In these tough economic times, there's one thing that remains free and plentiful in Florida, especially during the summer: rainwater.
The concept of collecting rainwater for domestic uses isn't new, but it has gained popularity as more people look for ways to conserve resources and save money.
"Once people figure it out, it's a no-brainer,'' said Laurie Walker, director of the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens, which uses rain barrels to water some of its plants. "Everybody should be doing it.''
The botanical gardens and local county extension offices hold free workshops every month or so to teach people how to set up a barrel at their home. In Hillsborough, participants get a free rain barrel. In Pinellas and at USF, the barrels cost $30.
Hillsborough has distributed more than 7,000 barrels since starting the monthly workshops in 1999, said Lynn Barber, who teaches the programs.
In the past year, attendance has increased about 25 percent, reaching about 125 people at each workshop, she said. Every workshop is full until February.
Sue Boe of Odessa signed up for the August workshop in April. She wanted an easy, cheap way to water her plants, wash her car and bathe her two Yorkshire terriers.
Boe uses the captured water about every four days. The 55-gallon drum set up under the edge of her roof rarely goes dry, and even a short rain shower fills it up. A screened lid keeps away the mosquitoes.
"It gives me a good feeling to know that I am using water that's free and readily available and I'm not compromising our potable water,'' she said.
On average, 1 inch of rain that falls on a 1,000-square-foot roof provides about 625 gallons of water, Barber said. Most of that goes down a storm drain or washes away, picking up pesticides and other pollutants.
Brian Gregson founded Rainwater Services a few years ago in St. Petersburg to help homeowners find eco-friendly ways to irrigate their yards. He began with rain barrels, then graduated to larger cisterns, which hold 500 to 1,500 gallons.
He described cisterns as "rain barrels on steroids,'' which can substantially reduce residents' water bills, depending on the size of the cistern and complexity of the system. The most avid conservationists tap rainwater to flush toilets. Treated rainwater can be used throughout a home, including for washing dishes and doing laundry.
Most rain barrel owners collect rainwater for plants, vegetable gardens and other outdoor uses, which account for up to half of household water usage. The barrels are food-grade quality, meaning they can be used to store products for human consumption. Barrels are typically recycled olive, pepper and juice concentrate containers.
Finding the barrels has become more and more difficult. You can't buy them at places like Lowe's and Home Depot, and wholesalers and garden shops have a limited supply.
"There's a decrease in the number of barrels coming into the pot,'' said Barber, the Hillsborough workshop leader. Wholesalers either are reusing their barrels or buying fewer because restaurant sales are down.
USF holds workshops every few months as the barrels become available. Based on the demand, Walker said, they could definitely offer more.
"So many people call us every day,'' she said. "It's kind of bittersweet.''