If you want to water your plants and conserve water, consider an old-fashioned rain barrel. Rain barrels catch the water that runs down from your roof, storing it for later use in the garden. You can either make a rain barrel or buy one. Because of renewed interest in this old-fashioned technology, you can choose from many types of barrels.
The style of rain barrel that is best for your home depends on where you want to put it and how much water you need for your garden. You have to place the rain barrel so rainwater from the roof will flow into it. This means it has to go either under a downspout, under the edge of the roof, or below a roof trough. It’s best to catch water from a downspout, but if you don’t have gutters and downspouts, a trough or roof edge will do.
Ideally your barrel will sit as close as possible to where you plan to use the water. The closer the barrel is to your plants the less water you will have to carry. If you decide to place your rain barrel in the front of the house, you may want to choose one that is attractive, so it becomes a design feature rather than an eyesore. If it will be hidden from view, appearance may not matter as much and you might want to go with one of those ugly blue or orange recycled food barrels.
The size you choose depends on how much watering you plan to do and how much space you have for the barrels. You can make or buy a rain barrel in sizes ranging from 35 gallons to 200 gallons. Rain barrels that hold less than 50 gallons are considered small scale; they hold enough water for patio plants. With rain barrels over 50 gallons you can water larger areas, including trees, shrubs, and flowerbeds. If you have the space you can link rain barrels together like a daisy chain for even greater capacity.
The most basic rain barrel is a simple barrel with a secure lid with a small opening in the top. To keep children and animals safe your rain barrel must have a securely latched or tight-fitting lid. Most barrel buyers opt for add-ons such as a screen filter to keep leaves, mosquitoes, and debris out of the barrels; an overflow hose to keep excess water from reaching the foundation; and a spigot for easy dispensing. Traditional rain barrels are round, but you can find octagonal, rectangular, and square “barrels.” Flat-sided barrels fit snug against the house. Some designs include a planter that fits on top of the barrel.
Give some thought to the type of rain barrel that’s best for your situation. Garden centers and online stores like the one where I work, Clean Air Gardening, sell rain barrels of all sizes, shapes, and materials. Some municipalities and cooperative extension services can direct you to lower-cost rain barrels as well as rain barrel-making instructions and workshops.
Just don’t take too long to decide because for every inch of rain that falls on 1,000 square feet of roof surface, 623 gallons of water run off the roof. And that’s no drop in the bucket! All of that rainwater is just running down the street gutters, wasted, unless you begin to collect it.
Tips for Making Your Own DIY Rain Barrel
Want to know how to make or build your own rain barrel? You’ve come to the right place.
If you’re looking for a cheap rain barrel, consider making your own. If you’re going to recycle rainwater, why not start with recycling items to make a rain barrel? Look around your yard first for container or parts, like diverters, you can recycle. If you can’t find the right containers, there are recycling programs that take the 55 gallon barrels.
I’ve gone through the internet and collected the best rain barrel plans out there for building your own rain barrel. There are a ton of sites out there for DIY (do-it-yourself) rain barrels. So, to save your time and focus on actually putting a rain collection system together, check out these pages. These are the resources with the best user friendly directions for making rain barrels. There are also some videos further down the page.
- See what tools you need. Make sure you have what it takes to make rain barrels before you buy the parts.
- Collected water is not for drinking.
- Use a food grade barrel. You do not want a barrel that has stored any chemicals.
- Secure lid for safety of children and pets.
- Use a screen to keep mosquitoes from laying eggs in the rain barrel.
- Often folks will raise a rain barrel to make it more accessible, or to raise the spigot.
- Check out your yard for something to elevate it, like cinderblocks. Make sure the rain barrel is level.
- While making one rain barrel, why not make another? Link them together to prevent overflow during rainy seasons.
Build Your Own Rain Barrel Plans
City of Bremerton, Washington: Make Your Own Rain Barrels
This is an awesome resource with tool list, brochure, and diagrams for making rain barrels. Here’s the link to the actual brochure with instructions on how to make your own rain barrel from the City of Bremerton.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation: Build Your Own Rain Barrel
This is an eight page brochure that has step by step instructions for building rain barrels. Different source from the other resources since it includes a very detailed sample budget for tools and materials, budget worksheet, and links to organizations that may fund rain barrel making projects for schools or other organizations.
Southwest Florida Water Management District: 5 Easy Steps to Building a Rain Barrel
I liked these instructions because they are not over complicated. Five simple steps to building a rain barrel and a video make it pretty simple to build your own.
Mid-America Regional Council: How to Build Your Own Rain Barrel
This site is a great resource with easy to follow instructions, and a simple tool list. These instructions show that you don’t need a ton of fancy tools to make a rain barrel. The EPA’s build your own rain barrel instructions are also provided by the Mid-America Regional Council.
Bridging the Gap: How to Assemble a Rain Barrel
Check out these do-it-yourself instructions for assembling a rain barrel. These are great instructions with a photograph with each step. You can really see how to make the rain barrel.
Videos on How to Make Your Own Rain Barrel
This video is from Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s rain barrel workshops. It is an easy to follow demonstration and the video has great tips. The PHS suggests not putting the spigot for the hose too low, allowing the sediment from the rain water, roof, and gutters to settle on the bottom of the rain barrel. This keeps the sediment from clogging the hose. They give some other great advice on how to keep mosquitoes out of the barrel. It’s a short video, and worth watching.
Newton County Water and Sewage Authority made this video on how to build rain barrels. This video follows the step by step process to making a rain barrel. It doesn’t skip ahead or leave out any instructions, so it’s a good one to watch to see exactly how to make one. Also, the guys keep making jokes so it’s easy to stay tuned in to the video.
This video has a lot of steps to it, and I think it could be easier to buy some ready made parts for rain barrels. But, if you want to start from scratch, check out this video from Lowes. If you are unsure what parts you need, you can write these down and then take them to your local store for an associate to help you find them.
Want to learn more about Rainwater Harvesting?
Check out American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association’s resource list for rainwater harvesting for tons of information on rain barrels and rainwater harvesting.
If you’re going to use a rain barrel to collect rainwater, you’ll need to consider the safety issues. Here are the most important ones, in my opinion.
Keep Mosquitoes Out of Your Rain Barrel
Mosquitoes lay their eggs in still water. Still water, like in a rain barrel, can easily become a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which in addition to being very annoying can carry disease. So, what can you do to keep mosquitoes from taking over your rain barrel?
– Keep them out. Commercial rain barrels typically have a screen to keep mosquitoes out. If your barrel doesn’t have screening you can buy screen and fasten it to the barrel opening.
– Kill the mosquito larvae. Non-toxic mosquito control dunks and bait kill the larvae before they mature into biting adults. The larvicides contain Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that is toxic to mosquito and certain fly larvae, but not toxic to people and animals.
– Introduce fish. Fish eat mosquito larvae, so they may be able to control the mosquito population. However, a rain barrel is not the ideal environment for fish because the rush of incoming water causes temperature fluctuations and “waves,” which can kill fish. If you decide to try putting fish in your barrel make sure you always have water in the barrel.
The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies to rain barrels. The best remedy for the mosquito problem is use screening to prevent the insects from getting in your barrel.
Rain Barrel Safety is Extremely Important
Anyone–children, pets, and adults–can drown very quickly in a very small amount of water. Without precautions, a rain barrel can become a hazard: A child peers into the barrel and loses her balance. A cat sits on the edge and falls in. That’s why it’s so important that your rain barrel does not have a big opening.
– DO NOT use a container with a wide opening such as a standard plastic trashcan as a water barrel. Even with a cover, the lids that come with trashcans are neither strong enough nor secure enough to prevent someone from getting in.
– DO choose or make a rain barrel with a small opening. If there’s a lid, make sure it is completely secure.
Recycling Used Barrels into Rain Barrels
If you decide to retrofit or recycle a used barrel as a rain barrel:
– NEVER USE barrels that contained chemicals, oil, or unknown substances. There’s no way to remove all of the toxic residue, which means the toxins can contaminate the water in the barrel. As you use water your garden you expose yourself and your family, your neighbors, and animals to poisons that can make them very sick.
– USE food grade barrels only. Even if the barrels still have the odor of pickles or olives, they won’t poison your water. Just rinse them out with water, and they’re good to go. Many restaurants get bulk items in food grade plastic barrels and are willing to let them go for little or no money.
Make a Stable Platform for your Rain Barrel
If your rain barrel has a spigot and you want to draw water out more easily, you can raise your barrel up off the ground. You just have to make sure you have a stable platform so the barrel doesn’t tip over. The platform, which you can make from cinderblocks, should be at least as wide as the barrel and sit on stable ground.
Prepare Your Rain Barrel for Winter
Did you ever leave a full bottle of water outside or in the garage over winter? If you did you probably found a cracked bottle in the spring. You may have figured out that the water froze, expanded, and broke the bottle because it had nowhere else to go. Well, that’s exactly what will happen to your rain barrel if you leave it full over winter in a cold climate: the water will freeze, swell, and actually split the barrel.
To keep your barrel safe during the long, hard freeze of a northern winter all you need to do is leave the spigot open. The water can drain out so it won’t freeze and crack your barrel. As long as the spigot is open, the barrel will be empty and you can safely leave the rain barrel outside all winter.
You can, of course, tip the barrel over and empty it that way and leave it upside down for the winter. If you have a simple rain barrel without a spigot, that’s what you will have to do. Some people recommend removing the downspout, diverter, and/or connector, but others find this extra precaution is not worth the effort.
Rain barrels are a simple, yet elegant technology. They don’t need much care. To protect them over the winter just make sure they are empty before the cold winds blow. Then they will be all ready when April showers come your way.
If you live in a part of the country where there is rarely a hard freeze, you can continue using the rain barrel during the winter. If you see a weather report that a freeze is coming, just be sure to drain the barrel and don’t forget!
Rain Barrels versus Cisterns
If you’re planning to harvest rainwater, you might consider whether you want to use a rain barrel, or a cistern, depending on how much water you want to collect.
For the average homeowner, one or two 50 gallon rain barrels is probably going to be all that you’ll want to do. It’s not that the extra water wouldn’t come in handy — it’s just that it becomes more of an issue of where you’d put all of those rain barrels, and how you’d deal with the water.
If you want to collect thousands of gallons of rainwater instead of just hundreds, then you’ll probably want to consider a cistern instead of a rain barrel. Cisterns can be above ground, or underground.
Most cities are going to have laws that might apply when you are collecting this much rainwater. A cistern is large, and there also might be rules against having something that big in your yard in a city. (Although the one pictured here is a cistern that I photographed in Austin, Texas, only about a mile from downtown.)
Outside the city limits, or in situations where you want to collect enough rainwater to meet all of your water needs and not just a small supplemental source, a cistern might be your better option. Cisterns often cost thousands of dollars though, and may require professional installation. Especially if you plan to bury one and store your water underground.
Getting Rainwater into your Rain Barrel
If you are going to the trouble of collecting rainwater, you want to make sure the most water drains into the barrel as possible. Here’s how to get the water from the downspout into the barrel without wasting a drop:
· If you have a flat-sided barrel, just cut off the downspout at an angle and insert it into the opening in the barrel.
· With round barrels you usually have to redirect the water from the downspout so that it flows into the barrel. A flex elbow from the hardware store does the job simply and easily. Or, you can buy a downspout redirector designed for rain barrel use. Once you bend it to the shape you need it will hold that shape.
· A Garden Water Saver installs on the downspout. When a sealed barrel fills up, backflow is created, sending extra water through plastic tubing and down the downspout.
· A downspout adapter or redirector reduces the opening of oversized downspouts from the 3” x 4” of newer homes to the standard 2” x 3” size.
From the Rain Barrel to the Garden
A water barrel is a reservoir. To use the water it holds you have to get the water out, obviously. But how do you do that? If you have a big enough opening you can dip a bucket or watering can into the barrel. If you have a spigot, you can run the water out through the bottom.
Attach a hose to the spigot and you can let the water run out on a section of the garden. Attach a soaker hose to the spigot and you can slowly and gently water a section of the garden. With the barrel raised up on a secure platform you can fill your watering can from the spigot.
What About Rain Barrels and Water Pressure?
Water barrels generate very little water pressure. Raising the barrel off the ground enhances the effect of gravity, creating a little more pressure. Using an adapter to reduce the downspout diameter increases pressure somewhat. If you really want pressure you need to use a pump. A small batter-powered electric pump or a hand-cranked pump will get the water out faster.
However, even with a pump you won’t generate enough pressure to operate a sprinkler. A massive rain gathering system such as a cistern with a pump may be able to generate enough pressure to operate a sprinkler, but a rain barrel can’t do it.