rain barrels

Rain barrels make sense–

for gardeners

Rain water is best for plants; rain barrels provide soft water that is free of  salts, minerals, chlorine and fluorine – so soil microbes and worms can thrive.  And rain water can be stored for the dry periods when the rain doesn’t come.

for people concerned about stormwater (or the environment or both)

Rain barrels reduce runoff; rain barrels capture water in your yard, without flooding—that means rain barrels reduce urban runoff, protect watersheds,decrease water demand, lessen pressure on waste water treatment plants and keep creeks and beaches clean.  As we experience more intense storms, rain barrel help prevent water quality and runoff problems.

what is a rain barrel?

a rain barrel is a large container that collects rainwater so it can be used later.
it’s like a savings account for water.

buy a barrel—or make one

Rain barrels cost $40-$200, depending on the style and where you buy them.  You can often buy them from:..

  • village government offices
  • County Forest Preserves
  • Soil and Water Conservation Districts
  • hardware stores
  • craigslist, internet, etc

You can make your own rain barrel, with inexpensive (often recycled) supplies and a few simple tools.  University of Washington Extension has a nice brochure with detailed instructions.

anatomy of a rain barrel

rain barrel anatomy animalia project
The anatomy of a good rain barrel. illustration: animalia project

When it rains…. rainwater can be a resource.   Harvest it!

How much water can you harvest from a rain barrel?

A 1,000 square foot roof sheds 625 gallons in a 1” rainfall.  That’s a lot of water!

To calculate how much water you can harvest from your roof, start by figuring out the surface area of your roof.  You can use the footprint of your house, to get a conservative measure of your roof.  Then, multiply the square footage of your roof by 623 and divide by 1000.

roof area ______ square foot  x  623  = _____  / 1000  =  ______ gallons of water from a 1” rain

You can use more than one rain barrel to collect water.  If you have more than one downspout you can place a rain barrel under each spout.  You can also connect rain barrels to each other, in a daisy chain; attach a hose to the overflow valve of one rain barrel and direct it to the screened inlet of a neighboring rain barrel.  The barrel that receives the overflowing rainwater should be lower than the first barrel, to let gravity help the process.

landscape design and rain barrels

If you want to blend your rain barrel into the landscape, you can screen it with a trellis, a shrub, tall grasses or other vegetation.  Just make sure you make it easy to get to your rain barrel (without crawling around a rose bush, for example).  Or, you can show off your rain barrel.  Choose one that matches your aesthetic or paint a mural on your rain barrel (patterns and landscapes are popular).  Here’s how:

  • wash with a solution of 50% vinegar/50% water, inside and out
  • sand the exterior to help paint stick to the rougher surface
  • apply latex exterior bonding primer
  • paint! using latex or acrylic paint

install your rain barrel

It’s easy and you’ll need only a few simple tools.

Before you cut the downspout, find the best spot for your new rain barrel.  Consider safety and convenience:

  • secure footing on level ground– A full rain barrel can weigh 450 lbs and you don’t want it to tip over.  Provide a  permeable surface below the rain barrel so overflows don’t cause erosion.
  • convenient location and access to the spigot near where you’ll use the water
  • elevated base allows room for a hose or watering can and allow for overflow– to other barrels or onto ground.  Elevate the barrel 1 foot or more so gravity can help water flow when you’re ready to use the water.

installation procedure

  • Disconnect downspout from sewer system, if needed.
  • If using a diverter, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • If you’ll be placing the rain barrel directly under the downspout, start by setting up the rain barrel and its footing next to the downspout so you can measure the height of the rain barrel and it’s base.
  • Now hold up the downspout elbow above the barrel, so you are mimicking the final set-up. Mark the downspout with a line showing where the top of the elbow sits above the height of the rain barrel & it’s base.
  • Cut downspout so rain barrel will fit under it; use a hacksaw to cut the spout (about 3-12” above the barrel, depending on the type of elbow).
  • Attach downspout elbow; secure with screws (aluminum) or PVC cement.
  • Position the rain barrel on a sturdy base under the downspout elbow.
  • Connect the hose, if you’ll be using one.  Make sure the spigot is closed.
  • Wait for the next rain, then use the water as needed!

Watch a video of a rain barrel installation on This Old House (this installation uses a diverter to direct water to the rain barrel or through the downspout):

using water from a rain barrel

Water from a rain barrel is not potable; it’s not safe for your or your pet to drink.  It’s also not safe to use for preparing food.

Use rain water from your rain barrel to:

  • water flowers, shrubs, trees, lawns
  • rinse tools and boots

Water from your rain barrel isn’t suitable for all uses:

  • do not drink water from your rain barrel
  • don’t water or bathe your pet with water from the rain barrel
  • don’t use water from your rain barrel to wash vegetables or to water vegetable plants (unless you are certain the water is not contaminated from roofing materials and bacteria)

Water pressure will be lower than you get from a household spigot, so rain barrels work best with soaker hoses or hand-watering (with a can or hose).  They’re not well-suited for sprinkler systems.

rain barrel maintenance

A rain barrel doesn’t have to be a lot of work, but you do need to check on it from time to time (give it a quick look-over whenever you use it) and some seasonal maintenance.

  • check screen and cover, frequently to prevent mosquitos and prevent fall-ins
  • watch water level before a big storm, consider leaving the spigot open temporarily if the barrel might overflow
  • clean scrub out interior once a year, or more often
  • winterize drain water, leave spigot open, then flip the rain barrel over or store inside to avoid capturing rain/snow

learn more about water conservation

Determine your water footprint with this calculator.
Find out about water conserving strategies, products and rebates from the EPA WaterSense program.

recommended reading about water in Chicago

Natural History of the Chicago Region by Joel Greenberg. 2002. University of Chicago Press
The Chicago River: a natural and unnatural history by Libby Hill. 2000. Lake Claremont Press.
Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronin. 1991. Norton