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With a push for water conservation, contractors in the West turn to rain barrels and cisterns as one tool to achieve water savings in their landscapes. The barrels contractors are using can be as small as 50-gallon tanks or as large as 10,000-gallon tanks, depending on laws in their area and applications demanded by customers.

Some are placed above ground in broad daylight, while others are hidden underground or screened off. In addition, some municipalities offer rebates to property owners that hire a contractor to install them, and then contractors must follow city specs for these systems.

Although the reasons why contractors use rain barrels varies in the West depending on rebates offered or the level of drought in their area, contractors generally use them to promote sustainable landscaping.

Drought-heavy areas.

In areas with heavy drought this year – such as Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California and Utah – rain barrels and cisterns serve as a means of conserving limited water resources. A number of municipalities in these states also offer rebates to property owners that install rain barrels or cisterns.

Niles Barry, a designer at Coastal Evergreen Company in Scotts Valley, California, started to promote the use of cisterns in landscapes after attending an American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (ARCSA) seminar on rainwater catchment systems about two years ago.

“At the time, the drought was a concern for a lot of people, me included,” he says. “And I knew it would probably last for many years, if not forever. I just wanted to see how to preserve and reuse this resource that flows into rivers and oceans.”

At the seminar, ARCSA demoed the use of rainwater catchment systems that drained off rooftops and into a cistern. The association asked Barry whether he would want to test this system at his home before installing it for customers. He agreed, and he had two 1,200-gallon cisterns installed at his home that would catch rainwater that fell from his roof. To screen the tanks, Barry hid them underneath a redwood deck.

“It’s nice to have them screened,” he says. “You can go to my house and have no idea that they’re there.”

Since he has the experience of installing these at his own home, Barry says rain barrels and cisterns have been slightly easier to sell to customers. However, he hasn’t had to work too hard at upselling customers on these – many homeowners are coming to him with requests.

“People here are very aware of water usage,” Barry says. “They find this information themselves and ask for it.”

Customers are more interested in rain barrels and cisterns for water savings than cost savings.

Also, Barry says most of his customers along the central coast of California want more than the typical rain barrel. He estimates 600 square feet of roof easily fill a 1,200-gallon tank from most rain events.

“A 50-gallon drum is nothing,” he says. “Smaller tanks (that drain from) a small section of roof get filled in no time.”

Barry says Coastal Evergreen typically connects the cistern from a pipe to a valve so the rainwater can be used on customers’ landscapes.

One of Barry’s clients in Santa Cruz, California, purchased two 5,000-gallon tanks. Barry installed those systems, and because of their size, he screened them with a green wall of paneling and thunbergia. He says that client wants to increase their water storage to 30,000-gallon tanks. “That’s how much water they estimate they use in their landscape during dry season,” he says.

Although there are rebate programs for the systems Barry installs, he says most people aren’t installing the systems to save money – particularly if the customers want large systems like his Santa Cruz client. The systems Coastal Evergreen has installed have cost clients between about $5,000 and $18,000 total.

“The cost depends on the tanks they go with and the size of the project. This is for people who aren’t looking to cut costs, but they are looking to reduce water usage,” he says.

Paul Holdeman, a lead designer at The Pond Gnome in Peoria, Arizona, has been installing rain barrels and cisterns for customers the past decade. The company received certification from Rain Xchange to be able to apply rainwater harvesting techniques in his designs. Since 2010, Pond Gnome has installed both small and large cisterns in their landscape designs – as little as a couple hundred gallons to as large as 10,000-gallon tanks.

The company even has a few cisterns that have been installed underground as a way to screen them. One he installed was placed underneath a walkway, and he says it ended up looking like Tetris blocks making 90-degree turns. Holdeman constructs the tanks himself out of recycled materials, so he builds them to meet customers’ needs.

Holdeman says Pond Gnome’s customers aren’t usually interested in the rain barrels, cisterns or tanks for their cost savings – it’s for their water savings and mitigating stormwater runoff.

“It can be hard for the average person to justify the investment (in these systems),” Holdeman says. “You don’t do it to save money. You invest in them because they’re cool and earth-friendly. They’re very good for mitigating storm water runoff and give you the ability to save and use your own water.”

Niles Barry of Coastal Evergreen Company says he screens some of the cisterns he installs with fences, decks or plant material such as thunbergia.
Photo courtesy of Coastal Evergreen Company
Rainy areas.

Many cities out West apply rain barrels and water cisterns to help save water in a time of drought, but Seattle has the opposite problem. There’s too much water due to heavy rain events the past decade. According to Tom Gannon, senior planning and development specialist at Seattle Public Utilities, the excess rain has caused sewers to overflow in parts of the city that use combined sewage systems.

As a solution, the city started the RainWise rebate program about eight years ago to encourage the use of rain barrels, water cisterns and rain gardens in landscapes to prevent stormwater from overflowing sewers. RainWise offers a rebate of between $2.80 to $4 for each square foot of roof that diverts rainwater.

Gannon says about 60,000 Seattle properties qualify for the rebate. Property owners that qualify contact a RainWise’s contractor partner to install a project at their property. He says about 50 contractors are certified to do RainWise projects.

John Coghlan, owner of Seattle-based HomeGrown Organics, was one of the first landscape contractors to sign up for the RainWise program.

“For some of these customers, they might not have been willing to invest in a project like this before, but because the rebate is offering them $4,000, that gives them a chunk of this overall project getting paid for,” Coghlan says.

Coghlan started HomeGrown Organics in 2005 with a goal of promoting sustainable landscaping. Even before he partnered with RainWise, he promoted rain gardens and rain barrels. When he heard about RainWise, it seemed to be a great fit. He received three-day training and became a go-to contractor for the program.

For the past few years, HomeGrown Organics has been installing three to six RainWise projects a month. Coghlan says it’s made up half of his total business. For the RainWise projects, HomeGrown Organics installs 400- to 1,000-gallon cisterns in the landscapes along with a rain garden in most cases. Both the cistern and rain garden help to collect excess water from roofs and driveways, and that water can then be used by the property owners to irrigate.

Although these are smaller jobs that require extra paperwork because of the rebate program, Coghlan says they are well worth the extra work.

“It’s been a learning curve, but it’s gone pretty well,” he says. “There’s paperwork, inspections involved and we’re not dealing with really big budgets. It’s been a challenge as a program. But we’re a young company and this work meshes with (HomeGrown Organics’) values and also it does tend to get the word out there about our business and it leads to other jobs.”

Seattle’s RainWise rebate program started due to heavy rain events rather than drought.
Recently legalized.

For many years, rain barrels were illegal in Colorado – the state has had strict water laws because many surrounding states depend on Colorado’s waterways for their water. The state legalized rain barrels in 2016, though, Alison Peck, owner of Matrix Gardens in Boulder, Colorado, says the state placed limitations on the amount of water that could be stored. The state only allows two 55-gallon barrels per property.

“The (55-gallon rain barrels) could possibly get enough water to provide enough water for a vegetable garden or to water potted plants. But it’s a limited amount of water,” Peck says.

Since the laws changed, some Colorado landscape contractors have started to promote rain barrels. Nancy Eastman, owner of Art of the Land in Lakewood, Colorado, says there was a lot of talk about rain barrels right after they were legalized. “It was in the newspapers and (there were many) discussions before it became legal, so people were aware of it,” she says.

While people were interested in rain barrels before they were legal, Eastman says she hasn’t received any requests for them since 2016. She says she still tries to sell them to customers since they’re a good water-saving tool.

Carole Kastler, owner of Camelot Design in Littleton, Colorado, says she was quick to promote rain barrels to customers once they were legal. She hasn’t seen a huge uptick in interest in rain barrels since they were legalized, but she says they are present today.

“I see them available for sale at retail locations, which you never did before,” she says.

Kastler typically encourages customers to install a rain barrel alongside a rain garden.

“The primary reason I started recommending rain barrels was because of the downspouts that come off of roofs and onto people’s sidewalks,” she says. “When the rain barrels fill up, people can just turn on the spigot and let them go into the ground into that depression instead of flooding out near the foundation of the house.”

While rain barrels might not reap the largest cost savings, Kastler says they certainly can help save water. “I don’t think they provide a huge cost savings for the homeowner, but what do they hurt?” she says.

Peck says she’s not a big proponent of rain barrels, but she thinks their legalization was a good step. She’s hopeful that over time, legislation may change to increase the amount of rainwater that people in Colorado can harvest. “Practically they don’t get us far enough, but it’s symbolically important,” Peck says. “It’s a step in the right direction and you have to celebrate every step.”