Photograph by Paul Thompson/Photolibrary
Check local ordinances: Many governments and municipalities embrace rain barrel use and offer financial incentives to residents who install them. Some cities even require water-catchment systems. In Santa Fe county, New Mexico, all new residential construction must provide a means for capturing rainwater, whether a rain barrel or cistern, or land features like a berm or swale.
But some states, like Colorado and Utah, limit rainwater harvesting. Colorado residents who want to install a rain barrel must qualify for and receive a well-water permit and harvest water only for house-specific uses, such as fire protection or flushing toilets (lawns and gardens do not count). In Utah, rainwater is considered state property and homeowners can’t legally harvest it. (This year, Utah lawmakers will consider legislation that would modify the existing ban for domestic uses.)
Don’t drink the water: Rain-barrel water is not potable, since water caught on a roof carries contaminants such as bird droppings and other potentially harmful matter. Likewise, rain-barrel water is not safe for cooking, bathing or overhead watering of edible plants. You can use rain-barrel water on edible plants if you drip-irrigate, but be sure to wash produce thoroughly prior to eating.
Think about outdoor water use: Do you wash your car or driveway frequently? Have a swimming pool to top off, or a particularly thirsty flower bed? Site your rain barrel as close as possible to one of these spots.
Care and maintenance: Check rain barrels regularly for vegetation and debris. Tighten connections and maintain any screens around the tank. Empty and clean the tank at least once a year to remove sediment. If mosquitoes are a problem, consider using a mosquito dunk or donut. If you live in a cold-weather area, drain the barrel to protect it from freezing temperatures.
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