Brendan P. Bartholomew/Special to the S.F. ExaminerSakuntala Yegnashankaran

Peninsula residents encouraged to install rain barrels for water-conservation measures

As the Bay Area just experienced one of its largest rainstorms in recent years, this is the perfect time for Peninsula homeowners to install rain-collection barrels to help conserve water and prevent runoff from carrying litter and pollution out to sea.

That's the word from the San Mateo Countywide Water Pollution Prevention Program, which is offering free workshops to teach residents about the benefits, hardware options, regulations and rebates associated with installing rain barrels. The recent rainstorms come as California is in the midst of its worst drought in recorded history.

Belmont resident Sakuntala Yegnashankaran, who attended one of the recent workshops, said she's mindful about conserving water because her hometown in India always had chronic water shortages, and she moved to the Bay Area in 1975, at the beginning of the state's 1976-77 drought. Installing a rain barrel at her home would supplement her already-diligent water conservation practices, which include keeping a drought-resistant lawn and washing her car as seldom as possible, Yegnashankaran noted.

As the owner of The Urban Farmer Store, workshop leader Tom Bressan shared his expertise on the variety of rain barrel applications and their benefits. The average Peninsula home will receive about 40,000 gallons of rain during a typical winter, Bressan said, and about 60 percent of that could potentially be harvested using rain-collection barrels.

Some residents may choose to take repurposed containers designed for other uses and convert them to rain barrels, but Bressan recommended that only tanks approved for potable water storage should be used. He added that the barrels are typically dark in color because lighter-colored plastic allows sunlight to penetrate, which promotes algae growth.

The potable water requirement is placed on the containers in case they're used to irrigate edible vegetable gardens, Bressan explained. However, he noted that water collected from roofs with materials such as asphalt shingles is not safe for use on edible gardens.

In addition to irrigating gardens, more elaborate setups can use captured rainwater for doing laundry or flushing toilets. Installations connected to a home's plumbing system require permits, however.

While the workshops are geared toward helping residents perform their own installations, Bressan said homeowners who don't want to do the work themselves typically hire landscaping companies to oversee such projects.

One such company is San Francisco-based Parisha's Gardens. Owner Parisha Pakroo said she strongly recommends using drip-irrigation systems with the rain barrels, because drip irrigation is more precise and uses less water than overhead or spray irrigation. She added that newer systems are available with sensors that stop the water flow when rain is detected.

Reduced water bills is one incentive for the conservation practices, but Pakroo said her clients mostly seek to use water responsibly, and to protect their plants by using rainwater as a supplemental means of keeping them hydrated.

Rainwater harvesting systems can also protect investments in back yard fountains or ponds, according to Bressan, who noted that unlike tap water, rain water is not chlorinated, and is therefore safer for fish.

Homeowners installing rain barrels may qualify for up to $100 in combined rebates from local agencies. For information, visit: www.flowstobay.org/rainbarrel.

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