Drops in the barrel
Ace Hardware employee builds rain collectors

LILBURN - In the midst of a severe drought and state-mandated outdoor watering ban, Bill York offers a solution in rainwater. And local foliage is perking up.

York, 81, grew up on a farm in Indiana where the family collected rainwater in empty whiskey barrels. Four sat under the roof's pitches, because houses didn't have gutters back then, York said.

"I remembered using them as a kid, because in the 1920s and '30s we probably couldn't have made it without them," York said. "We used rainwater to bathe, wash hair ... my aunts did laundry and watered the garden."

York, a retired furrier, works part time at Ace Hardware, 5355 Five Forks Trickum Road in Lilburn. When patrons shared with him their nonwatering woes, York figured he could make them some rain barrels out of 55-gallon polyethylene trash cans. He cut a hole in the lid to accommodate the gutter's downspout, then added a spigot so the gardener could attach a water hose. When the barrel overflows, gardeners can run a hose from one barrel into a second barrel to catch the overflow.

York said he captured 119 gallons of rainwater during the last rain, allowing him to wash his car and water plants without violating the watering ban.

"If I didn't have a rain barrel, it would have all run down to the Gulf of Mexico," York said.

The water collected in York's barrels is environmentally friendly and safe for consumption if the right container is used, said Kathy Parent, agricultural program assistant at the Gwinnett Extension.

"It's pure water with no chlorine," she said. "Garbage cans are safe because they are plastic and there is no residue remaining from what might have been there."

York does not recommend drinking rainwater, due to the quantity of pollutants in the air. If one must drink the water collected, boil the water for 30 minutes first, he said.

The converted barrels sell for $29.99 and the store has sold more than 100 since production began about a month ago, owner Charles Biddix said.

"This idea has taken off like you wouldn't believe," Biddix said. "We have had to quadruple our trash can order and we still have to take orders for them."

Although Ace Hardware is reaping the benefits of York's ingenuity, he receives no commission on his creation.

"That's part of being a good employee," Biddix said.

The joy of educating others on conservation techniques is remuneration enough, York said.

Master gardener Rene Beard of Snellville has used two rain barrels for about two years and just added a couple of York's converted trash cans to her home.

"So far I have saved my garden," Beard said. "I have them where you can hardly see them (to avoid upsetting homeowners' protective covenants)," she said.

Conservation-minded people found unique methods to trap water, like the drippings from dehumidifiers, air conditioning units and bath and dish water.

York uses bath water to flush the toilet, he said.

For decades, some homeowners set up their septic tank system with only the toilet water pouring into the septic tank. A separate hose ran the bath, dish and laundry water into the yard or garden. This practice is illegal and is punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and 60 days in jail, said Vernon Goins, spokesman for the Gwinnett County Health Department.

"It is considered gray water and the law is meant to protect the environment from phosphorus that used to be in washing powders," Goins said. "That has been eliminated from the metro areas of North Georgia - washing powders with phosphorus can no longer be sold here - but there has been no change in state law."

Goins guesses that state law has remained in place because soap containing phosphorus can still be sold in other parts of Georgia.

For more information about the drought and how to conserve water, visit www.conservewatergeorgia.net.