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The Wreck of The Hesperus, or My Rain Barrel Almost Fell Completely Over. Yikes!

Updated on August 4, 2015
Dialogue, sound effects, and age of antiquated computer monitor all true to life.
Dialogue, sound effects, and age of antiquated computer monitor all true to life.

It hadn't rained at all for a couple weeks. . .

. . .so the projected forecast for rain lasting most of the week sounded good to me.


This is the second summer with this particular rain barrel -- a rounded, faux terra cotta urn with a planter saucer built into the top. In the past, when the rain had come down heavily through the downspout and then through the filter screen into the urn till the thing was full to the tippy-top, everything had been just fine. Once the rain barrel held its capacity (65 gallons), a channel around the planting area on top took the water off a pointed lip like the spout of a coffeepot. The rain barrel was up against the house, and the house is on a hill, so overspill went away from the concrete block foundation of our 1930s Maine cottage, and found its way toward the square-foot garden bed in front of the barrel. All good.

Last summer, all was well

After a rain, I used 5-gallon buckets with lids to store the water for a day or two while I used it to water tomatoes and sweet potatoes.
After a rain, I used 5-gallon buckets with lids to store the water for a day or two while I used it to water tomatoes and sweet potatoes.

I used what I had, which turned out to be a mistake

When I got the rain barrel, I needed to put it up on something. For one thing, I needed the spigot to be high enough to get a five-gallon bucket under the spout. Also, it gets cold here in Maine and I didn't want the barrel to sit directly on the ground in case we had an unexpected cold snap before I put the barrel away for the winter. Having the urn up on something might keep the water at the bottom from freezing and then expanding to crack the barrel's side seams.


I am an enthusiastic upcycler. Before I buy anything, new or used, I try to see what I already have. In this case, I had two rectangular plastic bins.

Our city recently got new recycling bins, the large kind with wheels which we set out with the regular trash bins. Two of the old -style recycling bins, the rectangular boxes which used to be hand-dumped by the crew, were in our garage when we bought the house. The bins were old but sturdy and I figured that using both of them together would distribute the weight of the rain barrel, even when it was at its heaviest after being filled by a rainstorm cascading off the roof, along the gutter and through the downspout.


I came out after the storm front had passed. . .

. . .and found this. I used an ice chipper with a solid handle to prop up the sagging barrel overnight, fearing I would hear a tremendous crash in the night. But the urn stayed semi-upright.
. . .and found this. I used an ice chipper with a solid handle to prop up the sagging barrel overnight, fearing I would hear a tremendous crash in the night. But the urn stayed semi-upright.

High school science class let me down. . .

. . .like a very full rain barrel on an inadequate platform. The two recycling bin idea worked the previous summer just fine. As it should, right? Heavy duty plastic. The weight distributed over two bins. I thought a hollow shape like that was one of the strongest forms -- which is why you can use an upside-down wastebasket as a stepstool and things like that. I even vaguely felt that the drainage holes in what was formerly the bottom surface of the bin would break up the surface tension and keep a bend or a crack from crumpling the whole surface. Wrong.

And the first summer everything was fine, even with heavy rain. Or I thought it was fine. Perhaps one of the bins had developed a crack in the plastic from the weight of the rain barrel, but it just didn't split apart? I'll never know.


We also had a brutal winter over 2014-2015, so perhaps the extreme cold made the heavy plastic of the recycling bins more brittle. Our srping, which tends to be chilly anyway, was very late and very cold, with the occasional warm day. Maybe the contraction and expansion along the bin seams was too much.

Call me Sherlock

I beleived I may have spotted the problem.
I beleived I may have spotted the problem.
Yep, that's it all right.
Yep, that's it all right.

The next trick was to keep the barrel from toppling

While the plastic urn is sturdy, it's not designed to smash into the ground, heavily. If it fell and cracked, I might be able to fill the crack with silicone, but then if the barrel was full, perhaps that would open the seam and let water leak out. This water would soak the grund right next to the block foundation / basement wall.


Also, I am not sure if, back at the beginning, I got the right spout with the barrel, which I ordered online. The barrel is quite round and jolly and the spigot which came with it didn't extend long enough for me to turn the faucet handle around without running into the body of the barrel. Rather than trying to go to the manufacturer about the issue, I decided instead to go down the street to the neighborhood hardware store. We are lucky to have an old-fashioned place with the staff who have been there forever. They call you by name, and will stop over and pick up your lawnmower when it stops running, that kind of thing. So I told Charlie, the fix-it guy on duty, my problem and he got me a faucet extender. Problem solved.


But now I was concerned that if the barrel fell over and it didn't crack, it might bang the extended faucet into the ground and bend it or snap off the handle. It was already a make-do arrangement and how would I deal with replacing part of that? I'd already had to run a line of silicone gel out of a tube around the seat of the spigot the way it was.


Step 1 was to empty the water out

Well, emptying was actually Step 2. The first step was really to go get my heavy duty ice chopper (invaluable in Maine when the ice on your walkway is two inches deep and absolutely solid) to use as a prop. The chopper had a heavy metal blade I could wedge into the garden bed, which was seeded with white amaranth (another reason for the rain barrel not to come crashing down). I was able to wedge the bar across the handle under the top rim of the urn, and I was pretty sure the barrel wouldn't just start a slow, powerful shift to the left while I changed the balance by taking out water.


The rain barrel was still sitting on both recycling bins, but the one toward the front of the house was now all crushed in so it was half as high on the one toward the back yard. I worried that draining the rain barrel might make the urn heavier in one direction. Just a little more oomph and I might just have to watch the crazy thing fall over. No way was I going to put my body between the ground and a couple hundred pounds of water in a giant jug.

Move it on over

I did get a lot of the water emptied without the barrel falling over, although there was only a certain amount of water volume I could get out through the faucet. The spiot is in the center, of course, so since the urn had listed so much to one side, the water wasn't behind the faucet outlet.

Once I'd drawn off all the water I could and used that to water my corn and beans, the urn's weight had dropped to a point where I thought I could probably shift the rain barrel over to the uncrumpled bin. I hoped that the half-full barrel wouldn't crush the single bin, but even if I was wrong, I didn't see other options. The big old urn still had plenty of water in it and I was pretty sure I couldn't lift it gently down to the ground and still have a healthy lower back. The other option was to go get a big bag of peat moss and shove the rain barrel onto it, like a cushioned mat that stunt actors might use. The potential for wiping out my planted grains, plus the possible bounce vector effect, ruled out that option. So it was push the barrel to the side and hope for the best.

One little detail

Move filter opening well away from downspout during operations in case it rained again. Check.
Move filter opening well away from downspout during operations in case it rained again. Check.

The next steps

The potting soil (and recently planted coleus seeds)  in the plaster saucer had to be scooped out unless I wanted it flung hither and yon. Too expensive to waste. So I made a pile.
The potting soil (and recently planted coleus seeds) in the plaster saucer had to be scooped out unless I wanted it flung hither and yon. Too expensive to waste. So I made a pile.
Then I needed to sort of burp the barrel like a baby to get enough water out to be able to lift the urn again when I had the new support up.
Then I needed to sort of burp the barrel like a baby to get enough water out to be able to lift the urn again when I had the new support up.

A moment of silence for the unsprouted coleus seeds

. . .but I have half a packet left so I'll plant them in some other shady spot.
. . .but I have half a packet left so I'll plant them in some other shady spot.

One of these things is not like the others

One of these things is not the same.
One of these things is not the same.

Out with use-what-I-got, in with $10 worth of cement blocks

The hardware store guy loaded the blocks for me, and I didn't notice that three had ridged edges and one had a flat top till I'd hauled the darn things over to the downspout area. I decided I would make it work.

The most tiresome part of the task was making minor adjustments to the four blocks. You wouln't think it would be that hard to put down four cement blocks and put a big round barrel on it, but the ground not only sloped from the basement wall downhill (good for drainage, not so good for balancing) but the soil surface was bumpy. If I'd had more time to get the job done, I might have used a spade to dig up and then flatten the support surface. But time was tight so I hoped that over time the weight on the four supports would flatten everything out.


Center four blocks under the downspout. . .

. . .then step over the square-foot garden, turn and look at the alignment. Rinse and repeat.
. . .then step over the square-foot garden, turn and look at the alignment. Rinse and repeat.

Upsy-Daisy

Once the four cement blocks were reasonably centered, I put the now-empty barrel on top and then had to do considerable adjusting to get the blocks under the rim edges of the barrel bottom. The urn bulges foward and I didn't want the weight of the rain barrel, once it filled again, to take the whole thing forward away from the wall of the house.

A little bargain green duck cloth yardage to cover the blocks

OK, good enough.
OK, good enough.

Then the part where I scrabble up the planter soil

Shoulda put a sheet of plastic down first. Whoops.
Shoulda put a sheet of plastic down first. Whoops.

Planter re-planted, now waiting for the rain

I went with greens this time, as I didn't think coleus would have enough time to grow before summer ended.
I went with greens this time, as I didn't think coleus would have enough time to grow before summer ended.

So far, so good

No heavy rain yet, but we had some showers overnight and the next day, I drew off enough water from the barrel to water the newly-planted corn salad seeds in the planter saucer. The water from the bottom of the urn was cleaner than usual. Sometimes the bottom level water is a little scummy but since the barrel got a good slosh and emptying, the stored rainwater will be nicer than usual for a while.

Got my upcycling cred back!

Into the really trashed recycling bin go the rest of the seeds I saved from my 2014 buckwheat crop -- stored in a junk mail envelope.
Into the really trashed recycling bin go the rest of the seeds I saved from my 2014 buckwheat crop -- stored in a junk mail envelope.
The unsmushed bin got my special peat moss soil mix and a packet of Danvers Half Long carrot seeds.
The unsmushed bin got my special peat moss soil mix and a packet of Danvers Half Long carrot seeds.

Still holding steady!

It's three days since I restructured. Got lots of rain all day and the barrel is getting full. Looks like the ten-dollar investment was worth it.

Thank you for reading this!

Whether you have been growing windowsill herbs for many years, tending an acre truck garden on a back lot for the last two years, or you just bought your first packet of seeds, Idon't you agree that it helps to see the real-life experiences of others? In these green living / permaculture / gardening posts, I'm sharing my successes, near-successes, utter failures, and experiments with do-overs in the hope that we can do online what a community garden plot does for people who are neighbors in real life.

Most of the coleus seeds fell out but not all!

After I harvested the last of the corn salad, I found these cute coleus babies around the edges of the planter top on the rain barrel. Yay!
After I harvested the last of the corn salad, I found these cute coleus babies around the edges of the planter top on the rain barrel. Yay!

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