Rain barrel program does more than divert stormwater, provides new jobs too

Each rain barrel from the ECA is made from nearly 100 percent recycled materials. | Photo from ecasavesenergy.orgSince 2011, the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) has been running the Philadelphia Water Department’s free rain barrel program, distributing a couple thousand barrels each year to city residents. While the program has been successful, the ECA has found that stormwater problems don’t end at the Philadelphia border.

“There’s lots of flooding in surrounding communities, and people see that they are living with a system that is essentially broken,” says Liz Robinson, ECA’s executive director. After a workshop is held near the suburbs, Robinson says they’ll get waves of calls, asking for rain barrels. However since funding only covers a Philadelphia program, ECA has had to turn away those residents.

This spring, the program is finally expanding. In March, the ECA filled its first big suburban order, providing Friends of High School Park with 30 barrels. “We want people to think more systemically about how water works in the environment,” says Amy Steffen, who volunteers with the community group. “It’s a drop in the bucket, but if we can get 3,000 people to have rain barrels in Elkins Park … that can make a difference on the Tookany Creek from here to Frankford.”

Expanding the program also means more jobs for Philadelphians. Instead of buying prefabricated barrels, ECA has been hiring workers at their Neighborhood Energy Centers to build recycled barrels made from food-grade shipping containers. “We looked very closely at the fittings and realized that we could improve on it,” Robinson says. “And, when we looked at the price of commercial barrels, we were just shocked at the cost.”

A brand new barrel without rainspout fittings can cost as much as $100; ECA buys recycled barrels from wholesalers for around $15 then hires people to assemble the fittings. For Philadelphia residents, installation is free. For those in the suburbs, installation, which includes the barrel, is $100 (without installation is $85). An assembled barrel can also be picked up for $60 at the ECA headquarters on Arch Street.

The West Philadelphia nonprofit We Never Say Never (WNSN) helps ECA hire for these jobs. Adrienne Hughes, a volunteer supervisor at WNSN, says the group has a crew of about four men working on the barrels at any given time, though that number can increase to as many as 10. Workers get $20 for each installation, and, as a kind of commission, $30 for clients they recruit. “The guys who do the work, they come from right here – the neighborhood, family, friends … people who want to work and will do a good job,” says Hughes.

For more on ECA’s rain barrel programs, visit ecasavesenergy.org

BRIAN RADEMAEKERS is a writer, homebrewer and gardener living in the Philadelphia area.