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Want to conserve water and money? Buy a rain barrel

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Rain Water Solutions displays rain barrels for purchase at a municipal sale in Wilmington, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Rain Water Solutions)

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Aaron Pratt's rain barrels collect rainwater from gutter pipes and can help consumers conserve both water and money. (Courtesy of Aaron Pratt)

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Water collected in rain barrels can be used to irrigate lawns and flower beds with a simple hose attachment, usually included in purchase. (Courtesy of Rain Water Solutions)

When Aaron Pratt was laid off from his IT job several years ago, his hometown of Leominster, Mass., was also going through a dry spell. In early 2002, the city’s water supply had dropped to a third of its normal capacity, and residents were being urged to restrict their water use.

“My wife and I were talking about the water ban,” said Pratt. “She suggested I make a couple of rain barrels. So I built a few and sold them on eBay.” A year later, Pratt launched his own Web site, ne.design.net, and began selling the barrels for about $150 apiece. While he wouldn’t provide exact figures, Pratt said sales have doubled every year since.

A rain barrel, true to its name, collects and stores rainwater as it falls from the sky and runs off buildings. That water can then be used to nourish gardens and lawns, which would traditionally siphon off municipal water supplies. Recycling collected rainwater requires no faucets, no fees, and very little fuss.

Seem a bit old-fashioned? It is. Collecting water in containers is an ages-old method for gathering and storing earth’s most precious resource. Today, rainwater collection is still widely practiced, sometimes by necessity, in communities located off the grid or in areas prone to drought.

But increasingly, people living in urban areas are turning to rainwater collection in an effort to lower water bills and promote conservation. Whether because of drought, aging utility systems, or privatization of water resources, water prices are rising across the country.

The Metropolitan Water District board in Southern California, for instance, recently approved a 14.3 percent increase in the price of water brought in from other regions. Across the country, municipal water departments are following suit, raising prices to compensate for increasing demand amid dry conditions, ballooning costs and much-needed maintenance of aging infrastructure.

Adding to the problem is the fact that most people don’t realize just how much water they use in a day--or how to better conserve it.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the average individual uses about 100 gallons of water inside the home every day, and closer to 200 gallons when outdoor use is factored in. The numbers may sound high, but usage adds up quickly. Hopping in the shower for a quick lather and rinse? That’s 4 gallons down the drain. Machine-washing a load of clothes on the short cycle? 27 gallons. Watering the garden for five minutes? 50 gallons.

So what’s the big deal, if it all ends up back in streams and rivers anyway? It turns out, not all water is created equal. Tap water is treated with a barrage of chemicals--including fluoride, chlorine, and ammonia--to sterilize and make it drinkable. Watering the yard with a sprinkler wastes expensive potable water--and douses plants with the chemicals used to treat it. Plants actually do better when they’re watered with pH-neutral, untreated rainwater, according to gardening experts.

And that’s where rain barrels come in.

Mike Ruck and his wife, Lynn, co-owners of Rain Water Solutions, were living near downtown Raleigh, N.C., when they received their first rain barrel as a hand-me-down nearly 20 years ago. Avid gardeners, the Rucks discovered that with collected rain water, their plants flourished and their water bills dropped. They were so pleased that they tried to sell rain barrels to others in their community.

The initial response was tepid.

“People were not familiar with the concept of having to save water,” said Mike Ruck. “We’re in the luscious South and the rain is plentiful and the grass is green and the trees are all looking great. So it was a hard sell.”

Then a few summers ago, a drought hit the East Coast, and the Rucks began receiving orders from across the country. Since then, sales have grown steadily and the couple now works full time selling cisterns and rain barrels through their Web site, rainwatersolutions.com. The barrels, which cost about $140 each, are made entirely from recycled materials and are produced locally in North Carolina. In the last year alone, production has quadrupled, said Mike Ruck.

Individuals aren’t the only buyers. Businesses and municipalities looking to cut costs have found creative uses for recycled rain water, such as washing garbage trucks. And while some communities are embracing the opportunity ease the burden on their water supplies, others have been more reluctant. In Colorado, it’s illegal to collect even a drop of rainwater, though some legislators are seeking to change that.

The use of rainwater isn’t limited to gardening and cleaning. As Daniel McGee has discovered, it can be potable if handled properly.

McGee grew up in Oregon, but lived in California for many years. After retiring from his job as president of a company that builds hybrid vehicles, McGee moved back to Oregon. But soon he was missing the California sunshine.

“It rained for 67 months,” said McGee, who kept track of the passing time. “I was sitting on the back porch, and I had to find some way to be happy about it.”

In May 2004, McGee began harvesting rain water, filtering and purifying it with ozone, and selling it in half-liter bottles labeled “Oregon Rain.” The rain is collected at a site in the Willamette Valley where the majority of storms blow in directly from the Pacific Ocean. It never passes over any populated areas and thus remains free of contaminants--as evidenced by EPA test results, which are published at oregon-rain.com. McGee said his customers can taste the difference.

“The human palate can determine one part per million of contaminant,” said McGee. “Oregon Rain sells because of its taste.”

Whether it’s the novelty of drinking water straight from the clouds or the urge to save on utility bills that drives people to harness the rain, it’s symptomatic of a larger movement towards green living and reducing human impact on the planet.

“I think people are becoming more environmentally conscious,” said Aaron Pratt. “They’re trying to do good and they’re trying to go back to the way things were.”

E-mail: ald27@columbia.edu