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How It Works

The concept is simple: collect water that is normally lost down storm drains by securing a storage barrel to the end or your roof’s downspout. It is most common to collect water from a building’s roof, but decks and driveways can also be sources of water drainage.

The simplest rain barrel setup requires a storage tank (water barrel), a secure lid, a basket strainer or screen, and a spigot or drain valve. Water flows off of the roof into the gutter, then enters the downspout and pours through the basket strainer attached to the lid of the barrel.

Rainwater can be retrieved directly from the spigot at the bottom of the barrel, or a hose can be attached by which the water can be directed to the desired location. An overflow device on your water barrel (such as PVC pipe) or a hose can carry overflow water into additional rain barrels or to a safe distance from your foundation. Although this system is highly effective, there are still many rain barrel accessories which can improve its gathering, storage, and delivery capabilities.

Tierra-Derco Standard Rain Saver
"Tierra-Derco Standard Rain Saver"
The Many Uses for Your Water

According to the EPA, landscape irrigation accounts for nearly one-third of all residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day across the nation. Imagine if all that water was collected directly from rain run-off! Beyond normal water usage, rain barrels are a survivalist essential, for those living off the grid, those who are preparing for the worst, or those who want to supplement a well water supply.

Use a rain barrel to collect water and store it for both regular watering and periods of drought or water restriction. In this way, you can save money on your water bill and keep your plants healthy all season long. Rain barrels are highly effective. A 1000-square-foot catchment area yields 600 gallons per inch of rainfall. Although the most common plastic rain barrel size is 55 gallons, residential storage units range from small 15-gallon models to larger commercial sizes designed to hold up to 1,000 gallons. Before you buy a barrel, try to determine how much watering you want to do with your collected reserve. This will help you decide the capacity you need.

Depending on the size of the barrel and the setup of the system, collected water can be used to water potted patio plants, flower beds, vegetable gardens, and even the whole lawn. Water can be transferred into a watering can from the spigot on the rain barrel, or a hose can be attached to the spigot. To water a lawn, a larger barrel with a pump will be required to create the pressure necessary for a sprinkler to operate. For those who do not install a rain barrel pump, some choose to set their barrel on a stand to allow for easier access to the bottom spigot and create more head pressure for hose use.

Rain Barrel Closeup
Rain Barrel Closeup
Types of Rain Barrels

Decorative Plastic Rain Barrels: Plastic and polyethylene rain barrels are the most popular because of their affordability and easy maneuverability. They are available in a wide assortment of styles and colors to create a cohesive look in your garden or yard area. Many styles feature a planter area in the top for a decorative touch. In areas that are subject to extreme sunshine and temperatures, it’s recommended to look for a barrel with UV protection to avoid deterioration. It’s important to note some vegetable gardeners prefer barrels made of other materials to avoid the possible presence of B.P.A. (bisphenol-A). This chemical is used in plastic manufacturing and is considered an environmental contaminant. B.P.A. also interferes with the nitrogen fixation of leguminous roots.

Wooden Rain Barrels: Wooden rain barrels are a classic choice, as they make a wonderful container for water and they offer an attractive aesthetic for many gardens, decks, patios, or backyards. If you use your water for vegetable gardening, wooden barrels eliminate the possibility of B.P.A contamination. Wooden catchment systems are heavier and generally more expensive than plastic.

Galvanized Metal Rain Barrels: Metal rain barrels of the past were often associated with industrial or agrarian settings, but many newer designs, like models by Shift Designs, are intended for residential use. Stainless steel containers lend a modern, streamlined look, are very durable, and are B.P.A.-free.

Ceramic Clay or Stone Rain Barrels: Ceramic or stone barrels add an attractive look to gardens and patios. These containers often feature a planter area in the top to increase their decorative appeal. Ranging in size, they can be small enough to sit on a deck and provide water for potted plants or large enough to collect water for a small vegetable garden. They can be heavy, but they are B.P.A.-free and can offer years of use.

Collapsible Rain Barrels: Another option is a collapsible barrel. They are usually made with a frame that is covered with a waterproof outdoor fabric, like nylon or polyester. These barrels offer a seasonal solution to water collection. They can be set up for the warm weather months and then collapsed and stored during winter months. Many people enjoy this type of barrel for its versatility and low cost, but they usually do not offer the same durability as permanent barrels made from other materials.

Heaven & Earth 52 Gallon Knock Down Rain Water Barrel
Heaven & Earth 52 Gallon Knock Down Rain Water Barrel
Any Way You Measure It

Curious to know how much water you can collect? You might be surprised how quickly your barrel will fill. Use one of the methods below to calculate how much water you can expect to collect, and what size barrel you will want.

First method: One square foot of catchment area will collect approximately 0.6 gallons per inch of rainfall. 1,000 square feet of catchment area collects 600 gallons per inch of rainfall. Always measure pitched roofs by the length and width of the collection area parallel to the ground. In other words, if the pitched slope of your roof is viewed as the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle, then you would measure the length of the base instead of the slope. Rain falls straight down from the sky, not at an angle.

Second method: G = 0.416 x R x A, where G = gallons collected 0.416 = conversion factor between cubic feet and gallons R = amount of rainfall in inches A = surface area of roof draining to the rain barrel in square feet

Rain Barrel and Fill Hose
Rain Barrel and Fill Hose
Installing Your Rain Barrel

Make sure you are setting up your barrel in a level place. If it is not a level location, like a deck or patio surface, use leveling blocks underneath of it (such as paving stones), so as to provide a safe spot for draining underneath, and a sturdy base to prevent tipping.

Always keep your rain barrels covered to keep mosquitoes and larvae from reproducing, and to discourage exploration from curious pets or children.

Cover the downspout and drainage spots with netting or wire mesh to prevent mosquitoes and debris from getting in your water.

Position your rain barrel so that the overflow valve is facing away from your home's foundation.

General Care & Maintenance

Clean your roof and gutters at least once a year to minimize debris in your stored rain water.

If you treat your roof for pests, remember to unhook your rain barrel for 2 weeks to be sure of keeping your water uncontaminated.

Consider installing a drain spout if your collection surpasses your usage and you experience overflow.

Try to drain your rain water barrel on a regular basis to avoid a mosquito breeding ground; keep in mind 10 days is the time it takes for mosquitoes to breed.

You can use a larvae tablet in your plastic rain barrel as a precautionary measure. These chemicals will not harm your lawn or garden.

Depending on the part of the country you live in, you may want to disconnect your rain barrels in the winter if the temperature drops below freezing on a regular basis. Repeated freezing and thawing of the water in your rain water barrel can weaken the material and cause cracks.

Store your rain barrels upside-down to keep them clean when not in use.

Rain Barrel on Stand
Rain Barrel on Stand
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