2013-04-11 / News

Master gardener makes case for rain barrels

System is cost-effective, better for environment
By Ken Shane


Rain barrels offered by the Rhode Island Water Lady are former food casks that have been painted and retrofitted to collect storm water for distribution in gardens. 
Photo courtesy of Beverly o’keefe Rain barrels offered by the Rhode Island Water Lady are former food casks that have been painted and retrofitted to collect storm water for distribution in gardens. Photo courtesy of Beverly o’keefe About 30 islanders attended a presentation last week by Beverly O’Keefe, the Rhode Island Water Lady, who told the crowd that using rain barrels as a tool for stormwater management can help save money, water and the environment.

The library presentation was done in collaboration with the Jamestown Community Farm. O’Keefe’s seminar focused on harvesting water for residential gardens.

O’Keefe has been a master gardener at the University of Rhode Island since 1999. She is also a former member of the state’s Water Resources Board, and is certified by URI as a storm-water management presenter.

A few years ago, O’Keefe was in search of inexpensive rain barrels that she could use to water her own gardens. She also thought that having her own barrels would help with residential storm-water management. She located a company called the Great American Rain Barrel Company, which was offering 60-gallon recycled-food barrels for $159 each.

There was a discount available if she bought several barrels – so she bought eight. O’Keefe began offering them to her fellow master gardeners. In 2006 her effort evolved into the Rhode Island Water Lady business, which offers barrels and accessories to the public. The company is recognized by the state as a minority business enterprise.

Food barrels are used because chemical casks can’t be – the chemicals can leach into the barrels that originally held them. There is no such danger from food barrels. The one that O’Keefe had on display at the library once held olives.

The retrofitting of the barrels includes painting, the addition of holes in the lids so that water can flow in, mosquito netting to keep insects out, overflow fittings with tubes attached so it can be connected to hoses, and a spigot.

“Here in Rhode Island, we don’t have water where we need it all the time,” O’Keefe said. “I believe in the barrels as a tool for gardening, and a tool for storm-water management.”

O’Keefe pointed out that Rhode Island is not in a drought condition, but does have a water deficit right now. She said 1 inch of rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof pro- duces 620 gallons of water. National Weather Service statistics show that 3 to 4 inches of rain fall in Rhode Island each month.

The purpose of the rain barrels is to collect water that comes from roofs by way of downspouts. The water can then be distributed from the barrel to a garden without having to drag hoses around the property. Fittings on the barrels allow hoses to be attached, and the water can also be distributed by the spigot on the bottom of the barrel. A low-pressure pump can also be used to get the water to where it needs to go.

According to O’Keefe, there are several benefits to using a rain barrel for the irrigation of gardens – including the fact that the barrels are being reused instead of being sent to a landfill. In the event of a drought, the collected rainwater can be used when public water use is restricted or there is no well water available. Since the use of public water impacts the amount of water and sewer bills, O’Keefe says the use of rainwater results in financial savings and allows public water to be retained for community uses like firefighting.

O’Keefe said the rain barrels are perfect for people who want to grow things and save money at the same time. It’s also beneficial to the environment. “It conserves water for public development such as fire suppression,” she said.

Bob Sutton, who manages the community farm, said the water collection in the rain barrels is much like the system he uses at the farm, but on a smaller scale. Last year a 3,000-gallon water cistern was installed at the farm. The cistern collects water that comes off the roof of the farm’s barn. From there it is piped into the barn and then pumped to four hose bibs on the outside. The farm’s new solar array is used to power the pump, making the entire enterprise selfsustaining. The farm uses the water for the greenhouse and to wash eggs. Little water is used for irrigation of the crops, Sutton said.

The sustainable barrels come in three colors – green, light gray and dark brown – which O’Keefe described as “New England colors.” They cost $80 each and can be ordered at RIWaterLady.com. Barrels ordered by May 4 will be available for pickup at the community farm on May 11.

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