The economics of a rain barrel

My water company charges $2.99 for a unit of water, which is defined as 100 cubic feet, or 748.5 gallons. This breaks down to just under 4 tenths of one cent per gallon of water that comes through the pipes. So what do we get for that 0.4 cents? We get water from a local well, possibly mixed with some surface water from a nearby reservoir, some chlorine, some dissolved minerals, and a little bit of organic matter.

A rain barrel is typically about 50-60 gallons, so every time it fills up you are accumulating about 20-23 cents worth of water at the water utility rate. What do you get?

If a rain barrel costs about $80+ to make or buy you would have to fill it up and empty it 400 times to break even. And, if you get around 20-40 chances a year to fill it up, we are talking 10 to 20 years ROI for a rain barrel. Yikes! That is not a good investment!

So why do it? Why spend the money and time? Is it that feeling of freedom and independence of “going off the grid?” Maybe a bit of nostalgia for how our farming forefathers and foremothers used to do things? I would say it is a little of all of this, and a little more.

Setting up a rain barrel has a bit of that DIY feeling that gardening, canning, sewing, etc. have. There is no immediate need to do any of it, but there are enough little good reasons, and enough little pleasures in doing it, that it is worth it. A wine barrel just looks neat around the house, particularly one from France.

A big part of this sort of project for most people is a sense of connection. Like growing a tomato out in the yard, there is something wonderful about being a part of the whole cycle of providing sustenance for one’s family. I would say the majority of people never get a chance (nor are interested) in seeing how their water gets to them. Turn on the faucet and water comes out. Harvesting some rain water lets us see and feel where our water is coming from. It is a reattachment to the seasons, and to the nature of rain. We are so sheltered from the atmosphere and weather, this sort of project is a way to get us thinking about how the seasons affect us again. Rain harvesting is a lesson on what the rainy season used to mean. Is it a green season, or a white season? Will it have an impact on you this year? How should I plan for the coming months?

A rain barrel is a sort of slow motion alarm clock that is controlled by nature, and can’t be set by our hands. It will fill according to some other system that we have all too often forgotten and disconnected from. In that relationship, the ROI has already been met.

I now have 50 gallons of murky water in this thing to use, and return to nature. It sits there to be used before the next rain. It sits there outside waiting for use. It is also waiting in my mind as a reminder that the Green season is approaching, and that the grasses are growing; that the natural cycle still affects us even if we often choose not to see it.



One response to “The economics of a rain barrel”

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    Update: I’ve used the water from my barrel all season, and only emptied the barrel twice, maybe using 150-200 gallons. Unfortunately, the problem with it is that I don’t need much water in the garden during the rainy season. When it fills up, I generally don’t need it for a week, and by that time it rains again.

    It’s only useful for extended dry/heat spells in the middle of the winter and spring. We are increasingly having these at a greater intensity every year, so the barrel does have its use, but not in providing a lot of water for the garden. It functions as a buffer so I don’t need to use tap water in the garden for part of the year.

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