In New Orleans, it's advisable to keep an umbrella handy. Whether it's in the form of dreary sprinkles or a thunderstorm, rain is inevitable in this humid subtropical climate. Rain catchment systems, often called rain barrels, put the inconvenience to work.
Rain barrels typically connect to the end of a gutter or downspout to capture precipitation. Gardeners and landscapers then use what's collected as a natural water source.
The barrel is a simple, ecologically friendly device that has become one of the major fundraising efforts of the Second Chance project at Community Service Center Inc., a group that helps former criminal offenders reintegrate into the community.
"Fundraising had become a very difficult animal," says program director Octavia Edinburg. "After the storm, as things got worse financially for this population, we needed to look at other venues for fundraising. This is [a] nonthreatening way that people can support us."
Edinburg was attracted by the barrels' green properties. The water they collect nourishes gardens, and the barrels are made of recycled materials. The reinforced red plastic drums once held imported food products.
"It's actually the barrels that Italian dressings and seasonings are packaged in," Edinburg says. "Usually when we get them you can smell the olives, or it might be chopped vegetables."
Volunteers and program participants clean and assemble the barrels, which the group then sells for $55 each on its website (www.s145498.gridserver.com). The finished product includes a half-dollar-sized hole in the top to channel water and a screen over the hole that prevents mosquitos from colonizing. An attached faucet or spigot at the bottom lets water out or attaches to a hose to bring rainwater to indoor or outdoor crops or animals such as chickens.
The Community Service Center isn't the only group that wants to capture runoff. Local gutter care and siding company Pioneer Gutters sells and installs several varieties of rain barrels, including an oak barrel and plastic barrels in decorative styles, like faux stone.
Company owner Leslie Keating says rain barrels don't have to be placed beneath a gutter, but they should always be mounted on some sort of elevated platform. Though it won't ever provide as much pressure as the hose systems that accompany most homes, the higher a barrel sits, the greater the water pressure it can exert.
Another concern when mounting a barrel is its slope. The ground underneath a rain barrel should be level; when the company installs a rain barrel, it often sets down a concrete pad for stability.
"These things have a lot of water in them; they're extremely heavy. ... If it's not heavy, [children or pets] could pull it down on top of themselves," Keating says. "You want to make sure it's good and sturdy and level for safety issues."
Keating likes rain barrels because the water they collect has properties that city water lacks. Indoor plants especially can benefit from rainwater.
"The city includes all kinds of purification and chlorine in the water and takes out a lot of the minerals, and that's what your plants thrive on," Keating says. "Rainwater [is] a good substitute for Miracle-Gro."
To keep a rain barrel shipshape, store wood and thinner plastic barrels during the winter season, as rapid changes in temperature can crack the vessels. This maintenance period is a good time for cleaning. Though you shouldn't need to use soap or a scrub brush, a rinse with a bit of pressure helps prevent algae and bacteria from building up inside the barrel. A monthly layer of Armor All on the exterior of a plastic barrel protects it from damaging UV rays.
For rain barrels attached to a downspout, an additional filter inside the gutter cuts down on debris. Keating notes that in this area, barrels fill up quickly, so stagnant water isn't much of a concern but adds that it's important to keep the screen of the barrel clean to prevent debris from falling in.
Rain barrels can become a decorative element in a yard without much landscaping. Some homeowners are drawn to the look of classic oak barrels, while others prefer models that are sold with detachable planters for flowers. In these cases, the rain barrel becomes a pedestal for a flower box.
"[Planters] are kind of like putting shutters on your house; it dresses things up a bit," Keating says.
The Second Chance project takes the decorative concept a step further. In the past, it has invited local artists to paint barrels to be raffled off as a benefit for the group. A prized neon-decorated rain barrel sits in the company's office. Other barrel owners decorate their rain catchment systems with whimsical designs, though Edinburg says people should consider placement in a covered area to preserve any serious artistic efforts.
"For people who have sun porches and patios that get some level of protection, it makes a wonderful conversation piece," Edinburg says. "[Otherwise] it's hassle-free, it can be really cute. ... We had kids who painted shoes on them and fleurs-de-lis, just for the fun of it."