watering can filling from rain barrel close up

How to Choose and Install a Rain Barrel

The simple act of collecting rainwater is an ancient practice that offers many benefits to modern homeowners and gardeners. By installing a rain barrel to harvest rainwater, you can conserve and use a natural resource in a low-cost and eco-friendly way. .

The concept of a rain barrel is easy: collect water that travels out of your gutter. But there are many factors that can make or break the collection system, so it’s important to weigh these before picking and installing a rain barrel.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Rain Barrel

Rain barrel purpose

There are a lot of reasons to collect rainwater, such as watering the garden in a resourceful way, keeping gutter runoff out of foundations and basements, or reducing your water bills. A rain barrel provides a low-pressure water flow that can supply a drip irrigation system, garden hose, soaker hose, or watering can. Sprinklers and hose sprayer nozzles don't usually work with rain barrels, so consider the reason(s) for installing and how you plan to use the collected water before picking a model.

Rain barrel location

It’s best to put the rain barrel on a concrete pad or patio, but a flat area of land will also do well. If you want to place the rain barrel on an elevated surface, the structure must be able to hold the weight of a full barrel. A gallon of water weighs about 8.3 pounds, so a barrel can be hundreds of pounds when full.

... Rain barrels with flat backs are popular to put on patios and decks.

Material and durability

The rain barrel will be outside in all types of elements, and depending on your local climate, could range from high heat to below freezing. Heavy-duty molded plastics are the most popular because of their maneuverability, affordability, and ability to resist UV light and other elements. Some people make their own out of wooden barrels, but natural materials are likely to rot.

Rainwater collection amount

You’ll need to have a rough idea of how much water you’re going to collect before you pick a barrel size. Rainwater collection rates depend on the size and slope of your roof. This can help you estimate the amount: a 1-inch rainfall yields about half a gallon of water for every square foot of roof. Since the downspout that directs the water into the rain barrel will send water from only one part of the roof, use that area to estimate how much water you’ll collect.

Ability to chain more than one barrel

Chaining rain barrels is a method of connecting multiple barrels to the same input (and sometimes output) source. Picking a rain barrel with chaining features gives you total flexibility to add to the system as your needs grow. Chaining is also a technique to avoid overflowing a barrel.

... If you anticipate using a lot of rain water, consider barrels that can be connected.

Safety around children and animals

A rain barrel can tip over if a kid plays on it or an animal jumps on top. Some barrels come with design elements to prevent them from tipping, such as a flat back to attach to a fence or house siding. You can always create your own tether, too. An opening lid is great for dipping a watering can into, but needs to have a latch to prevent children and animals from falling in.

Design and aesthetic

Most rain barrel users set them up next to their houses or garden sheds, so it’s important to factor in how a particular design or color will fit with the rest of your property. Some like it to be a statement piece while others prefer it to blend in.

... Some rain barrels come with planters on top to fit into your garden better!

How to Install a Rain Barrel

Before you start any installation steps, always make sure the gutters and downspouts are clear and working properly.

Assemble the rain barrel

The process and tools needed to assemble will vary by rain barrel model, with some coming fully assembled and others (like collapsible barrels) having a few extra steps. Assembly usually includes installing the spigot or hose connecter, but some models do come with the spigot attached already.

Prepare the rain barrel location

Most people put their rain barrel on a concrete pad or patio, but flat land also works well. Dig the area down 1-2” and lay gravel or sand to make a stable surface. If the barrel is going on an elevated surface, make sure the structure stands flat on the ground to keep the barrel from tipping.

... No matter the type of surface, always make sure the rain barrel is flat!

Place the barrel in position and configure the downspout

Put the barrel next to the downspout at its final height. Then it’s time to get the downspout ready. There are various methods to adapt the downspout:

  • Cut the downspout so the barrel can fit underneath it
  • Bore out a piece of downspout and install a diverter that connects the barrel with a hose
  • Replace part of the downspout with a flexible extension or customized section to direct waterflow

Before cutting, make sure there are no cables running through the downspout, and measure and mark carefully!

Direct the overflow

If a rain barrel overflows, it can cause a lot of damage to your foundation and yard. It’s important to prevent water from spilling out by installing an overflow valve or diverter system. When the water reaches a certain level, the diverter shuts off and water flows through the gutter like normal.

Tips for Using a Rain Barrel

Be careful with untreated water: The water collected in a rain barrel isn’t treated, which is great for plants but can be harmful to humans and pets if consumed. It also shouldn’t be used for cooking or washing your hands/food. It’s best for irrigating produce and herb plants and should be applied to the soil, not the plant’s top. Always wash any parts of your body that touched the collected water and wash the produce before eating or cooking.

Prevent issues with mosquitos: It’s smart to add a debris screen to keep mosquitoes away from the main water inlet and caulk any other gaps where they could sneak in. Bugs love laying eggs in standing water and might still be able to enter through overflow outlets, so use the water quickly to prevent this!

... A screen will keep insects, yard debris, and other contaminants away.

Use the collected water within a few weeks: Stagnant water can start to smell and even grow algae, so it’s best to use within 1-3 weeks at most. If possible, use it before the next rain so it doesn’t contaminate new water.

Increase the flow rate: As the barrel empties, the flow rate will decrease. It’s possible to improve this by elevating the barrel. Some barrels even come with a pump to increase water pressure.

Protect the rain barrel in winter: Before freezing weather comes, drain and disconnect the barrel and rinse it out before storing. Then set the downspout so it will handle runoff either with another diverter or by reinstalling the piece you removed initially.

Check Back for More to Make Reusing Rain Easy!

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Last updated: 8/10/2022