[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly church activities, Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays]
A fetid swamp enclosed by rotting wood and crawling with algae and mosquito larvae. That’s the image the words “rain barrel” tend to strike into many of our minds. But today’s rain barrels have come a long way. Now made of thick, rot-resistant plastic (many barrels on the market are recycled from food shipping containers) and outfitted with screens to keep out mosquitoes and valves for easy watering, rain barrels are experiencing a revival.
After all, why not resurrect a garden fixture that costs under $100 and provides you with dozens of gallons of free, fresh water for the garden or washing your car? The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a rain barrel will save most homeowners 1,300 gallons of water during the summer months, which adds up to a lot of cash savings, too. Now imagine how much your church could save by installing rain barrels and using the water collected for its watering needs!
But the monetary savings are really just the icing on this creation care cake, because the main purpose of a rain barrel is to conserve water. Seventy to 75 percent of our world is covered in water, but only 1% of that water is available for human use. During the summer months, droughts become a reality for many of us when we face brown lawns and local watering restrictions. Installing a rain barrel is by far one of the easiest solutions to these problems. When your church uses a rain barrel, it not only provides water for plants, but in collecting the storm water that would otherwise flow into a city sewer system, your church also reinforces for itself the goodness of conservation and responsible stewardship.
Here’s what you need to know (and some fun ideas!) to cultivate your churchyard with one of the best water-saving devices around:
What to Get and Where to Put It
Fortunately, your church’s options for rain barrels are wide and varied, so you’re almost guaranteed to find one that will suit the needs of your buildings and grounds:
- Survey: With the help folks involved in your church’s grounds and building management, determine ahead of time how many downspouts from the building’s rain gutters will be available to “tap,” so to speak, with a rain barrel; what budget will be available for purchasing the rain barrels; and what sizes would be optimal given your area’s annual rainfall and projected water use (barrels usually hold between 50 and 80 gallons). Determine what additional materials might be needed for the set up of the barrels. Diverters for the down spouts, stands or tables for the rain barrels to rest on, and hoses to be attached to the barrels may all be additional parts you’ll want to install.
- Research: Browse rain barrels at your local hardware store or online at sites like Green Culture, RainBarrelSource.com or Aquabarrel. Research the price, volume, materials, additional parts, and design of the barrels offered to see what fits the needs your church’s needs.
- Buy: Ask the following questions before making your final purchase: Does the barrel have a screen or otherwise sufficient mosquito prevention? Does the barrel have valves/spigots that can be attached to hoses or opened into watering cans for efficient irrigation? Is the barrel an appropriate size and shape for its location around your church’s buildings? Is the barrel within the budget determined ahead-of-time for this purchase?
Installing your rain barrels can be a process as simple or complicated as you’d like to make it.
- Simple: A simple rain barrel installation will require detaching the gutter downspout from the building wall; possibly cutting some of the downspout; and using a flex hose, downspout redirector, or downspout elbow to aim the water directly into the top of the rain barrel. Watch a good tutorial from Clean Air Gardening.
- A little more complex: A more involved set up may require you to cut some of the downspout and employ hoses to draw water from a diverter attached to it. Hoses may also be used to attach multiple rain barrels to each other if you anticipate heavy rainfall. Here is one example of a more complex rain barrel set up, and here’s another, with multiple rain barrels.
- Rain barrel stand: In order to make your rain barrel work with gravity, you’ll want to place it on a stand so that water will easily flow from its spigots. You can build your own stand, which can be as simple as a few cinder blocks situated under the barrel, or you can purchase one for under $50.
Decorate and Celebrate
What keeps some folks from investing in a rain barrel is the appearance of the barrel. We’ve grown accustomed to downspouts hanging from our roofs and electrical wires spiraling out of our homes, but a big plastic tub sticking out from the wall can take some getting used to. But every moment is an opportunity, and installing a rain barrel at church is an opportunity for artistry and celebration! Bring the kids out, and the paints, and get the whole community involved in making your act of
stewardship an act of beauty, too.
- Supplies: Sponges or rags; soap; primer for the plastic surface of the barrels; durable, mural-style acrylic paints in a variety of colors; paint brushes; artist-quality varnish as a
- Preparation: Wipe down the rain barrels so that they are clear of debris (a deeper cleaning with soap may be necessary) and prime them with a primer appropriate for the plastic surface you’ll be working on. Let this dry.
- Paint: Divide the surface of the rain barrels into sections and invite the kids (and the adults, too!) to paint natural scenes in their section. Kids are great at this because they tend to be more tuned-in to creation than adults are. Ask them to paint what creation would look like if we all took better care of it, or what it looked like when God first made the Garden. You’ll get some interesting interpretations and beautiful work.
- Finish: Once the acrylic paints have dried, seal the barrel art with a weather-resistance glaze or varnish (available from local art or hardware stores).
- Celebrate: Host a picnic or some other kind of celebration during the painting or when the barrels are complete to praise God for his creation and to make a commitment to care for it through the installation of the rain barrels. This will give your congregation a spirit of ownership over this new measure of conservation.
Use and Upkeep
Congratulations! Now that your rain barrel is installed and decorated you can experience its full usefulness! But be sure to take good care of it, or it may become less useful over time.
- Watering: Whether the plan is to use the rain barrel-collected water on a regular basis or only during periods of drought, watering plants from the rain barrel is easy and provides them with free, uncontaminated water. Whenever it’s time to water the landscaping around your church, simply open the valve on a rain barrel and fill a watering can with the fresh water that pours out. You may also attach a soaker hose to the valve for low-pressure watering. A third, more complicated, option is to create a drip irrigation system with PVC piping marked with drip holes so that water from the rain barrel can automatically be distributed among your plants.
- Cleaning: Clean the rain barrels once before their first use and then once a year after that. Cleaning can be done with some vinegar (or other non-toxic cleaner) and a stiff brush. Scrub the inside of the barrel with the vinegar and rinse thoroughly.
Maintenance: Major maintenance of your rain barrels will center on storing them properly in the winter. If you
live in a region that regularly experiences freezing temperatures throughout the winter, you will need to pack up that barrel and put it out of winter’s way. Before temperatures dip below freezing, disconnect the downspout from the rain barrel (reconnecting any part of the downspout you removed during the installation of the barrel), empty the barrel of any remaining water, and flip it upside down. For an extra precaution, you may wish to store the barrels in a basement or garage for the winter months. Re-install them in the spring to catch snow-melt and those April showers!
Green Culture Rain Barrels
Rain Barrel Guide
Rain Barrel Resource