Thanks to everyone who contributed their real-life stories to this Round-up about Rain Barrels. Most of those comments can be found on this post at GardenRant.
Why all the interest in rain barrels?
- They reduce the load on our municipal water supplies.
- They save (a little) on our water bills, though not enough to justify using them on the basis of cost alone. In one test a rain barrel saved about 1,300 gallons over the summer, and one user told me he'd saved $35 over the course of the summer.
- If your roof is slate or metal, the collected water will be naturally soft, chlorine-free rainwater and excellent for plants of all types. Water falling from asphalt roofs is too polluted to use on foodstuffs or TO DRINK. (There's more below on the question of polluted water falling from our roofs.)
- They reduce or eliminate runoff of stormwater into our watershed, which means less downstream pollution and sedimentation. Even here in the East where we've been having prolonged droughts, global weirding has also brought more severe downpours, so the runoff problem is just getting worse.
So, are they worth it?
I posed this question: "Can one or even two 55-gallon barrels really make a difference, or are they mainly feel-good items, as one expert suggested to me?"
- And an answer was: "YES! Before we build our rain harvester we were using a 55-gallon trash can wedged under a downspout. It was a mosquito nightmare, but our moderately dry southeastern PA summer kept it full enough that we could dunk a watering can a few times a week to give our garden a boost. Ten good minutes of rain would refill the barrel.
- From Austin: "I use the rainwater mostly for potted plants or to water recently-transplanted seedlings. I do not think the rain barrels save me very much on my water usage but as far as I'm concerned every little bit helps. If everyone took small steps, it would have a bigger impact than just a few people taking large steps. City of Austin provides them at a discount ($35 for 75-gallon).
- Another happy Austinian: "We have two rain barrels, which I use to top off my container pond (the fish don't have any problem with runoff from my asphalt shingle roof) and to fill up a can for whatever hand watering I do. The overflow from one rain barrel is directed into a dry stream that flows into a rain garden (Read her article here.) I love my rain barrels--only $65 each from the City of Austin and no problems with leaks or cracking. However, as (pointed out above), two rain barrels can't hold enough water to get us through the dry summer months. I'd really love to have a cistern one day."
- One commenter thinks rainwater collection is going to become more important in the next few years, with increasing droughts making it harder to justify watering flowers and veggies.
- From the San Francisco area: "Having now emptied one 60-g barrel (in order to dry it for re-caulking) and using the water in the garden as I would normally do, I think if I had one more 60-gallon barrel, I could go without using any city water during a normal dry season.
- Another commenter reports that "To make them more appealing in the landscape we planted bushes around them, no one knows they are there unless you are standing right next to them. Both hold about 100 gallons and I would highly recommend them."
- From a designer in the Bay Area, "Rain barrels are a moot point in my Mediterranean climate - no real measurable rain fall from late April through late November. When it does rain here starting (fingers crossed) in December thru March, most of my garden is semi-dormant and does not require the rain. The captured rain that would fill 2 or 3 barrels would be used up in a matter of weeks leaving the barrels barren for 6 months of the year. At the moment even our indigenous reservoirs are at less than 40 percent capacity. The only way a rain barrel system would benefit my small suburban garden is if it was paired up with a grey water system and I modified my sub- tropical plant collection habit to include only drought tolerant plants.
- From Wisconsin: "I have five 55-gallon oak rain barrels on our property. For all but the summer drought it supplies all my irrigation needs when combined with xeriscaping and deep mulch techniques. We get about 30 rain events, so our five barrels are saving about 10,000 gallons per year. That is not huge, but not insignificant. Again, multiply that out to every home in a subdivision, and you begin talking about acre-feet of runoff saved. Now, I make rain barrels for profit, so I am biased. But my goal is that rain barrels are 'toe in the door' items to begin to alter thinking. For families using rain barrels, water is suddenly a resource to be harvested, not a utility to be paid.
- A reader in North Carolina says that although his county helps owners buy them, he's still not sold on them because of the resulting mosquito problem and inadequate water pressure.
- "My husband and I built a rain barrel system that holds about 500 gallons. We've posted about it a few times. It was simple, and cheap! The whole thing cost under $200, and it provided water all summer. We never once had to turn to the well."
- Another commenter: "Rain barrels are just a start. I wish I had a cistern like the house I grew up in had."
Overall, rain barrel owners look like a happy bunch, don't they? But usually only if they did their homework and got it right.
Which to Buy?
Some users say "The bigger the better" while others suggest working backwards to determine how much excess water your garden could actually use. Whatever size or combination you use, have an overflow system because rain barrels can fill up in as few as 5 minutes. Surprised? Well, a quarter-inch of rain falling on an average-size house yields slightly over 200 gallons! If you're really serious about rain harvesting and have a larger garden, 450-gallon barrels are available.
"One problem in Austin is that we can go weeks without rain and then get a downpour of 4 inches in an afternoon. Two rain barrels alone don't provide enough water to see us through the dry spells and they quickly overflow during floods. Our solution is to eventually get a much larger system.
Someone wrote to recommend the full-service company Aquabarrel and their website looked so promising, I immediately asked for and got an interview with owner Barry Chenkin. He told me they make their barrels locally in Gaithersburg, MD using recycled materials and sell either mail order or at two retail sites so far - Amicus Green in Kensington, the Washington Cathedral, and soon, Gingko's in DC. They sell kits, individual parts, or full service including installation. Owner Barry Chenkin is so excited about this stuff he calls himself a Master Rain Harvester, and indeed he is, offering build-it-yourself workshops and/or PowerPoints on the subject of rain barrels through the Anacostia Watershed Society and Community Forklift. Here's his video introduction. Here's what one of their customers wrote to tell us: "We have 2 of the Aquabarrel rain barrels that are linked together. They are great, I love 'em. No leaks and best of all the overflow is super huge and we have never had water overflow out the top - it takes a 4" landscape pipe - we buried the landscape pipe and also used their drainbox at the end of the pipe at the rain garden (limits erosion) - No mosquito issue to speak of either."
One DC resident wrote to say she first bought four 75-gallon barrels from Gardener's Supply, one for each corner downspout. After several years one of them froze and cracked, after which she found even better barrels. "They're produced by the RiverSides Program in Toronto, hold 132 gallons in the same footprint as the Gardeners Supply 75-gallon, AND they're designed to withstand freezing." She continues: "If anyone is interested in purchasing one, please let me know. We purchased ours through a group buy and saved a lot - $190 instead of $250 plus. We'd like to get another and and know others who want one as well."
Another DC-area reader says: " I got my rain barrels at Arlington Echo program near Annapolis, and they weren't too expensive. Made out of old Coke syrup barrels. I synched two together because as noted, they fill up fast. They worked fine except for the problem that in a drought there is no water to accumulate.
Don in North Carolina recommends we look into "a
community garden in New York City that used a linked array of 20
55-gallon recycled cooking oil drums raised on a platform. A big
"butterfly" roof was designed to capture rain and route it to the
barrels. It was the major source of water for a garden full of fruit
trees and veggies in the middle of the city.
"In my prairie garden, average 14" precipitation a year, we had a big metal rainwater barrel, which stood on our back steps. The steps had a little landing at the top and as it was about 4' above the garden we ran a gravity-fed drip hose from a tap my clever partner soldered into the barrel near the bottom and that serviced all four 10x4' vegetable beds. Veggies were planted more closely than recommended so that leaves completely shaded the earth once the plants were part grown, as the beds had at least 14 hours of sun a day. Rainfall tended to be short heavy thunderstorms during the summer but the barrel provided enough basic water supply. If we had had a long run of very hot weather and tomatoes for instance were developing fruit, I occasionally did a little supplementary watering."
And from San Francisco: "We recently installed two 60-gallon olive barrels re-purposed as rain barrels. Both filled to overflow when we got less than one inch of rain last week. Unfortunately, both barrels have slow leaks from the hose adapter things, and need to be re-caulked. They were badly caulked by the seller, and I failed to improve matters by choosing the wrong caulking material when I gave it a go.
More suggestions from readers:
- From Minneapolis: "I like the concept. I got one at a neighborhood workshop sponsored by some environmental group, and I'm not really happy with it. It has all the problems identified in the Aquabarrel video."
- "Not sure if this was mentioned in the original post, but you can easily "chain" barrels by setting two side by side and placing a hose between them."
- One reader says, "My advice about rain barrels is to buy them locally,
with some sort of warranty about quality, or at least good
word-of-mouth. Also look for models that have very few places to leak
More Sources and Prices
The University of Rhode Island site offers this guidance about prices: "Ready-made rain barrels range from $89 to $135 each depending on size, style and added features," which doesn't help much, so I've listed as many specifics as I could find. Unfortunately, the largest size refurbished barrel is 55 gallons; barrels from unrecycled materials are available in larger sizes.
- Spruce Creek Rain Saver.com sells a 54-gallon barrel for $155.
- Gardener's Supply's 75-gallon Deluxe costs $135.
- RiverSides in Canada sells 132-gallon barrels for $190 as a group or $250 individually.
- Another reader recommended the Arlington Echo in Millersville, MD, and here's their order form [pdf]. Barrels cost $50 each plus $14 for attachment "stuff," but the order form doesn't say how many gallons they hold, though 55 gallons would be a good bet. If you're close enough to pick up the barrels yourself you'll save on the hefty shipping charges (no matter where you buy them).
- AquaBarrel sells refurbished 55-gallon barrels for $100 at retail outlets, which saves customers the $55-per-barrel shipping charge for even local deliveries. They'll do the installation for you for a $45 preinstallation inspection and $65/hour to install (a simple one-barrel system typically takes 2 hours).
- One commenter bought one ready-to-use at a local farm supply store and was happy with it.
- From Allegheny County, PA, the Pittsburgh area: "I recommend the Rain Barrel Initiative sponsored by the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association.
Building Your Own
- Chesapeake Bay Foundation's instructions in pdf.
- Home and Garden Television's website on How to make your own.
- Maryland's Department of Natural Resources on how to build your own.
- The City of Takoma Park, MD gives workshops in building your own, which cost only $35 "and some DIY". I'll try to find out more and include the details here.
- And check out what some Oregonians are using - Thai Pots,for proof that rainwater harvesting doesn't have to be in earnest utilitarian plastic barrels.
- And idea from U.K. "My dad (who has a greenhouse retail business in the UK) used to have a nice little sideline selling used foot container barrels - the stuff big quantities of orange juice, brined vegetables etc are shipped in - as rain barrels (dedicated rain barrels being basically the same thing massively overpriced at the time). These can often be obtained cheap if you have a food factory of some kind nearby and come in all sizes up to massive."
- This from Rebecca; "I've created a website about how to build your own rain barrel for about $40. We've got pictures and step-by-step directions, FAQs, safety information, and even a rainfall collection calculator!" Thanks, Rebecca!
Operating and Maintaining One
Barry at Aquabarrel explained to me that by virtue of their shape (something technie about how freezing works), refurbished barrels must to be emptied for the winter. His system uses a diverter to restore the usual rain path down the downspout. His Owner's Manual has more.
- From a DC-area reader: "As to whether fine mesh screen needs to be used, the Gardener's Supply barrel has a "lid" that's made of screening material to keep out debris and bugs. The homemade one is closed except for the hole that the downspout empties into. In order to keep debris out, we used a piece of window screening over that hole. If your barrel is screened off like this, then you shouldn't need mosquito dunks because they shouldn't be getting into the water."
- From the University of RI site: "Fine mesh screen should be used to cover any openings in the rain barrel to prevent mosquitoes and to trap debris. And "Rain barrels can be installed upon blocks or wooden crate to provide height for gravity flow purposes."
- One DC-area reader says, "As to installing them on blocks or wooden crate to provide height for gravity flow purposes, I use my barrels to fill watering cans so it's not such an issue for me, but if you want to use it with a hose or soaker hose, having it higher will create more 'flow'. Also, the spigot needs to be really close to the bottom of the barrel so you can get all the water. Having it up on something makes it easier to get to. Both of mine have hose sections attached though for more manouverability."
- The University of Rhode Island's advice on preventing winter damage are here on this page.
- One reader explains having to use a shorter downspout when the barrel is under it. "So you cut off a section in the appropriate height and then put it away to use again when the rain barrel is gone for the winter. You'll need some sort of a joining piece between the section you cut off and the part still on the house though. For one I replaced the entire section with those 'flexible downspout extensions' they sell everywhere. For the other I used a small flexible piece to reconnect the cut off piece. '
- A U.K. reader writes: "The diverters are excellent and well worth the extra few bucks."
- The Arlington Echo customer in MD: "I have disconnected them for the winter so the barrels won't crack with freezing and thawing water inside. And I disconnected the s-curve input they come with and reinstalled my regular downspout. The screen bucket with mine is a cute contraption that allows rain to come into the top directly and keep out detritus and more to the point, mosquitoes. I think they made a mistake in the winter storage discussion and should have said to reinstall the bucket in the spring and not late fall. And I didn't custom cut the downspout, I just used the old downspout I can cut off when I installed the s-curve pipe to the rain barrel."
Is Rain Barrel Water Polluted?
- One reader writes: "I would like to have a rain barrel but to do what I'd like them to do I would need some sort of filter to clean the water from my asphalt shingle roof. I don't think these barrels can be used to help with vegetables and edible plants unless the water from asphalt roofs is cleaned. Too many chemicals could go into the barrel from the shingles. Still if you're lucky enough to have a slate or other type of roof I think they would be really helpful. I may invest in a stand alone version at some point."
- But a chemist writes: "On subject of roof pollution: All it takes is 1" of rainfall to fill my barrels. So if I just wait to collect the water from the tail-end of a heavy late spring storm, I'm set. Asphalt is petroleum-based. Petroleum repels water, and water-soluble petroleum-based leachates are likely to be susceptible to quick decomposition by soil microbes. I'm certain my garden soil is rich with microbes. I feel pretty comfortable taking my chances with vegetables from my own garden watered with rain water collected off my roof."
- And a reader in Austin reports using rain-barrel water off asphalt shingle roof to fill her pond, and it hasn't hurt her fish.
- Another reader in Texas writes that when she had her roof replaced she chose metal for this very reason.
More Information Available on Line
- Here's a US government site about water usage.
- Check out Aquabarrel's "Learn More" and "FAQs" in the nav bar of their site
- Remember Rebecca? Here's her website again, all about her own experiences with rain barrels.
And in Print
- Water Storage by Ludwig
Photo credits: Top, from the Gardeners Supply site. Next, a diverter from the Aquabarrel site.
Coming soon: the Rain Garden alternative. One reader wrote to tell me she directed her downspouts to carry rainwater to her garden, which brings us to rain garden techniques as another way to accomplish the same ends. So that'll be the next subject we tackle.