What Good is a Rain Barrel during a Drought?

A rain barrel is useless when there is no rain—or is it? With a little ingenuity, you can keep your rain barrel full without rain. Your plants will thank you.

climbing-rosebush-watered-via-bucket-during-drought
This climbing rosebush planted over 25 years ago by the original homeowners is still going strong after 4 years of being watered via bucket.

I believe people have a natural affinity for living green things. We need trees, plants, and flowers physically for oxygen and food and spiritually for beauty and connectedness to the rest of nature.

In our sparsely forested and wild yard, we have a small collection of potted plants, a few drought-resistant bushes, and a decades-old climbing rosebush. To me this is beautiful.

When drought and water restrictions hit our town, we either had to let everything growing in our yard survive on what little rain fell or supplement it with water that did not come from an outdoor hose. We turned to untapped (pun intended) sources of water inside our house. Hint, the solution involves buckets.

The Bucket Brigade

As an environmentalist and resident of a drought-stricken town, I am willing to do things to save water but jumping into a freezing cold shower is not one of them. Now, I keep a plastic bucket in my shower and collect the first 30-seconds or so of water while it warms up. I put the bucket on the floor outside the shower and get in. On especially cold days, a smaller vessel is handy for collecting water while waiting to wash my hands or face.

I am amazed at the amount of water we used to let run down our drains before implementing the bucket brigade. It is also surprising what you can keep alive with a few buckets of water.

I used to carry my shower bucket downstairs, out the door, and dump it on one of our outdoor plants in an informal rotation. Then I bought a rain barrel.

Our House Gets a Rain Barrel

It seemed silly to get a rain barrel when we hardly ever have rain. Then it struck me that we could fill up a rain barrel with the bucket brigade during the dry months and then with rain if it ever rains. Now we can collect water daily and disburse it periodically.

Shopping for a Rain Barrel

Usually, I do a fair amount of research before embarking on a new project or buying equipment. The day I bought the rain barrel, my son and I drove into the “big city” and I walked into a home improvement store with no idea what was available or what I wanted. I figured there would be a wide selection for thrifty water collectors in our dehydrated region. Shockingly, there was only one model. It was an ugly Grecian urn-looking thing made out of black plastic. I measured it and fortunately, it was too wide to fit in the space by our garage so rejecting it was easy.

With little hope of success, we drove over to the only other home improvement store in the area. This store had an expansive selection, which included two models. The rain barrels were stuck way in the back of the garden section behind a bunch of stuff and covered in dust and a few cobwebs. One of the units was a 50-gallon plastic wood barrel lookalike with a flat back (to fit against a wall). I liked it and after measuring it determined it would fit in the allotted space.

I paid for the rain barrel while a store clerk manhandled it out of the corner. My son loaded it in the car and we headed home.

Installing a Rain Barrel

Installing a rain barrel is relatively easy if you have a hacksaw and a handy person like my spouse to do it. You saw off a portion of the rain gutter drainpipe, put the barrel in place, refit the curvy bit of drainpipe on the end, screw in the spigot, attach a hose if you want, and put the debris screen on the top. Our driveway is a little uneven, so we put a few pieces of metal under part of the bottom edge as a shim.

Some people choose to buy a water barrel stand or put it on top of a couple of concrete blocks to make accessing the spigot or filling up a bucket easier. I did not think of this until we got home. See if I had done my homework ahead of time, I would have thought about the possibility of needing a stand. Fortunately, we have a little pump I can use if I need it.

Filling a Rain Barrel

The first time I carried a bucket of shower water down the stairs and dumped it in the rain barrel, about half of it sloshed out over the barrel. After another couple of tries, I now have the hang of how to pour so the water actually goes in the barrel. Besides saving water, daily trips from the shower to the rain barrel allow me to get in an extra four flights of stairs a day. It is good exercise.

We are keeping our yard alive with a few buckets, a barrel, and a little creative thinking. Whenever I look outside and see our little bit of greenery, I feel pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.

I can hear the rosebush singing.

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California Drought – You Cannot Drink Denial

Shasta Lake, CA on February 25, 2016 - Photo Florence Low, CA DWR
Shasta Lake, CA after El Niño Rains on February 25, 2016 – Photo Florence Low, CA Department of Water Resources

If you live in a parched place like California, conserving water should be routine by now. If it is not, stop living in denial and start saving water today.

California is in its 5th year of drought. Watching the news, reading the paper, or surfing the web you cannot help but learn about drastically low reservoir levels, the worst snowpack in history, and wells running dry at an alarming rate.

Sure, overall, California households have reduced water use in the last several years, but as soon as we get a little rain, water use goes up even though a severe drought still exists.

California Household Average Water Use Per Person Per Day

  • July 2016 – 113.5 gallons
  • July 2015 – 98.1 gallons
  • July 2014 – 132.9 gallons
  • July 2013 – 142 gallons

Green lawns abound and water continues to flow freely from faucets. It is as if some people believe politicians and government agencies are going to fix it somehow—so they do not need to change their behavior.

My Webster’s Dictionary defines denial as, “an unconscious thought process whereby one allays anxiety by refusing to acknowledge the existence of certain unpleasant aspects of external reality.”

When you turn on the tap and nothing comes out, it will be too late to start conserving water. Protect the place you live and your family by facing the drought head on and starting to reduce your water use today. Begin with the low-hanging fruit, like installing low-flow showerheads and then move on to the difficult stuff like ripping out your thirsty turf grass lawn.

Make Conserving Water at Home a Habit

Our small town on the California Central Coast is entering year 4 of stage 3 (the highest) mandatory water conservation measures. At one point a couple of years ago, the water district feared our wells might run dry. Fortunately, that has not occurred…so far. This is due mostly to residents and businesses making a huge effort to conserve water. For instance, our town’s overall water usage in July 2016 was down 41% from July 2013.

In our household, we have not always been water wise, but we have been taking the drought seriously for several years. Since moving here 9 years ago, we have reduced our overall water use by 65%. We currently use about 25 gallons of water per person per day.

Conserving water is a habit, part of our daily routine. For instance, for me, catching the first 30 seconds of cold shower water in a bucket for later reuse is automatic, like brushing my teeth twice a day.

I am not saying we are paragons of water conservation, but we do know a thing or two about it. Perhaps one or more of our water savings solutions will work for your household.

Fully Loaded

Standard kitchen faucets pump out 2 gallons of water or more per minute so if you think hand washing dishes saves water, think again. Fully load your dishwasher and then run it.

One habit I had to break was sorting laundry into numerous piles and then washing them. Most fabrics today do not require special handling so now I load up the washer for each cycle.

Shower Savings

A standard showerhead flows at 2.5 gallons per minute or more. If you take a 10-minute shower with the water running, you can easily use 25 gallons of water. Filling up a standard bathtub uses a whopping 35-50 gallons of water.

We equipped our showers with low flow showerheads with trickle or turn off valves. I am not even remotely handy, yet I installed one of the showerheads myself so you probably can, too.

To Flush or Not to Flush

Toilets are the number one water hogs in the house, consuming about 27% of indoor household water. Older toilets use 3-5 gallons per flush and newer models still use 1.6 gallons. Millions of old toilets have slow leaks.

When water wells in our town were dangerously low, we implemented the “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” method. That was effective, but we decided to replace our old toilets with dual flush high-efficiency toilets that use 0.9 or 1.2 gallons of water per flush. We saw a huge drop in our water usage.

Drought Resistant Yard

Lawns and landscaping can suck up anywhere from 30-70% of your household water usage. Lawns cause pollution, too, from fertilizer, weed killer, and pesticide runoff.

Fortunately, our yard is mostly wild with no turf grass (we did have front and back lawns in Southern California). Plants in our yard must be able to survive on a tiny amount of rainfall or an occasional drink from the various buckets we keep in our sinks and showers.

I acknowledge that removing a lawn is a difficult and expensive endeavor, especially if you include the cost of what you put in instead of grass. If you are not ready to tackle your lawn, implementing one or more of the suggestions above will at least set you on the path to reducing your water footprint.

Share your water saving story with other readers.

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Rooftop Solar Costs Less than You Think

Picture yourself typing $4.50 in your online bill pay service for your August electric bill using a tablet or computer powered by the solar panels on your roof. Install rooftop solar now and this could be you next year.

We are in our second year of generating electricity from our rooftop solar panels. I thought it might be useful to share our real life experience in hopes of convincing others to go solar.

Row Houses with Rooftop Solar Panels in South London, England - Photo: Steve Cadman / Flickr
Row Houses with Rooftop Solar Panels in South London, England – Photo: Steve Cadman / Flickr

Home Rooftop Solar – Pay It Forward

While the allure of free electricity a few years down the road was appealing, that was not the reason we decided to put solar panels on our roof.

This may sound silly or overly dramatic, but it is true; we invested in solar panels for the good of our children, your children, and everyone’s children. We, and by we, I mean everyone including me, cannot continue to burn fossil fuels and still have a habitable planet to live on. We must switch to clean renewable energy sources not in a few years or the next decade, but right now—today.

Putting solar panels on our roof was a major step towards our goal of running our home and life with clean renewable energy. Sure, we have a ways to go, but we are moving forward and momentum is a powerful force.

Imagine if there were solar panels on every home, office building, apartment complex, manufacturing plant, and retail store. We literally could power the world using the sun.

Solar Panels on Multi-Family Housing in Wuxi, China - Photo: Zhenfa New Energy
Solar Panels on Multi-Family Housing in Wuxi, China – Photo: Zhenfa New Energy

We Install Solar Panels on Our Roof

I chronicled our initial installation in Go Solar with Home Rooftop Photovoltaics – We Did. Two surprising and interesting things occurred during the project.

The first surprise was the cost of the system.

Our rooftop solar system cost less than we had anticipated. Interestingly, most people we have talked with about our project pegged solar panels at double their actual cost. There are articles a plenty stating the cost of solar has decreased dramatically, yet it seems the solar industry has not succeeded in conveying how truly affordable rooftop solar is today.

Granted, our rooftop solar system was not inexpensive and it will take several years to recoup the project cost, but then electricity will be virtually free for the next 15 years or so.

The second surprise occurred during the installation.

As a former project manager, I have been on many construction sites and worked with umpteen contractors. In addition, my spouse and I have completed several home maintenance and improvement projects over the years. We have had good, not so good, and horrendous experiences with construction projects and contractors.

We chose a solar installer, A.M. Sun Solar, recommended by a homeowner we had visited and duly checked their license and other references. We felt comfortable with the people and the company from the first meeting and all throughout the contract and ordering phases. There was no reason to believe the installation would not go well, but still, I was wary. As it turned out, I was amazed at how smoothly the installation went.

3 Solar Panels on South Facing Side of Author's Roof
3 Solar Panels on South Facing Side of Author’s Roof

Our Electric Bills Plummet

Our solar panel system is grid-tied, meaning it connects to the PG&E electricity grid. When our solar panels generate more electricity than we are using, the excess power goes into the grid and we receive a credit. At night or on days when cloud cover is excessive, we buy electricity from PG&E.

We are on PG&E’s net energy meter (NEM) program so receive monthly bills for about $4.50, which include costs for transmission, distribution, public purpose programs, nuclear decommissioning, DWR bond charge, on-going CTC, generation, and an Energy Commission tax.

Once a year, there is a “true up” statement; the total electricity we used from the grid is subtracted from the total electricity we sent to it. If we used more than we contributed, we receive an additional bill. If we used less, we receive a credit (PG&E does not issue refund checks).

In our first year, we sent more electricity to the grid than we used so we ended up with credit. We’ve been working it off since our April 2014 bill and it will be exhausted in November.

Homes with Rooftop Solar Panels at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, AZ - Photo: Solar City
Homes with Rooftop Solar at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, AZ – Photo: Solar City

Tax Credits and More Solar Panels

When we installed our solar panels in 2013, PG&E was offering a rebate. We signed our rebate over to A.M. Sun Solar and they took the amount off the contract cost.

We took advantage of the 30% federal tax credit for renewable energy projects by submitting information about our solar investment on our 2013 IRS tax form. This resulted in a refund check.

Our initial goal had been to produce enough electricity to break even. After receiving the refund check, we decided to use it to max out our system by putting additional solar panels on the remaining sunny parts of our roof. That way the system would be handle an electric vehicle or larger family in the future. It made sense to purchase the equipment now so the entire system is approximately the same age.

We emailed Glen from A.M. Sun Solar and were pleasantly surprised to learn that we could fit another six solar panels on our roof and they would cost slightly less per panel than last year. How many things can you think of that go down in price instead of up? Since we were adding to an existing system, we did not need an additional permit. This time I knew the installation would run smoothly and it did.

IE Ponce Family Rooftop Solar Installation in Upland, CA - Photo: GRID Alternatives
IE Ponce Family Rooftop Solar Installation in Upland, CA – Photo: GRID Alternatives

Find Out if Rooftop Solar is Right for You

We live in a relatively sunny town with an average temperature of 65-75° during the warmer months of the year. We do not have any air conditioning equipment. My spouse and I both work out of our house so we use electricity at home all day long. Solar penciled out as a good investment for us, so it could be even more economically attractive for someone living in a sunny and hot climate with central air conditioning.

The federal tax credit expires on 12/31/2016 so there is still plenty of time to purchase and install your own rooftop solar panels and get the 30% tax credit. Find state incentives on the DSIRE website, and ask your electricity provider about available rebates and incentives for solar power projects.

I realize not everyone has the money to buy solar panels or may choose not to purchase them. Fortunately, there are other options available including leasing, purchase power agreements, and solar loans to name a few. Low-income families can get help from organizations like GRID Alternatives.

To find out if your home is a good candidate for solar panels, what a solar energy system would actually cost, and how much you could save on electric bills, pick up the phone, send an email, or go online. Locate a solar installer in your area by typing “rooftop solar” and your city into your web browser. It’s easy to get started.

Homes with Rooftop Solar in Japan - Photo: Kyodo / AP /  PA
Homes with Rooftop Solar in Japan – Photo: Kyodo / AP / PA

Join the clean energy movement and become one of the millions of people all over the world generating their own electricity from a clean renewable energy source—the sun.

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