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Buying, Installing and Using a Rain Barrel

A rain barrel gives you a simple way to collect rainwater for use around your landscape.

What is a Rain Barrel?

A rain barrel is a container that collects runoff from your home's gutter system, connecting to the downspout with a diverter or fitting under a modified downspout. A spigot or hose connector lets you drain the water for use around your landscape. Rain barrels provide an alternative to using municipal water or well water for irrigation. Plants benefit from water that's free of the chemicals and minerals in tap water. Rain barrels can reduce the volume of runoff entering the storm sewer, keeping pesticides, fertilizer and other chemicals out of nearby bodies of water. Collecting rain for use later also keeps it from entering your foundation, crawl space or basement. Some cities offer financial incentives for using rainwater for irrigation as a supplement to municipal water.

Caution

Check for restrictions on rain barrels and rain harvesting in your area. You may need a permit in some locations, or the use of rain barrels may be prohibited or governed by state, local or neighborhood regulations.

Rain Barrel Considerations

Plan to install the barrel at a downspout near where you need the water. A rain barrel supplies low-pressure water, and the flow rate decreases as the barrel empties. Elevating the barrel improves the flow rate, and some barrels come with a pump to increase water pressure. The increased flow can supply low-pressure drip irrigation, but sprinklers and hose-end sprayers do not work with a rain barrel. Your other alternatives for dispensing the water are a garden hose, soaker hose or watering can.

Estimate how much rainwater you'll capture. Collection rates vary depending on the slope and size of the roof, but for estimation purposes, during a 1-inch rainfall you can collect a little over half a gallon for each square foot of roof. The downspout you direct to the rain barrel only channels water from one section of your roof, so use that section to calculate the amount of water you can collect.

Plan for overflow. A 1-inch rainfall on 100 square feet of roof will generate about 60 gallons of water. If the barrel overflows, the excess water needs to flow away from your home's foundation. Some barrels include a hose that drains the overflow while others use a basic overflow outlet. Some barrels simply overflow through the debris screen and have a built-in groove to direct the excess water off of the front of the barrel. You may be able to link barrels to collect the overflow.

Caution

If zinc or another chemical has been applied to your roof for algae / moss control, or if your roof or gutters are copper, don't use the runoff on edible plants.

Choosing a Rain Barrel

Select an overall size and capacity based on where you plan to set up the rain barrel and how much water you expect to collect. Choose a color and design that fits your landscape and home. There are also a few features you can look for:

  • A debris screen keeps leaves, animals and insects (including mosquitoes) out of the barrel.
  • A flat-back barrel fits close to your home, so the barrel is farther out of the way. Your downspout may require less modification to fit a barrel with a flat back.
  • An opening lid lets you dip a watering can into the barrel for quick filling. A closed top or latching lid helps keep children and animals out. The tops of some rain barrels function as planters.
  • The water outlet is either a spigot or a hose connection. One outlet is located at the bottom of the barrel, and some barrels have a second, higher outlet for filling a watering can.
  • A collapsible design makes storage easier.

Shop for Rain Barrels

Good to Know

Hybrid rain barrel / composter models save space by stacking a composter on top of the rain-collection reservoir. Excess moisture from the composter drains into the reservoir, adding nutrients to the water.

Installing a Rain Barrel

Before you install or use a rain barrel, make sure your gutters and downspouts are clear and functioning. See Gutter Cleaning and Repair for information on maintaining your gutters. The process for setting up your rain barrel will vary by model, so follow the manufacturer's instructions. Here are the basic steps:

Caution

Do not connect the rain barrel to any part of your home plumbing or to an irrigation system attached to the plumbing.

Step 1

Determine which gutter downspout you'll use with the barrel.

Step 2

Assemble the rain barrel. Assembly may include installing the spigot or hose connecter(s) and connecting an overflow hose. Collapsible barrels will have more assembly steps.

Step 3

Prepare the area where the barrel will rest. If you're placing it on the ground rather than a patio or concrete pad, dig the area out to a depth of one or two inches and use gravel, sand or pavers to create a stable, level surface. Set up a sturdy stand or platform if you plan to elevate your barrel.

Caution

If you elevate the barrel above the ground, the structure you use must be able to support the weight of a full barrel. A gallon of water weighs about 8.3 pounds. So, if a 40-gallon barrel weighs 30 pounds empty, it will weigh over 360 pounds when full.

Step 4

Place the barrel next to the downspout at its final, installed height.

Step 5

Configure the downspout to direct water into the barrel. Before cutting or boring into a downspout, make sure there are no heating or other electrical cables running through it. Measure and mark carefully. Follow your manual's instructions to adapt the downspout. Methods include:

  • Cutting the downspout to allow the barrel to fit under it and attaching an elbow section, if needed
  • Boring or cutting out a section of downspout and installing a diverter that connects to the barrel with a hose
  • Replacing part of the downspout with a customized section or flexible downspout extension that will fill the barrel
Caution

Wear work gloves and eye protection when cutting or boring into the downspout.

Good to Know

Protect your home's exterior while cutting or boring into the downspout by placing a piece of plywood behind the downspout.

Step 6

Position and level the barrel.

Step 7

Direct the barrel's overflow to keep water away from the foundation of your home. Your barrel may come with an overflow hose, or you may need to place a gutter splash block under the overflow outlet.

Using a Rain Barrel

The water you collect in a rain barrel is untreated. The absence of chlorine and other chemicals is good for plants, but humans and pets shouldn't consume it and you shouldn't use it for cooking, washing your hands or washing food. If you use the water to irrigate herb, vegetable or fruit plants, apply it to the soil, not the plants. Wash the vegetables and fruit in tap water before eating or cooking them. Use soap and warm tap water to wash any parts of your body that touch the collected water.

Make sure your rain barrel doesn't cause mosquito problems. A debris screen keeps mosquitoes from entering the main water inlet, but you can caulk any gaps that might allow them to enter. Mosquitoes may still be able to enter through overflow outlets, and eggs or larvae may be washed into the barrel from your gutters. Using the water promptly can help prevent eggs from developing into mosquitoes. You can add anti-larval tablets containing Bacillus thuringiensis to the water to kill mosquito larvae.

Using the rainwater within a week or two of collection will help prevent odors from stagnant water or algae growth. If possible, use the collected water before the next rain. When you're not collecting rainwater, leave the spigot on the barrel open. Place a splash block under it or connect a hose to prevent erosion and keep water from entering your home's foundation. If you don't plan to use the barrel for long periods of time or if you will be away for several days, remove it and reconfigure the downspout to handle the runoff.

Secure the barrel to keep it from tipping over. Some manufacturers recommend always leaving some water in the barrel to keep it in place. Inspect it regularly for damage or leaks. Clear away anything blocking the debris screen. Rinse out the barrel as needed to clean out any sediment or debris that passed through the debris screen.

Before freezing weather arrives, drain and disconnect the barrel. Set your gutter downspout so it will handle runoff, either by reinstalling the portion you removed or setting a diverter to downspout use. Rinse the barrel out before storing it.

Caution

Check to see if local watering restrictions apply to the use of collected rainwater.