Published on 09/06/07

Need outdoor water? 4-H'er upgrades rain barrels

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

As this year's drought drags on and on, prospects don't look good for fall gardens. Collecting and using the rain we do get could be the answer.

"Our local government, in their quest to address storm-water issues, encourages all citizens to implement storm-water control methods at their homes," said former Clarke County 4-H'er Chip Felton, one of two Northeast District winners in the Georgia 4-H Leadership in Action project.

In Felton's project, he looked to a new twist on an age-old concept: rain barrels. He volunteered to lead a project making rain-collection barrels from donated soft drink barrels and give them to Clarke County residents.

Felton met with the Athens-Clarke County storm-water education coordinator in November 2005. "We reviewed the steps for making rain barrels and identified design flaws," he said. He came up with a plan that gave him "a better understanding of the need for action in the community."

And take action he did. During the winter, he tested design modifications that would give people better access to the collected water. He ended up using a low-cost addition to create a siphon effect.

He recruited other teens and showed them how to make the barrels and use the needed power tools safely.

"The barrels are made from recycled soft-drink syrup barrels donated by Coca-Cola," he said. "The Athens-Clarke County storm-water department used grant funds to provide the materials" (faucets, drains, fittings) to make them.

Standing water in rain barrels can invite unwanted pests such as mosquitoes. Felton enlisted the help of a local group that serves developmentally disabled people to cut mosquito screens to fit the barrel inlets. That helps keep mosquitoes from laying eggs in the barrels.

They began making the barrels in March 2006, "working after school and on Saturdays," Felton said. It takes about an hour and 45 minutes to build each barrel. "We completed 239 barrels for distribution to county residents over several months."

By August, all 239 were given away. Each came with written instructions and helpful hints on setup, mosquito control and the benefits of rain recycling.

To make a rain barrel or start a community project of your own, here are the steps:

Collect and clean the barrel.

Drill holes of varying sizes for inlets, faucets and drains.

Assemble a siphon and faucet.

Vacuum the debris from the drilling, and install the faucets and drains.

Cover the inlet with net to prevent mosquitoes.

Place the barrel where it can catch the most rainwater runoff.

"We were able to provide these collection barrels to Athens-Clarke County residents at no cost," Felton said. "This allowed them to become an active component in the county's storm-water control effort. The potential impact goes beyond the 239 homes which received the barrels."

Felton feels the project helps the community by diverting storm water that would otherwise become runoff. Storm water is the biggest contributor to nonpoint-source pollution of surface water, he said. Reducing it can help keep pollutants out of streams, lakes and rivers.

The program also informed people about threats to surface water quality and showed ways, such as making rain gardens, to further control storm water.

People could put the collected rainfall to outdoor uses, too, keeping accent plants and garden areas healthy. "This can save the homeowner money, as they're not using potable water for outdoor uses," he said, "It's also a savings to the community by lessening the demand on water treatment facilities."

When he finished the project, Felton surveyed the community and found that many more residents wanted the barrels. He has a new shipment of containers on the way.

To find out more about rain barrels or how to start a community rain barrel projects, call your county UGA Extension agent at 1-800-ASK-UGA1.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.