Tag Archives: recycling

Floating ideas on rain barrels

I keep watering a lot because the lettuces growing in our back porch planters are thirsty. That is one of the drawbacks of planters. They don’t have much of a moisture reservoir and need water once, sometimes twice a day.

I was done schepping the watering cans out of the basement and decided that a new set of rain barrels would make my watering chores much easier. Plus they would convert a waste product (roof runoff) into a useful resource (water for irrigation).

Yet the how-to on rain barrels hasn’t quite trickled into our general knowledge base. I constantly run into this when speaking at conferences about rainwater harvesting options. Rain barrels seem so simple, yet it actually require some thought to get them right.

Raison d’être

Harvesting roof runoff and/or mitigating the impact of stormwater runoff is the primary function of rain barrels. That said, they can quickly become a white elephant, unless you plan to actively use them. In other words, you have a need for the harvested water, and/or it is likely that you draw the rain barrels empty on a frequent basis.

Some municipalities have rain barrel programs, which I mostly regard as well intended but not that helpful. The hope is that the rain barrels store some runoff and keep it out of the overtaxed stormwater system. Yet I noticed that most of those rain barrels, once installed, serve as mere decoration, and the stored water is not used or drained. The barrels sit there full with water for most of the warm season, which completely negates any intended runoff mitigation.


Say you have a good use for rain barrels or are willing to drain them between storms. What would be the contributing area (i.e. the size of the roof) that would feed into the rain barrels?

If you have a small bike shed with a couple of 55 gallon rain barrels connected to it, you may have to wait for quite a while before they fill up. Conversely, if you have a couple of rain barrels connected to a 2000 square foot roof, they may fill up in the blink of an eye.


For rain barrels to provide any runoff mitigation benefits, their storage volume should be sized proportionally to the contributing roof area. For example, say they can store a quarter or half inch of rain fall on the contributing roof area. This may be more volume than you need for irrigation. In this case the barrels should be drained prior to approaching storms, to free up the storage volume.


How do you get the water from the gutter and downspout into the rain barrels? These days you can find a variety of downspout diverters that solve that problem for you. The better ones have a built in filter that keeps debris out. The really fancy ones even have a winter bypass.

I used a homemade diverter and filter on our early rain barrels. It was not pretty, ideal or long lasting, but it did the job at the time.


Most rain barrel products come prepared with plumbing connections. But not all of them make sense. Here are some things to look out for:

If more than one barrel is needed, make sure they are connected to each other at the very bottom. You may have several barrels, but this way you have one storage volume. It allows you to access that entire storage volume from any barrel, and it will allow you to drain all barrels at once, which is important for winterizing.


Go with a product that has the faucet to draw water from the barrel at the very bottom, not one third or half way up. If the faucet is not at the very bottom, you never can effectively use all of the stored water, or completely drain the barrels between storms or for winterizing purposes.


Set the rain barrels on a pedestal. This would allow you to fit a watering can or bucket under the faucet, even if it is at the very bottom of the barrel.


Well, this is really part of the plumbing, but it deserves a special mention.

Your rain barrel(s) will be full at some point. If it continues raining, you have to have a plan on how to deal with the overflow. A lot of people don’t and inadvertently create flooding issues where there previously were none.

For a starter, make sure the rain barrels have an overflow pipe somewhere at the top. That overflow pipe should be the same size as the supply pipe that is delivering water into the rain barrels. Under no circumstances should the overflow be smaller than the supply.


Rain barrels are often placed right next to the house – next to a downspout. Have a plan on how to divert the overflow a safe distance away from the house and thus keep your basement foundation dry. A swale, a pipe extension or a channel could do that job.


If you are in a freezing climate, you need to winterize your rain barrels. That means they need to be completely drained during the freezing months. In addition, you have to disconnect the downspout diverter so no water is fed into the rain barrel(s). If you have a fancy diverter, you will need to put it into winter bypass mode, which should keep runoff out of your barrels.

If you fail do any of the above, or miss one of those steps, you are likely to become a proud owner of a giant ice cube … an ice cube that will make your barrels burst or crack.

Relates posts:
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Cracking concrete until the foundation falls

Our old back porch was special in many ways — just not in a positive way. For instance, it had two foundations. One was an old limestone foundation wall (more on that later), and the other was a reinforced concrete foundation in front of it.


The concrete foundation was added sometime in the past 10 to 15 years to stabilize the limestone foundation behind it, which had started to buckle inwards. And this demonstrates the power of water and the importance of properly working drainage.


The buckle in the limestone foundation had its apex where the downspout met the sewer pipe. At one point that sewer pipe must have been cracked or broken, and probably blocked, behind the limestone foundation. Water rushing down the downspout didn’t drain but rather started saturating the soil behind the limestone foundation. The frequent hydrostatic pressure started to push the foundation inwards.

I could tell that the broken sewer tile had been replaced and the concrete wall poured to tame the buckle.

Our job for the day was to remove the concrete foundation.

There wasn’t much to salvage or recycle from the old porch. The concrete, however, is a sought after commodity. There are recycling stations that take it and process it into recycled aggregate.

Similar to the basement floor, I may end up getting part of my own concrete back when I install the recycled aggregate base for the new concrete floor under the new porch.

Related posts:

Terminating the temporary

I mentioned the old grease trap in the back porch. It was a hot mess back in 2010 when I cleaned it up. The intent at the time was to temporarily re-purpose it as a sump pit.




Back then, I connected the interior perimeter drains to it. We also terminated and stubbed the new sewer lines, which allowed me to install and connect a sump pump.

This temporary band-aid has lasted long enough. With the old back porch being torn down sometime soon, I had a sense of urgency to demo the old grease trap. Before I could do that, I had to install a new and proper sump pit. And before I got to that, I had to rip out the old concrete floor.

That put me back into recycling mode. We threw the concrete chunks into the back of my truck and hauled them to the recycling company down the street at Kedzie and I55.

Next step: Getting the excavator and starting to dig.

Related posts:

The back porch project

Grease trap cleaning

Nail biter

Perimeter drain installation

Finished sewer

Where did all the concrete go


Hardwood floor restoration preps

Let’s complete the transition from the bathroom topic to hardwood floors.

We have the original 100+ year old hardwood floors through most of the building. They are largely in surprisingly good shape, because they have been protected for decades by layers of tile and carpet.

Although, if you did take a look at them after we had removed the various layers, it would have taken some imagination to see the asset they were to us.



We found a number of clues that indicated their suitability for reuse. And reuse at this scale (about 1,200 square feet of flooring) can make a significant difference. Not only in economic terms (just imagine the cost of installing new hardwood floors versus restoring and refinishing), but also in terms of resource efficiency.

What do I mean by that? Three options are often thrown around: 1) recycling, 2) salvaging and 3) reuse. Out of these three, recycling (or better downcycling) is the least desirable option as it is the one closest to the landfill. Reuse, on the other hand, is highly desirable because it conserves the value and embedded energy of a product or material.

The more of the building we can reuse, the fewer the resources we need to pour into the building, the smaller the overall carbon footprint, the greener the overall project.

Such an easy way to earn some bragging rights!

Now that we are so close to restoring and refinishing the floors, I tried to determine what preparations were needed. We cleaned most of the floors from the mastic and glue that was used as a tile adhesive. The oak floor in the living room had been painted dark red at one point. We decided that we needed to remove the paint prior to any sanding.

As usual, when it comes to removing paint from wood, Cathy’s Silent Paint Remover became very handy again.

After about 12 hours of work (stretched over three days) the paint was gone, and with it an endless number of small staples that were used to attach the carpet backing.


DWV Part 2 – details

We need to structure our DWV system in a way that allows us to separate the blackwater from recyclable greywater. That requires scrutiny of all waste water sources in the building and to assign them to the one or the other category.

Discharge from the toilet contains human waste and as such is blackwater. This is easy.

But what about the kitchen sink and dishwasher? Waste water from these sources is typically considered greywater. We are, however, concerned about the contamination potential through food scraps.

To keep things simple and to have peace of mind, we made the decision to discharge waste water from the kitchen sources with the blackwater and not recycle it.

Drain water from the shower and bathtub, on the other hand, is a perfect source of recyclable greywater. So is the water from the bathroom sink, except that there will be very little of it considering our low flow faucets at 0.5 gpm.

Last but not least, there is the washing machine in the basement, the waste water from which is also a good greywater source.

Let’s see how the categorizing of these sources fits with or impacts the DWV layout.

Structuring the sewer

The entire basement DVW plumbing was dictated by flood prevention concerns. We solved the problem by separating the basement DWV from the other floors and protected it with a check valve.

This solution has one drawback. The layout prevents us from collecting or recycling greywater from the basement fixtures. (The exception is the washing machine.)

The basement DVW system as well as the upstairs bathroom layout determined the location of the main sewer stack (or blackwater stack) that will serve the 1st and 2nd floors. It will carry the waste water from the toilets, kitchen sinks and dishwashers.

The 1st and 2nd floor bathroom showers and floor drains are connected to a secondary stack, which is a dedicated greywater stack. Right now this secondary or greywater stack is connected to the basement DWV system to comply with the Chicago plumbing code.

However, once the collection and recycling of greywater becomes permissible, we will be ready for it. We can insert a small collection tank with a little sump pump at the bottom of the stack. The small collection tank would still have an emergency connection to the basement DWV plumbing (as is the case now) in case of a power outage of failure of the sump pump.

The sump would pump the geywater from the small collection tank to a gravity filter from where it would flow into the final storage tank.

That takes care of everything, except the waste water from the bathroom faucet, which is some distance from the greywater stack, but right next to the blackwater stack. We probably could figure out how to connect it to the greywater stack. But is it worth considering the faucet flow rate of 0.5 gpm and the miniscule amount of waste water produced?

We always could go with an off-the-shelf greywater system, which is installed under the sink and routes the filtered waste water into the adjacent toilet tank for flushing. That is, once these systems are permitted by the Chicago Plumbing Code.

The waste heat layer

This exercise got us to think about solutions for greywater recycling. But there is another waste product that we didn’t want to ignore:  the waste heat in the greywater.

To recapture the waste heat we installed a drain water heat recovery (DWHR) system.

Going a few posts back you can read up on how we scrutinized the sources of waste heat, weather it comes from a greywater or blackwater source, and determined how it would impact the DWV layout.

We ended up placing the DWHR unit at the bottom of the greywater stack, just above the future collection tank.