We have two rain barrel tanks - one of 350 gallon capacity, one of 500 gallon capacity. They are low-profile and hidden behind our house in our backyard. We got the tanks from Tank Depot online in 2005. We hooked them up to our gutter system and we use the water for our garden and fruit trees.
Me in the 350 gallon rain tank, preparing to muck.
We originally hooked the larger tank up to a drip irrigation system, but found that the pressure was low and because of that, the timers that I hooked up would not work. I kept running off and leaving the tank running all day. Needless to say there was some cursing when I found the tanks almost completely empty. Now, I just use a watering can to water the garden, and a bright blue hose to water the fruit trees.
We had three main reasons to get the rain barrels:
1. We can water our garden in spite of any drought restrictions which might be imposed in the future.
2. We have emergency water rations from early spring through late fall (although we would need to filter the water through our Katadyn filter in order to drink it).
3. To decrease our water footprint.
Reducing our water bill was not one of our goals. The cost of this kind of system will probably never be paid back in money, since we are only charged about $3/1000 gallons of water.
Like any system, the rain barrels require maintenance. We installed filters over the top of the lids and in front of the faucets so that twigs, leaves, and other particles are filtered out. However, this doesn't solve the problem of dust and bird poop and shingle pieces. I've considered the "first flush" systems, but they are kind of expensive and we aren't using the PVC pipe that they require to work, so we'd have to rework the whole downspout part of the system. Unless anyone has suggestions??
There are a few times every year when we have to pay attention to the rain tanks.
1. After every major rain we check the top filter and scoop away any major gunk. Since we want to go outside and see how full the tanks are, this is not an imposition. We will probably have to replace these filters every five years or so, but have not yet had to do so.
2. In the fall, we disconnect the tanks from the gutters and drain the tanks to protect them and the faucets from freezing. We had a faucet crack one year. This part can be kind of a pain because we have to tip the tanks to get the last few inches out of the bottom, and tanks with water in them are HEAVY. I'm not sure we would have to do this if we got more durable faucets.
3. In the spring, we muck out the bottom of the tanks. You'd be surprised how much dirt and shingle particles get in the tanks! We usually just climb in the tank and use a trowel and a bucket to scrape the mud off the bottom of the tank. Luckily, it doesn't smell. If there is dry dust, we sweep it up. (This is a two-person job - one to muck and one to dispose of the muck.) Then, we hose out the tank, drain it and hook up the guttering system. Ready for another spring, summer and fall of sweet rainwater!
4. Several times a year, we have to clean out the gutters. But that's kind of standard for anyone who has a gutter system.
Although dust/dirt does get in the rain tanks, it seems to settle to the bottom. The water that comes out of the spout always looks clear and pure. I haven't had a water test, but I am considering it. I am curious how the shingle particles are affecting the water quality.
If you are interested in rain barrels for emergency water or to cut down on your "water footprint", be sure you are ready to maintain them! A smaller, simpler system, with barrels that are lighter and easier to maneuver, would probably require less maintainance. Obviously, they wouldn't provide as much water storage for dealing with emergencies or droughts.