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Poor Man’s Guide to Rain Barrels

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Rain BarrelsFor those who have been following our exploits in gardening, you may recall that we put our plants in pots and leave them on our deck. This ensures they get the maximum amount of sun. There is a downside to our strategy, the spigot for the hose that sits on our deck is on the ground floor. To water our plants, we have to go down downstairs, turn on the spigot, walk up stairs, water the plants, then go back downstairs to turn off the spigot. Unfortunately we can’t get downstairs directly from the deck, we have to go back into the house, and through the carpeted basement.

At first, this sounds like not a big deal right? How lazy could I be?

It’s not that big of a deal but that, coupled with my growing appreciation for being as ecofriendly as possible, has turned me onto the idea of rain barrels. Why pay for water when I could be catching what falls for free from the sky? So, I started researching rain barrels and the first thing I learned was that they are expensive!

Warning: Chris, in the comments, brought up a good point about now using roof runoff water on your vegetables because it may contain harmful toxins and bacteria. I did some more research and it sounds like there’s no consensus but it’s better to be safe than sorry. So, to be safe, you should only use the roof runoff water on your other plants (non-vegetables) or for non-eating purposes. You can read a lot more about that here.

Buying A Rain Barrel

Rain barrels can get as simple or as fancy as you want. You can get a simple lightweight 55-gallon plastic barrel for around $80 and you can get a fancy hardcore plastic one for close to $200. Even at both price points, it seems a little pricey for something that is essentially a huge container that captures rain water, right?

Even after you buy one, you still have to make modifications to your downspouts so that the water is directed into the barrels. You’ll still have to do a little handywork yourself, so you might as well build the whole thing yourself.

Building A Rain Barrel

Fortunately we have the power of the internet, so we can find videos on how to build them! Here’s one from HGTV (actual construction begins at the 1:45 mark):

Is it worth it? Well, a quarter inch of rain on a “typical size roof” can yield close to 200 gallons of water!

An understated but crucial step in the process is the use of a screen to help filter out the junk that would otherwise come through your downspout. They don’t make a big deal of it but I think this one step can help extend the life of your barrel and reduce the number of times you’ll have to clean it out due to clogs. The overflow pipe pointed away from your foundation is a good idea too. :)

Poor Man’s Rain Barrels

Don’t want to build your own and don’t want to spend $80+ on one? I don’t blame you, the next best thing you can do is simply leave some buckets outside! Simple right? At the moment, we keep a bunch of buckets outside so that when it rains, the buckets are being filled. This is a simple solution because it takes advantage of containers you already have. The downside of this solution is that it doesn’t look very attractive and it’s not very efficient.

The next step for us is to build a rain barrel, a project that I think will be both fun and informative for us. And it’ll save us trips down stairs. :)

(Photo: fireballsedai)

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40 Responses to “Poor Man’s Guide to Rain Barrels”

  1. nickel says:

    The screen is also critical for preventing a mosquito infestation.

  2. nickel says:

    Also keep in mind that water weighs 8 pounds per gallon. If you’re catching rain on your deck, make sure it can support the extra load. A 55 gallon barrel will add 440 pounds (plus the barrel).

  3. Rebecca says:

    We were lucky enough to get rain barrels for about $35 each from the city of Raleigh, NC last summer. Unfortunately, the cheap barrels are no longer available.

    The barrels came from Mt. Olive Pickle, and a local man retrofitted them to make rain barrels. Unfortunately, Mt. Olive started recycling the barrels instead of selling them. Thus, the end of a win-win environmental aid.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve included rain barrels in a few articles I’ve written about eco-friendly gardening and one of the big benefits is that plants love rain water. It’s warmer than what comes out of the hose, and it isn’t chemically treated. And if you live in an area with hard water, it’s gentler too.

  5. Chris says:

    Also, don’t water anything you are going to eat from a rain barrel. The water runoff from your roof is somewhat toxic, those toxins will end up in your food. It won’t kill plants, though.

    • Jim says:

      Thank you, thank you, thank you! I didn’t even think about this. I did some more digging and found a lot of information out there and included a little note at the beginning of the post.

    • Steve Spence says:

      That is just so wrong. It’s fine to water your garden from almost any roof surfacxe, and with a berkey filter, even drink the water.

  6. Dave says:

    We have a rain barrel and mosquitos can be a big problem. Even with a screen, they can get in and lay eggs in the water. I’ve found two solutions: Mosquito Dunks, which you add every week or two to kill all the larvae; and goldfish, which supposedly eat the larvae and are hardy enough to live in the rain barrels (maybe not through the winter though).

  7. If it were legal to use a rain barrel here in my area of Arizona, I’d love to do this. Unfortunately it’s not.

  8. Jason H says:

    In many Western states it is illegal to use rain barrels because of water rights laws. These laws state that you own the land, but not any water that falls from the sky onto that land. As such, capturing the water in a rain barrel deprives the water rights owner of their water and is hence illegal. Stupid, but the law none the less.

    • Jim says:

      I bet it made sense back in the day when farmers in rainier areas could deprive farmers in dryer areas of water, now it’s being applied in a manner it was never intended.

      • Ya most likely. The problem specifically in my city is that the city of Phoenix relies on runoff from my city of Flagstaff. They are actually pretty strict about that here and hefty fines can accompany collecting rainwater.

  9. Modder says:

    Back home in Europe you now get rain barrels that are 6-7″ tall and have a similar diameter. Most people dig a hole in the garden to hide it in (or sometimes even two of them), then add an electric pump and a pipe to collect the water from the drain. Costs more than $200 for sure, but you can water a regular sized garden entirely with this without the need for any water from the city which in Europe is MUCH more expensive than here in the US.

  10. JC says:

    It’s illegal to collect rain water here in Colorado. Only found out after Sam’s club started selling rain barrels and then had to take them back; it was a big news story.

  11. Kathi says:

    If you make your own or use buckets, please be careful to safeguard these from children. The commercially-available ones come with a tight-fitting cover.

    Our sewer district offered some for $55 earlier this spring, but only for a limited time, and I missed it.

  12. Julie Ali says:

    I got my rain barrels from a local company for around $20 each; I think they were used for large batches of ketchup, mustard and relish.
    I’ve used them for collecting water and for storing compost and they’ve lasted for years.

    We also attach hoses to our eavestrough and sump pump outflow (we live in marshy area) and use that water for watering the lawn (which we have kept bite sized to conserve water).

    This is a great blog post; water conservation is both ecologically necessary and economically wise.

  13. aj says:

    I never dreamed that it was illegal to catch rainwater anywhere…wow.

    You could camoflage your buckets/misc containers amongst some plants that are out in the yard or behind fence or screen.

    Great tip about the goldfish to prevent mosquito problem, did not know that. I did read somewhere about copper preventing mosquitos…like throwing in some copper pipe or pennies? Haven’t tried it though.

    I haven’t been using the roof runoff/rain barrels yet but plan to as soon as we put on a new roof & gutters. Around here you can get some barrels really cheap if you just check around…then we can have lots of free water!

    Now that I am inspired I think I will take alot of those big plastic butter bowls and spray paint them a dark green or brown color and set among my big flower bed to collect the rain water for all of my plants inside and on the carport that don’t get any when it is raining.

    Those commercial rain barrels do look very nice but I am not going to spend that kind of $ on them…I would rather find something I can recycle.

  14. Bill says:

    I know the point of the article was capturing rain water, but if you need water up on the deck with out going down stairs. They make splitters and shut off valves that only cost a couple of dollars.

    • Jim says:

      I’ve looked at those and the problem I’ve had is that those splitters and shut off valves invariably leak within the first year. I find it’s safer to close the valve at the house rather than leave it open all the time and control the water at the 2nd level deck.

      • byikes says:

        You do need to bring them inside over winter, but you will be amazed what a little ice will do to your new rain barrel.

  15. Travis says:

    Not OK in Utah either but who is going to enforce it?

  16. Kathy in MD says:

    If you’re willing to make the trek over to Bowie MD, our Lions club is selling rain barrels for $65 at our Farmer’s Market. Google the Lions Club and give them a call. They have blue ones and white ones. Comes with the extender hosey thing to connect the downspout to the barrel.

  17. thomas says:

    yeah, you got to have that screen. Rain Barrels are pricey, but they can be a very good investment. For those who do a lot of watering lawns, gardens, or washing your car, this can save a few bucks.

  18. Collecting rainwater for my bucket garden is a great way to help conserve water. I used the water to power wash my patio the other day.

    I created a rain barrel using a vinyl trashcan and a few tools.
    It cost about 10 bucks and is working nicely. You can take a look at my step by step pictures if interested.

    http://gravitygarden.com/rainbucket/?page_id=46

    Happy harvesting!

    Gravity Gardener..

  19. This is a great approach to frugal gardening, but the use of screens cannot be emphasized enough– don’t create a mosquito farm . . .

  20. Patrick says:

    I love the idea of a rain barrel. It is a true way to really save on your water bills, while still cutting back our water use.

  21. Amy says:

    This is brilliant…I have always wanted to build one, and it IS legal in Minnesota! One could use a big 55 gallon trash can and cut a hole in the lid, insert your down spout and bingo…I think you could put an old nylon stocking over the end of the downspout as a filter too…easily changed when clogged.

  22. JustamerePutterer says:

    There are various devices possible to divert the first few minutes of rain from the roof away from the rain barrel. This gets rid of probably 95+% of any toxins that have accumulated on your roof. The roof is washed.

    An easy one is to have the down spout from the gutter as usual, but closed off at the end with only a small leak possible. Much higher up, A “T” joint into another downspout running into your rain barrel. You have to do some calculating, but the object is to have enough storage of toxic water in the first downspout so that by the time it fills up, the roof has been washed of toxins and only reletively pure rain water gets to your rain barrel. The small leak will clear the toxic water storage automatically, ready for the next rainstorm, but not fast enough that an “on again, off again” stormy day will not get most of its “pure rain” into the rain barrel.

    There are hundreds of variations and ideas possible, and this one must be modified to be practical, including clogging of the small leak hole, cleaning dead leaves branches and bird droppings, etc. But the principle remains the same.

  23. James says:

    How about a hybrid approace. Get the barrel, and fill it up with the hose once in a while and save running up and down, and tracking through the basement.

    • Jim says:

      While a good idea, I bet you lose a lot of water in evaporation. That isn’t an issue with a rain barrel because the water is “free” (from a dollar and ecological standpoint) but for stuff that needs to come from a tap, I’d rather not lose it to the environment just because I was lazy.

  24. barreldude says:

    If you really think about the reasons they have laws against collecting the rainwater, it’s pretty dumb.

    We aren’t “keeping” the rainwater forever, we’re watering the plants with it!

    Instead of raining right onto the land, we collect it in a barrel and then POUR IT (or hose it) ON THE LAND. Same difference.

    It’s just a detour. Not like we can burn the stuff into oblivion. Sheesh.

  25. Layne says:

    Hi Jim,
    I have a question for you. We are in the 3rd year of utilizing our rain barrels (barrels available locally in East Central, IN for only $5 ea!) and are really tired of carrying all the water. We have extensive flower and garden areas. We built a 3 barrel system to move our barrels down to the end of a makeshift platform to fill the buckets. When the barrel is empty, we put it at the end to collect more water and the next full barrell moves forward. However we would like to slide-load the barrels onto our lawn cart (pulled by the riding mower) and use a hose to water these areas to save time and backaches. Problem is – moving the barrels. The system we devised had heavy duty plastic wheel tracks on both sides but they have deteriorated now. Do you know of anything we could improvise with to build a conveyor-type system on a poor gals wages?
    Thanks! And have a great day!!! :)


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