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Eco-friendly rain barrels hold water, savings for Western Pa. homeowners

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Sue English, 51, of Allison Park works in her garden near her rain barrel at her home on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.
Nancy Martin, Enivironmental Educator with the Pennsylvania Resources Council, holds a rain barrel workshop at the Whitehall Public Library Tuesday, April 29, 2014.
Participants in a rain barrel workshop listen as Nancy Martin, Environmental Educator with the Pennsylvania Resources Council, demonstrates how to make one at the Whitehall Public Library Tuesday, April 29, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Sue English, 51, of Allison Park works in her garden near her rain barrel at her home on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

Sue English decided the water flowing through the gutters of her Hampton home could be put to good use, rather than winding up in a storm sewer.

So she installed a rain barrel.

“I've had it for a few years and love it,” said English, who is part owner of the environmental and civil engineering firm Collective Efforts LLC in West View. “I use it during the spring and summer months, mainly, and disconnect it during the winter.”

Because she deals with environmental issues at work, she “felt it was pertinent that I had one of these installed at home.”

Rain barrels are appearing more often in Western Pennsylvania yards as homeowners look to save money on water bills and reduce flooding, in addition to keeping pollutants out of streams and rivers.

More than 1,800 rain barrels are installed in and around Pittsburgh, said Luke Stamper, sales manager at the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association.

“The rain barrel market, the stormwater management market, it really starting to appear,” he said. A decade ago, when the association was starting its watershed protection efforts, “rain barrels were still a nebulous idea. People didn't really know what they were.”

Flooding in recent years and a federal mandate for the region to correct stormwater overflow problems have heightened public awareness about the need to control excess water, Stamper said.

Matt Burke, director of corporate and community engagement for the national Rain Barrel Registry, said the trend is toward larger containers to keep more water out of storm sewers.

“There are studies showing you should have 125 gallons or more per downspout, but that depends on where you live and how much rain you get,” he said. “They aren't just to help you water your garden. They also help keep your basement from flooding ... or keep all that water from running down the street and picking up pollutants.”

Nancy Martin, environmental educator at the Pennsylvania Resources Council, said water finds its way to the nearest body of water.

“That's just the way it works. Rain barrels get water back out of our sewer system and into the ground,” she said.

Martin has been holding workshops across Western Pennsylvania for more than eight years to raise awareness of watershed issues. They include surfaces such as concrete that don't allow water to soak through to the ground, along with combined sewer overflows that occur when stormwater and sewage drain into the same pipe during heavy rains.

She runs 10 to 12 workshops each spring, teaching people how to make and install rain barrels at home. The sessions cost $50 and include a coupon for a discount on a 55-gallon drum at Penn Barrel Inc. in Larimer.

“We also just started selling ready-made rain barrels last year, and have already sold about 15,” Martin said. The cost is $75, or $125 for a double-sized, 110-gallon version.

Tom Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action Pittsburgh, said rain barrels are a good first step.

“But rain barrels alone cannot solve the whole watershed problem,” he said.

Hoffman said a quarter inch of rain falls on the average home each year, yielding over 200,000 gallons of water. “Seventy-five percent of water that runs into the county's sewer system is stormwater,” he said.

Martin said he believes “if everyone puts in a rain barrel, snow and rain will be absorbed on-site instead of into the sewer system.”

Stamper said the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association is trying out a new rain barrel model called the StormWorks Hydra this week on its property in Wilkinsburg. If the barrel, made in Erie, passes field tests it will be installed at a nearby home in a few days.

Project 15206, a local stormwater management effort, has committed to buying 400 of the barrels, he said, and about the same number of residents in communities around the 15206 postal code area have expressed interest in them.

The rectangular StormWorks Hydra is made to fit in corners of a house, will hold 116 gallons of water and will cost around $275, Stamper said. Homeowners should consider how much rain runs off their roofs before buying a container. “You can't just hook up some random 55-gallon barrel that looks like a palm tree,” he said.

The organization's goal is to keep as much water out of Alcosan sanitary sewer lines as possible, he said.

Rain barrels “are child-safe, and you can use the captured storm water to wash your cars or water your gardens,” he said. “Storm water doesn't contain chlorine, lime or calcium. It is safe.”

Chasity Capasso is a freelance writer.

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