When Old Becomes New Again
In 2012, as steam tunnels were being replaced in front of Wisconsin’s Historical Society, construction workers uncovered a 9-foot-deep by 30-foot-diameter cistern. Although a relatively surprising discovery because of its size, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of cisterns in many of the basements of Madison’s oldest neighborhoods.
Used to capture and store rainwater, cisterns and their smaller counterparts, rain barrels, were essential to everyday living. As more modern infrastructure systems were put into place, the necessity of rainwater harvesting dwindled in an era of seemingly endless water supply. However, in part due to a rise in awareness caused by more frequent droughts in Wisconsin and beyond, the time-honored tradition of rainwater harvesting has made a serious comeback in Madison.
Build-A-Barrel is the newest innovative rainwater harvesting product from RainReserve, a company with deep roots in Madison. Setting out to develop a more cost-conscious solution to shipping rain barrels, RainReserve President and lead “Raingineer” Omar Galal created Build-A-Barrel. Inspired by his 6-year-old son’s Legos, Omar designed an interlocking system of panels with a wood-grain finish that could be made with a variety of color schemes.
“Shipping 55 gallons of air is not just really expensive, but goes against our commitment to reduce our footprint throughout our supply chain,” says Omar. The modular 50-gallon and 100-gallon Build-A-Barrel ships in about a third of the volume of a standard rain barrel and can be assembled in just a few steps. With substantial cost-savings in shipping, the RainReserve team could afford to design a rain barrel that more naturally blended into the landscape.
Build-A-Barrel is the second of two products manufactured by RainReserve that have made big splashes within the Madison gardening and environmentally conscious community. About eight years ago, Omar figured there had to be a better way to make DIY rain barrels. “Every time I’d see one built from scratch it always had a fatal flaw, most often associated with managing excess rainwater during major storm events or winterization.” Using some not-so-common parts and the company’s molding machinery, he created the RainReserve diverter kit. The popular downspout accessory is now featured on some 5,000 or more homes in the Madison area and allows homeowners to easily convert 55-gallon drums into rain barrels without the fatal flaws found in most homemade systems.
Throughout the years, RainReserve has been a key partner in making the City of Madison’s annual spring rain barrel and compost bin sale in the Alliant Energy Center parking lot a success. This one-day event makes available discounted rain barrels and compost bins to anyone living in the area. Last year’s event featured Build-A-Barrel’s debut in Madison and was well received. The event attracts several hundred local homeowners
itching to make this year’s growing season their greenest and most productive yet.
One homeowner who keeps coming back is Ronald Schell. Ronald, a retired management consultant who volunteers his time with various community initiatives, has taken to gardening as a hobby. Although he previously owned three rain barrels, two which used a RainReserve diverter, he purchased his first 100-gallon Build-A-Barrel last year to increase his total rainwater harvesting capacity to 275 gallons. “I’m convinced that my plants do much better with rainwater,” says Ronald after transforming his lawn to be more earth-friendly by removing sod grass and replacing it with native plants and berries a couple of years ago.
Thanks to partnerships and efforts by local organizations like Clean Lakes Alliance and the Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission, more and more residents like Ronald are taking an increasingly active role in local water issues. On last November’s election ballot, more than 65% of City of Middleton residents voted for a referendum to achieve cleaner waters through the creation of a storm water utility. This self-imposed fee will help ensure adequate and dedicated funds for critical infrastructure and other water treatment mechanisms are put into place so that families and next generations can continue to enjoy Madison’s lakes and waterways.
“There’s little doubt that these collective individual actions have a trickledown effect on the health of our lakes and economy,” says Paul Dearlove, Watershed Program Manager at the Clean Lakes Alliance.
To many, the water conservation benefits of rainwater collection are pretty obvious. However, harvesting rain on-site also helps reduce stormwater runoff, which otherwise carries grass clippings and fallen leaves into local waterways. These organic materials are loaded with phosphorus, a key culprit in fueling excess plant and algae growth plaguing Madison lakes. Each year, urban areas contribute about 30% of the total phosphorus that enters lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, Kegonsa, and Wingra. In fact, just one pound of phosphorus, the equivalent of about one large compost pile of leaves, can generate up to 500 lbs. of algae if not managed correctly by homeowners. Rainwater harvesting also translates into energy savings.
In recent years, the nexus of water and energy usage has become a formidable topic in many places. In almost every municipality, distributing and treating water is one of the single highest users of energy, and Dane County and Madison are no exception. In turn, the demand for water from increasingly expensive coal and natural gas power, which provide most of the energy to our region, use notoriously water-intensive processes for heating and cooling.
Given the inextricably and reciprocal linkage between water and energy, conservation products such as RainReserve are moving from trendy to mainstream. Anticipating an increase in demand for larger and more cistern-sized systems, both of RainReserve’s primary products have been designed to allow for expansion after they’ve been put into service. In turn, RainReserve hopes this translates into continued company expansion as well.
This year’s rain barrel sale is happening on Saturday, May 9. To guarantee availability, area residents are strongly encouraged to pre-order by April 30 by visiting the City of Madison’s website .
Bryant Moroder is Principal and Founder of Sustainable Resource Group, and a lifetime eco-entrepreneur.