When I read about the resurgence of rain barrels going on these days, I think of them as part of the urban scene for some reason, not something popular out here where the corn grows tall. So I was more than a little surprised when our local Soil and Water Conservation District began selling them. Fifty bucks. Here in my neighborhood, more people have farm ponds and cisterns than rain barrels, and those of us who do catch roof water in small amounts have managed to equip ourselves with barrels without, God forbid, spending money for one. If you can’t beg a free barrel, you just ain’t real country yet.
Actually, I would buy a rain barrel if I had to. We’ve always kept one or two around the place, even back when we lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I’ve used them mainly so that I don’t have to carry water to the chickens. A barrel is certainly cheaper than a pipe line, well, cistern or pond. What I finally did in the suburbs so as to have water handy throughout winter, was to partially bury a galvanized steel stock tank of about 30 gallons behind the chicken coop and rabbit pens, a sort of cheap, tiny cistern with boards over it for a cover, and ran a length of roof guttering from the coop roof to the tank.
I wonder if the resurgence of the rain barrel is just a step on the way back to more cisterns. That’s what a cistern is— a glorified rain barrel. The Soil and Water Conservation District is pushing rain barrels as a way to lessen the flow of runoff water into streams, storm sewers and (here) Lake Erie. Surely cisterns would be more effective. With the recent panic over the contamination of public water out of Lake Erie in the Toledo, Ohio area, the situation is now dire enough to make the cistern more worthy of attention. Knowledgeable cistern owners know how to keep roof water surely as clean as Lake Erie water and it would be most comforting not only to have your own water, but to be able, with a simple hand pump, to have water when the power goes off. Rain water is very soft, great for washing hair or clothes. With a full-sized cistern you wouldn’t need a water softener, you’d use less soap, and as an alternative to public water, save lots of money. The downsize is that you’d have to train your teenagers not to take hour long showers.
But rain barrels might be a way to have the best of both worlds— an adequate emergency water supply without the cost of a full-sized cistern. Jandy’s market farm (Jan Dawson and Andy Reinhart who, I am honored to say, comment on this website) maintain a sophisticated rain water irrigation system for their gardens— large recycled plastic tanks with piping to various crop plots, catching the water off several large sheds. They believe that warmish rain water used for irrigation makes plants grow better than well water or tap water and I am inclined to agree. I can sprinkle well water on our gardens for several hours at a time and not get the response of even a mild rain shower. I’ve heard (don’t know for sure) that rainwater has more nitrogen in it than ground water.
So let’s say we go one step farther, a little more towards a cistern but far cheaper. Let’s bury several barrels, or one larger plastic or masonry receptacle in the ground to provide year-round emergency water— with a hand pump on top to get the water out. Once I buried two barrels at our barn under the downspout, and just dipped the water out with a bucket. A wooden cover with an old rug over it kept the water from freezing. My mistake was in using steel barrels, which rusted in a few years. (Now, with only a few chickens and no livestock, I just use a couple of five gallon buckets insulated with old rugs and sometimes snow.) In old barns in Wisconsin and Minnesota I’ve seen “cisterns” in hay lofts that in olden times were buried under hay in winter. With the cows in stanchions below for more warmth, these tanks did not freeze enough to present a problem. Since they were on the floor above the animals stayed, no pump was needed to deliver the water to pens and stalls.
As long as we’re brainstorming, let’s go one more step. Let’s stock our large rainwater storage tank(s) with fish. That has been done often, in various ways. When I was a child, our concrete watering trough for the horses and cattle, about four by ten feet in size and five feet deep, always had catfish in it, some of goodly size. We kept the tank from completely freezing with a thick sawdust cover over half of it. Since Dad brewed his own beer on occasion, and since we grew lots of wheat and corn, we might have been the first beer-battered fish farm in the nation if we had only known.