With droughts becoming ever more common, making the most of a good rainfall can be important. Not only are rain barrels a great way to take advantage of mother nature’s bounty, but they’re also a perfect fixture to any yard.
If you haven’t taken the plunge yet, I recommend you do so!
However, before you click “Buy it Now” on a sometimes expensive item, you might want to become more familiar with their ins and outs. We’re going to explore what rain barrels are used for, the features you should look for, and so much more. Buckle up, and let’s dive in!
How rain barrels work
There are many different ways of setting up your rain barrel system. However, most often a homeowner will connect their existing gutter system to drain into the barrel.
From the picture above, you can see that the downspout is draining directly into the barrel, which then has a spigot toward the bottom for easy access.
Many barrels often have an additional drain to make it easier to dump the existing water. This can be helpful during cleaning/winterization.
Uses for rain barrels
At the most basic level, rain barrels collect water from roof run-off and hold it in a reservoir for later use (you can read the EPA’s guidance on them here). This in turn does two things:
- Conserves water and reduces your reliance upon the central water grid.
- It reduces the amount of water run-off from your property, thereby reducing erosion and flooding.
Additionally, attaching a spout to a rain barrel means that you can use it for almost anything you’d use a regular water hose for. This includes, but isn’t limited to:
- Watering flowers, grass, and sometimes vegetables.
- Cleaning sidewalks, driveways, and vinyl siding
- Drinking (with proper treatment and filtration)
Features to look for
Different rain barrels carry distinct features — which you’ll want to target depends entirely on your use case. However, here’s a list of the popular features available for inclusion on your rain barrel.
According to the CDC, there are an average of roughly 3,500 non-boating related drowning deaths annually. About one-in-five of these are from children. If you have children, it’s important that your rain barrel doesn’t put them at an increased risk of getting hurt.
Because of this, you should consider purchasing a rain barrel with a childproofing system built-in.
An overflow valve/diverter
If a rain barrel overflows, it can cause some seriously nasty damage to your yard and foundation. Since rain barrels sit so close to the structure they’re collecting rainwater from, overflows can concentrate water in a place where it can’t easily escape.
Usually, this place is around the foundation. This is terrible for your home and should be avoided at all costs.
The way you prevent a rain barrel from overflowing is by using an overflow valve/diverter system. When the level of the water reaches a certain height, the diverter shuts off and the water will flow through the gutter as normal. A diverter can save you a lot of heartaches.
Ability to chain
Chaining rain barrels is exactly what it sounds like. You’re connecting multiple barrels to the same input source (and sometimes the same output source).
Getting a rain barrel with chaining as a feature gives you confidence that you’ll simply be able to add on to your system in the future. If you’re unsure of what your long-term water needs will be, this is a great feature to have.
A mesh screen
Standing water can attract mosquitoes and other bugs — not to mention bacteria and decaying plant matter. Water is essential for all life and your rain barrel makes an inviting place for insects to lay their eggs.
The best way to prevent mosquitoes from making your rain barrel their home is to use one with a mesh screen.
A good warranty
While rain barrels are fairly easy to repair, you should look for one with a good warranty. Most likely, you won’t have to use it. However, the warranty sends a message that the manufacturer sticks by their product.
You don’t want to purchase a rain barrel simply to have it crack during the first freeze.
Types of rain barrels
The material a rain barrel is constructed from is as important as the features it boasts. While you can add childproofing and mesh screens to any rain barrel, you can’t magically turn a plastic barrel into oak. Take your time and really consider the benefits and shortcomings of each material.
Plastic Rain Barrels
Most plastic rain barrels are constructed from high density, high molecular weight polyethylene (HDPE).
This is an excellent material for rain barrels. Not only is the material inert, but it’s resistant to large variations in pH levels. They are light and thusly easy to move. Additionally, they can be painted and customized to your heart’s content.
They’re not the most durable option, but are reasonably priced and are likely to last many seasons.
Stone/Clay Rain Barrels
If you’re looking for “stone” rain barrels, you’re not likely to find any that are actually constructed from stone. However, you can find some that look visually similar to a stone fixture. If not, you can always try to conceal it from view.
Clay rain barrels are the same kind of story. Although they may have a clay aesthetic, they’re more than likely made from HDPE, containing the same benefits and shortcomings as plastic.
This isn’t to say they can’t be great rain barrels. However, it’s unlikely they’ll actually be made out of the advertised material.
Oak Rain Barrels
Oak rain barrels are a different story altogether. Although usually $350+ (at least three times more expensive than plastic rain barrels), they’re a beautiful, durable, and timeless option. A properly cared for oak rain barrel can last someone a lifetime.
The only major downside is the price. However, similarly to the stone/clay options above, plastic options that look like oak rain barrels exist: link. Additionally, you could paint an existing rain barrel (guide on how to paint them here).
Galvanized Steel Rain Barrels
It’s a stretch to call these containers “rain barrels”, as they look nothing like any of the other options. It would be more apt to call them “water storage cisterns.” Here’s an example of them.
As you can see, these typically have more industrial applications than the rain barrels we’ve covered so far. They’re more expensive, more durable, heavier, and can store as much as 5,000 gallons of water.
They’re great at what they do, but they’re not a good choice for your backyard.
Most rain barrels will have anywhere from 40 to 65 gallons of storage capacity. However, the most common size is your standard 55-gallon drum. I would advise sticking with the 55-gallon option, as the size makes accessorizing and chaining much easier.
The chaining aspect becomes more important if you realize your needs exceed the standard rain barrel size. You might be wondering how you’ll know if this is the case.
To determine what size of rain barrel you need, you can apply the following formula:
V = A2 x R x 0.90 x 7.5 gals./ft.3
Where V is the volume of the rain barrels, R is average rainfall in feet, and A2 is the area of your roof.
Simply put if you had 300 square feet of roof area and 1 inch of rainfall, you would need around 162 gallons of storage. Here’s the math:
= 300 x (1 / 12) x 0.9 x 7.5 = 300 x 0.0833 x 0.9 x 7.5 = 162
The above values means that you would need 4 chained rain barrels to capture the entire amount of water. A diverter setup would mean that you could install fewer than 4, but much of the rain water would be lost. This is fine: most systems fail to capture all of the excess rain water.
If you’d like to plug in your own values, these folks have built a calculator expressly for that purpose.
The cost of rain barrels
The cost of a new rain barrel can vary wildly based on the construction material, the number of features, and the capacity. With that being said, let’s look at a few of the best-rated rain barrels available to get a rough idea of what you’d be spending.
|Water Storage Cistern Tank||Galvanized Steel||90 gallons||$390|
|White Oak Rain Barrel||Oak||53 gallons||$329|
|Weather Resistant Rain Barrel||Plastic||55 gallons||$120|
|Rain Wizard Rain Barrel||Plastic||55 gallons||$77|
|Wood Grained Rain Barrel||Plastic||45 gallons||$90|
So, what can we determine from that list of products? Only a few things, really:
- You can expect to pay between $70-$150 for a plastic rain barrel.
- The price quickly increases if you go for galvanized steel or oak.
- You should carefully look at the rain barrel capacity, as the storage potential can vary wildly.
What about upkeep?
With any rain barrel you choose, a small amount of upkeep will go with it. You’ll need to winterize it, check it often for spoilage/rancid water, and fix any leaks that might occur. Luckily, none of these really cost too much. You’ll only be out of effort and time.
Installing and using rain barrels will save an impressive amount of water – the World Wildlife Foundation estimates up to 1,300 gallons per year for the average person. What kind of monetary savings does that translate into?
Unfortunately, installing a rain barrel in a household with average water usage would only save about $2 per year. If you’re adding a rain barrel because you expect that it will translate to a reduction in your water bill, you’ll be disappointed.
All states in the US have differing rules, laws, and regulations about rainwater harvesting. However, most citizens can collect water using their rain barrels without fear of breaking the law or suffering litigation.
In fact, the U.S. federal government does not have any explicit restrictions surrounding rainwater collection.
States, however, are a different matter. Luckily, most laws about rainwater collection actually encourage the practice. With that being said, some consider rainfall to be the property of the government and prohibit its collection. But if you’re worried that your state has any restrictive regulations, you can check this website.
Buying vs. building
Building your own rain barrel is a perfectly reasonable option and many folks have covered the specifics. I’m especially fond of this video from “This Old House” about how to build a DIY rain barrel for less than $40!
However, should you build your own rain barrel or buy a new one? It’s definitely cheaper to build and if you’re planning on daisy-chaining your barrels I would advise doing it yourself.
Installing a proper chaining setup requires quite a bit of DIY anyway, so converting $10 plastic barrels doesn’t add a ton to the complexity.
However, you should buy rain barrels instead of building them under the following conditions:
- You want a rain barrel constructed from a non-plastic material.
- The money you’d save isn’t as important to you as the time saved.
- You’re not very handy and would feel better with an all-in-one solution.
Some folks have asked me how much money they can expect to save by installing a DIY rain barrel instead of buying one pre-made. Here’s the material list you’ll need with a conservative cost estimate.
DIY Rain Barrel Materials
|1 HDPE 55-Gallon Barrel||$10-$15|
|2″ x 3″ Flexible Downspout Adapter||$3|
|3/4″ Brass Hose Bib||$0.80|
|3/4″ MHT x 3/4″ MIP x 1/2″ MP Brass Adapter||$1|
|3/4″ Black Iron 90 Degree Elbow||$0.50|
As you can see, the materials for a DIY rain barrel don’t exceed $15-$20 in total cost. This cost can go down even more as you buy the various components in bulk. If you’d like to read about a person who used to build these for a living, there’s a fantastic article on instructables.
Where to buy
If you choose to buy your rain barrel, be sure to choose a reputable dealer. Home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s have an okay selection, but the prices are generally not as good as you can find elsewhere. I might even start my search on Craigslist or another marketplace.
Wayfair, Amazon, and other online retailers offer a great selection at the best prices you’re likely to find. However, buying a rain barrel sight-unseen may produce sub-optimal results.
I’m still working on my recommendations, but if you check back soon I should have a full list of recommended models!
Rain barrels are a fantastic thing to install in your outdoor space. The benefits are clear and even though they won’t save you a lot of money, they will add a lot of joy to your home. It’s a great feeling to water your flowers with the rain that you’ve harvested yourself.
Whether you buy or build, I hope you enjoy your rain barrel as much as I’ve enjoyed mine!