment is not for everybody. You may not want to use water from rain barrels on your vegetable garden, for example. And the new technology for irrigation systems can take a lot of fine-tuning to work properly. Here’s a look at how you can save water – as well as the limitations you’ll run into – with the old-fashioned and new-technology equipment.

Rain barrels

When people get a rain barrel, the hardest part is cutting the gutter in order to attach it to the rain barrel, said Diane Dorsch of Derby, a master gardener who started making rain barrels years ago when she couldn’t afford to buy one. She has since offered many seminars and talks in the area on making your own.

You will cut the gutter with a hacksaw only after placing the rain barrel on a sturdy stand or concrete blocks on a level, solid footing in the yard, and then attaching a flexible hose to the top of the barrel, and measuring how far the hose reaches. That’s where you need to cut the gutter. If you’re lucky, the hose may stretch to a seam so that the section of gutter can be removed rather than cut. Either way, “it’s not too bad,” Dorsch said.

Accessories are becoming increasingly available at hardware and home-improvement stores to give people more options, she said. For example, a Y diverter can be placed on the gutter so that one end opens into the rain barrel and the other attaches to part of the gutter that was cut off, with a lever that allows you to choose which side to have open to the rainwater. The Rainwater Collection System by Oatey is another option, Dorsch said. It allows the rain barrel to fill up and then diverts the water to the gutter. It’s a shorter piece than the Y diverter, so you probably would be able to reattach all of the gutter that had been cut off, Dorsch said.

Another requirement for a rain barrel is that it have an overflow capability. In Dorsch’s case, she has a long hose attached to each rain barrel so that the overflow is directed to a rain garden at the bottom of her yard.

For day-to-day watering from the barrels, she has a procession of watering cans lined up to fill with rainwater. She puts granular fertilizer in the can as needed, along with a golf ball in each to keep the fertilizer stirred up. She also will attach a hose to the spout of a rain barrel and let the rainwater gently flow out for a period of time around each plant that needs water while she weeds in the vicinity.

“Another thing is to let it soak on some of the shrubs that need a little bit more,” she said.

“It’s a gravity flow,” she said. The higher the barrel and the fuller it is, the more force the water will have. Rain barrels may be able to produce enough gravity to push water out of a soaker hose very weakly, but probably not enough for most drip irrigation. “It’s just a nice soft water,” Dorsch said.

There are some exceptions to this rule for the very handy. Paul Fiebach of Derby has one of his barrels pour into a laundry tub where a “dirty water” sump pump gives him enough pressure to run a low-volume sprinkler on his lawn.

“I found that you just go through it,” Dorsch said of the rainwater. She has four barrels. “They’re 55 gallons, and I usually go through that in a week, easy. I timed it — I think it does 2 gallons a minute.”

Dorsch recommends placing fiberglass mesh where the flexible hose goes into the top of the rain barrel to help keep out sediment.

A rainfall will quickly fill a rain barrel. A 1-inch rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof yields 623 gallons of water, said Peter Daniels of Wichita Rain Barrels. The rain barrels he makes hold 55 gallons and, when full, weigh almost 470 pounds. During a rain, the barrels have to be able to allow the same amount of water to flow out as flows in in case the barrel fills up, he said.

Rain barrels can be purchased from Daniels (at wichitarainbarrels.com; prices range from one barrel and basic equipment for $100 to $225 including installation and a $65 stand) as well as at some local retailers and online. When you start looking at fancy rain barrels that mimic pottery, prices start climbing.

“Most people would rather buy something already made,” Dorsch said. “There’s a lot of them that are real pretty; they look like terracotta pots. They’re more expensive, but it blends in with the background better. We painted ours.”

Barrels used for rainwater must be food-grade, and Dorsch uses soda-pop barrels that she gets from a recycler. She said that The Yard and other local places also carry the barrels if you want to make your own.

The water that comes off the roof will carry whatever is on top of the roof along with it, and that causes officials to issue cautions about using rainwater on vegetable gardens. It depends on what level of risk you want to take, extension agent Rebecca McMahon said.

While Daniels points out that whatever falls on the roof is falling on plants anyway, McMahon said that bacteria multiplies in water and is invisible there.

A study done by Rutgers Cooperative Extension and reported in the May issue of the Journal of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents showed that 9 percent of rainwater samples tested were above recommended irrigation guidelines for E. coli, with the source being fecal matter from wildlife. The study called the risk minimal but recommended cleaning the barrel with a 3 percent bleach solution before collecting water to irrigate a vegetable garden.

“Household, unscented bleach with a 5 to 6 percent chlorine solution can be added at the rate of 1/8 teaspoon per gallon (eight drops),” the study said. “Prior to irrigating a vegetable garden, water in a typical 55-gallon rain barrel should be treated with approximately 1 ounce of bleach. Wait approximately 24 hours after the addition of bleach to allow the chlorine to dissipate before using the water. It should be noted that household bleach is not labeled for use in water treatment by the Food and Drug Administration, although it is frequently recommended for emergency disinfection of drinking water.”

Rainwater should not be used on leaf vegetables, the study said, and the watering should be done on the ground in the morning. Harvesting should be done later to allow for drying of any wet leaves and for ultraviolet disinfection.

Said McMahon: “If you wanted to be completely safe, you would want to avoid using rain barrel water on vegetables because there is some risk of E. coli from animal feces.”

She said the water should be fine for ornamental plants and houseplants.

Rain barrels can be left outside in the winter with the spigot left open, Daniels said. Or if you have a Y diverter, you can divert the gutter outside the barrel, Dorsch said.

‘Smart’ irrigation controllers

The city of Wichita is offering rebates for the purchase of stand-alone or add-on irrigation controllers that bear a WaterSense label. The controllers water the landscape based on conditions in the yard and the rate of water that a landscape historically loses through evaporation and transpiration. The property’s Zip code tells the controller that latter part.

While the controllers are called “smart,” the technology is still evolving, and it doesn’t replace the human element.

“It’s smart in the sense it can do things that a normal controller can’t sense,” said Cathie Lavis, a K-State Extension landscape management specialist. “It’s so scary for me, because in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, they could use more water.”

And it’s not only the inputting of the correct information that she’s talking about.

“Until we can influence the end user and change our behaviors, none of these things are going to matter, because you’re still going to see people who say it’s 100 degrees, I better water” and then override the smart controls, Lavis said.

She said the smart controllers could be an improvement to the normal scenario: A sprinkler-system contractor goes to a property to do a spring tuneup and turn on the clock, programming it to start running at certain times every week for certain amounts of time, and then the only thing that changes the program is if there’s a rain sensor that signals the system to turn off in the rain.

But Jason Barber, who is a technician for Countryside Lawn and Tree Care, said it took him a month to get his smart controller programmed correctly. He said the top-of-the-line Rainbird smart controller installed will cost $600, and a homeowner should plan on three to four service calls to work out the kinks.

“It’s not real easy for a homeowner,” he said.

Barber said that landscape factors including the amount of sun or shade, the slope, the plant type and the soil type (according to the instruction booklet) had to be programmed for every area, or zone, of the yard, and it takes 35 to 40 minutes to program each zone. The weather station that comes with the controller monitors temperature and rainfall but not wind, he said.

Don Wendt, president of Countryside, said he was not sold on the smart controllers, at least not yet. Wendt said that rain sensors are not part of the rebate program, even though they’re a more proven help to saving water. He also questioned why the rebate program didn’t cover pressure-regulating systems that reduce the amount of water that sprays out if a head breaks.

Lavis said that she sees soil sensors, which are not yet readily available for homeowners, as being the wave of future smart technology. When the sensors are placed appropriately in a yard, the signals are very straightforward to the sprinkler system: “I’m dry: Run. I’m wet now: Stop running.”