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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 27, 2008

The return of the rain barrel 

Having grown up in suburban, post-World War II America, I am a flagrant waster of water. I run water over dishes as I wash them, unconcerned as the excess runs down the drain. My husband calls it “The Talking Waters.” I call it hydro-therapy.

As a child, I played endlessly with my sisters on hot summer days, jumping through the sprinkler that watered our always-green lawn.

We sang a song as kids: “Playmate, come out and play with me. Bring your dollies three. Climb up my apple tree. Shout down my rain barrel. Slide down my cellar door. And we’ll be jolly friends for ever more.”

Certainly, I had dolls. And my next-door neighbor had a slanted cellar door. But I don’t believe I had ever seen a rain barrel. I may have even misconstrued the words as rainbow, though who knows how I’d imagine shouting down that.

I was fascinated with my elegant grandmother. She used to fill a sink basin just enough to wash her face, and then she’d wash her hands in the same water. A few years ago, I visited the place where she was born and raised and where her family had lived for generations — Bermuda.

Here was a tiny island surrounded by a great ocean of water.  Looking at it from an airplane as I arrived, I could think of it as representative of the Earth — 70 percent of the planet’s surface is covered with water but just three-tenths of 1 percent is the fresh water found in rivers and streams and lakes. In Bermuda, the rooftops gleam white in the sunlight; they are built by masons of native limestone, stepped to catch the precious water that falls as rain.

Here is a place where, for centuries, people have realized the value of conserving water. We would be wise to heed the lesson. As development in our country strains our aquifers and as municipal water systems are overtaxed, particularly in the summer, it’s a good time to return to old ways.

Just as Bob Shedd, a knowledgeable old-timer from New Scotland, advocates in another of his edifying letters this week, using the clothesline instead of the clothes dryer, we endorse the return of the rain barrel.

Shedd points out that, not only will you save on energy, your clothes will smell fresher.

Water from a rain barrel is free and it is soft, without chemicals like chlorine or minerals like calcium. It’s just what nature intended for your garden or lawn.

Not only will it conserve water, particularly in the strained summer months, but it will cut down on pollution from storm-water runoff. The town of Guilderland is working with The New England Rain Barrel Company to let residents purchase rain barrels for $68, which is $21 off the retail price.

Made from recycled barrels, the New Englander has overflow control valves along with an aluminum screen-louvered inlet to stop leaves and bugs from getting in the collected rainwater. The barrels have two brass spigots — one to connect a hose and the other for overflow. A five-foot hose with a shutoff valve is included and barrels may be joined to hold more. Orders must be placed by May 7 at www.nerainbarrel.com and barrels can be picked up on May 11, between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. at the town highway garage on French’s Mill Road in Guilderland Center.

We hope to see the bright blue barrels, which can be painted if you don’t like the color, popping up all over town.  Those residents smart enough to buy a barrel will save on their municipal water bills and the town won’t process water that isn’t needed. Those on private wells will benefit, too, because they can save their well water for drinking and washing, and use the barrel water for outdoor chores.

The New England Rain Barrel Company was founded by Jack and Joan Freele, it says on the company’s website. The Freeles lived in England for five years, where rain barrels were common, it says, and, when they returned to the States, Mrs. Freele wanted to use rainwater to irrigate her garden.

Residential irrigation can account for 40 percent of domestic water consumption in a given municipality, the Freeles say, and only a quarter-inch of rainfall runoff from the average roof will completely fill the typical barrel. The Freeles use this formula: one inch of rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof yields 623 gallons of water. You can calculate the yield of your roof by multiplying the square footage of your roof by 623 and dividing by 1,000.

In addition to being ideal for plants, both indoors and out, the rainwater is also good for washing cars and cleaning windows, say the Freeles.

“You can wash your hair in it,” quipped William West, referring an old slogan: “It’s rain-barrel fresh.” West is Guilderland’s superintendent of Water and Wastewater Management.

Rain barrels were suggested in Guilderland after the town sent out its annual federally-required Consumer Confidence Report, which mentioned water conservation, he said. A resident who moved here from a state “where water was more valuable and conservation measures were taken seriously” suggested promoting rain barrels, said West.

Plant Operator Peter Letko “picked it up and flew with it,” organizing the link with The New England Rain Barrel Company, said West. Asked what would happen if every household in Guilderland used a rain barrel, West made some rough calculations. With 8,500 municipal customers using 50 gallons of barrel water for 12 weeks, over 5 million gallons of water would be saved.

But beyond the numbers, West said, “You’re setting a mindset that every little bit helps. You’re using what’s free, what people did 100 years ago…all the way back to Babylon. It’s like changing one incandescent bulb for an energy-saving bulb. It’s one thing at a time. Maybe other communities will follow us.”

Your kids may not be running through sprinklers this summer, but they’ll be able to shout down their rain barrels. That’s something we should all shout about.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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