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I have no idea how I ended up with a $600 water bill, but it spooked me to the point where I was hesitant to put in a garden this year. Then I saw my next-door neighbor install a couple of rain barrels alongside his house.

“Capturing rainwater is a way to reengage with the natural water cycle,” said Candace Vanderhoff, owner of Rainthanks and Greywater (619-807-9193; rainthanks.com). “It’s a critical way of recharging our aquifer. And once the system is installed, the rainwater is free.” And even if it’s not raining, there’s the opportunity to be prepared for the worst. “You can fill your tank with tap water so that you have water on hand in case of an emergency.”

Vanderhoff explained that rainwater systems capture water from roof gutters, while graywater systems “run a pipe, usually from under the house, that goes from the shower and irrigates the landscape. I install both kinds of systems. Generally, I do an onsite assessment [$130] — I walk around the property with the client and determine what kind of system is possible. Then I’ll give them a proposal. It’s usually about how much money they want to spend, what they’re able to put in, sizewise, and what they can stand. Some people call me and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s arrived, and it’s ugly.’ But it’s like solar. Once it’s installed they get used to it. The plants grow back, they fall in love, and they want another one.”

Right now, she’s selling a lot of (not ugly) 65-gallon resin urns that fill via rain chains that attach to your gutters ($500 installed, $600 with rain chains). “The rain chains work just like downspouts, except the water travels along the outside. There are cups with holes in the bottom, and the water drains down into the tank. The urns have a decorative block base, and they have a spigot for filling your watering can, plus a threaded drain at the base where you can attach a hose.” The only downside, she said, is that urns can fill “in 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the surface area of your roof.”

“Even during the rainy season,” Vanderhoff said, “you still need to irrigate.” If you’re serious about capturing rainwater, she continued, you probably want an average capacity of 800 to 1200 gallons ($1200–$3000). “That will fit in most yards. It’s a 30-square-foot footprint. And you can get up to $475 in government rebates.”

Vanderhoff also offers workshops for people looking to learn more before investing. “My next one is on May 10 at the Ocean Beach Women’s Club. It will be a hands-on workshop. We’ll be installing a 300-gallon rain tank. We’re asking for a $35 donation that will go to our nonprofit, which does community water projects.”

Do-it-yourselfers might want to consider San Diego Drums & Totes in Lemon Grove (619-263-0901; sddrums.com). “Rain barrels are popular right now,” said sales clerk Steve Ruan. “Besides saving you money, rainwater helps you avoid the chloramines in tap water. Plants respond really well to it.”

I asked about a terra-cotta-colored barrel on the store’s website. “That’s made of high-density polyethelene plastic. It comes in 50- or 58-gallon capacities. There’s a hose spigot at the bottom, and you simply open up the top when it rains and let it fill up. Or, you can get one with a diverter kit that will let you attach it to your gutters. Either way, it’s $75. And if you go through watersmartsd.org, you can get up to a $75 rebate for any rain barrel 50 gallons or larger, so basically, your barrel is free. Also, the City of San Diego [sandiego.gov] will rebate a homeowner $1 per gallon for rain barrels, up to 400 gallons. But they have stricter guidelines. For that, you have to be hooked up to your gutters.

“People with larger properties or more intensive irrigation needs might want to consider the 220-gallon container [$99],” said Ruan. “Wine barrels [$135, 59-gallon capacity, $35 diverter kit sold separately] have also been popular.”

Other places around town to find rain barrels: Ace Hardware, Dixieline, Home Depot, and Lowe’s ($59.99–$555). Style-minded water-savers may want to have a look at rainbarrelartist.com. The 50- and 58-gallon barrels are painted by local artists (average price, $299). Custom orders available.

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