Rain Barrel Basics

The use of a rain barrel can help reduce pollution, improve water quality, conserve water, improve plant health and save money.


Watering plants from a rain barrel reduces the environmental pollution produced just in getting water flowing to and then from your garden tap. No need for electricity to pump it from a well or a municipality’s central location. Also, no need for the chemicals and
energies typically used in the treating of municipal water, or even the power for the treatment plant itself. Rain barrels, by catching rain, reduce the amount of contamination that is normally caused by its more direct runoff, which washes lawn chemicals and driveway waste into the groundwater. And, when we are pulling water from a rain barrel instead of local aquifers, we greatly reduce the disturbance of valuable ecosystems.

Use of water from a rain barrel saves plants from doses of things they’d prefer to do without. They don’t have to deal with the chlorine or fluoride generally found in municipal water. They are also spared any contaminants or excess minerals that may be present in well water. This is especially beneficial to the health of plants being grown in containers, indoors or out. A rain barrel also saves in your budget, when you don’t have to pay extra on a water or electric bill to quench your garden’s thirst.


Rain barrels are just that; barrels for rain to be collected for later use. They can be purchased or created as a do-it-yourself project and are most often made of plastic (preferably recycled) or wood. They are often designed to work with roof gutters, but this is not a requirement. A spigot near the bottom is the best means of accessing the precious liquid once collected – dipping from the top with a bucket is a definite challenge when the barrel is less than half full! A proper cover is a must, to avoid issues with mosquito larvae, leaves and other debris. An overflow valve is also a smart idea.

The barrels generally have a 55 gallon capacity and weigh approximately 400 lbs. when full. Getting to full only takes one quarter to one third of an inch of rainfall when collected from the average size roof. They should not be used to collect rainwater off any
roof with asbestos shingles and the collected water should not be used for human or animal consumption. Children should be taught not play on or around a rain barrel, due to the danger of them tipping it over or tumbling into it.

Put some time and consideration into choosing a location and a foundation for your barrel to assure safety and ease of use. If connecting to a gutter system you may have to move a downspout to a different location if its current one would cause the barrel to be blocking a pathway or to be too distant from the garden. If you are simply catching the deluge directly or guiding it with a rain chain – an ancient tool combining beauty and utility – location is still critical. Be sure to place your barrel on a sturdy and level foundation. You will likely want to raise it up from ground level for easier access to the spigot. This is simple to do with common cinder blocks, landscape bricks or a wood frame specifically designed for your barrel – stability being critical in all cases. For purchased barrels you will also want to check for any specific set-up guidelines given by the manufacturer.

Rain barrels offer a workhorse level contribution to the garden, but they can also bring style and inspire creativity. You can purchase them designed in contemporary, classical or country-rustic looks to match your garden style. Even better, you can jazz up one that’s “just a barrel”, decorating the 55 gallon canvas to blend with or standout from its surroundings.

Ready to use rain barrels can be purchased online, at local garden centers, hardware stores or big box stores. For detailed DIY instructions or workshops check with local universities and conservation groups. Barrels for DIY versions can often be had free or
inexpensively from food processing plants or car washes.