Friday, September 3, 2010

Use a Rain Barrel to Collect Condensate from Your Air Conditioner!

Polk County Master Gardener, Carol Leffler, has generously shared her experience attaching a barrel to her air conditioner unit to catch condensation for watering around the garden. I was truly surprised to learn how much water she collected in a 55-gallon barrel in such a short amount of time. If you have questions about rain barrels please contact the UF/IFAS Polk County Extension Service Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Program. Please enjoy her article!

The month of August brought unexpectedly hot weather and, along with it, the sudden failure of our home’s air-conditioning system. We experienced seven hot days of August without air conditioning. Now, that would stymie even the best of Floridians, because not only was it too hot to move, but around our house, it was even too hot to think.

It’s not that this was an unexpected occurrence. We knew it was coming, just not precisely when. Suffice it to say, we had done all of our “homework” on the topic for the past couple years, so we knew our options.

You know what they say, “When Life Gives You Lemons…”. A wonderful unintended consequence came to bear on this most seasonally uncomfortable event. Around the house, when I have a contractor or whoever working, I always quip to them that I “consider it bad manners not to work when others are,” so I busied myself with what I could do while supervising the installation. After all, sitting in the house and watching TV and eating bonbons was not an option (they’d melt!). It was definitely nicer weather outside.

One feature of the failed A/C system was that the condensate had previously been piped to an inside drain in a bathroom (“go figure” why in the world that was done). The installer said he couldn’t do this again, as it would void my new A/C warranty. Sooo…”Where to route the condensate?” questioned the contractor. Or, more precisely, I thought, “How to capture and use this newly routed source of water? Eureka!” Here was a water source that was free for the taking.” How much it could deliver was a mystery that I was willing to try to solve.

Back in the recesses of my mind, I had stored away memory of an installation of “condensate barrels” that I had seen last April at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. The aquarium recaptures all of its A/C condensate into outside barrel systems, and then recycles it to the outside landscape plantings. When I first saw the installation, I was impressed with the possibilities.

I had, in my treasure trove of unfinished projects, a spare unpainted rain barrel, spigot attached. As it was taking the installers hours to perform the retrofit of the new A/C system, I had a cushion of spare time. I excused myself and went to get the materials I still needed—leveling sand, gravel, a concrete base, and concrete blocks, the latter for elevating the barrel. (When I returned, they had stepped a hole through the garage drywall ceiling—most folks would view that as a setback, but to me it equaled an advantage—even more time!

After all, there were, at times, up to eight installers working on one retrofitting problem or another, and they all came with tools they knew how to use quickly and effectively. Succinctly put, I realized that I was, unexpectedly but happily, in a place I shall call “Helper Heaven".

The first job was to make room for the new “condensate barrel.” It wasn’t as easy as just plopping it in a waiting spot.

I dug out an azalea bush that I had rejuvenated over the last six years. Bye bye, bush! It wasn’t quite that easy, but that’s life. Then the site was prepped with use of the aforementioned materials, and the placement of the barrel. The installers had never seen this done, and they were willing to do the pipe routing with precision (the piping had to go somewhere, anyhow). It is important to note that when installing a condensate barrel, the piping must include a trap between the source and the outflow. This is for two reasons: first, to block the flow of cool air to the outside, and secondly, to block the flow of critters and insects to the system air handler.

Then…that magic moment, when the flow of water began! What a musical sound to hear—the quiet “ping-pinging” as the condensate followed its route to the bottom of the barrel! Listening through the barrel’s top revealed an amplified version of the water’s song. Over the next few days, the culmination of falling water solved the mystery of what the size of the reclamation reward would be. In seven days, the 55-gallon barrel was completely filled—with a very good water harvest!

In the ensuing days, we have endeavored to maximize the collection process by providing for overflow, and also attempting to schedule use of the water, so that the overflow didn’t end up as just overflow. What a resource! Now, we just have to plan and channel the usage. We have connected the outflow to micro-irrigation heads with fairly good success, which was another big surprise. The micro-irrigation heads work fairly well at low-flow for some distance from the condensate barrel.

An additional storage barrel is in the future. Another task will be to make the barrel(s) aesthetic as well as functional, as they are located on the side of the house, behind a silverthorn bush and are minimally visible from the street. This dictates that they be visually unobtrusive architecturally. Also, the pipes were painted using the same color as the house exterior so they blend in as much as possible. The first step in painting the barrel (after a primer coat) was to match the base color with that of the outdoor A/C unit that sits directly in front of the barrel from the street view.

The fun part, the artwork, was the last step—although it need not have been, if the barrel had been completed before installation. I’m still working on the decorative aspect of that barrel, as shown above. The flowers are a folk art rendition of coreopsis (tickseed), the State Wildflower of Florida.

A final note—of course, my A/C installation required that the Polk County Building Department complete an inspection. The county inspector had never seen a “condensate barrel” as part of an A/C installation. He was quite interested in it, and impressed with the report of the water reclamation.


Susan said...

Great idea! I think I might be able to do something similar to this. Thanks for the idea.

daisy said...

Absolutely brillian! I doubt it would pass my HOA though. Well done, Anne! daisy

Mike said...

I measured my condensate volume -- about 5 gal/day -- but I'll have to reroute the drain to take advantage of it. BTW, this is very close to pure distilled water.

Jhonson Smith said...

Your blog is really informative.Thank you so much for sharing.
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