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In Praise of the Backyard Rain Barrel

September 8, 2022
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A rain barrel is an ecologically friendly way to always have water on hand for your backyard and outdoor living areas. While a barrel is not going to supply your sprinkler system to water acres of grass, it’s perfect for your flower beds, pots and vegetable gardens whether you use a watering can, hook up a hose or connect to a drip irrigation system. Here are a few ideas on how to set up a backyard rain barrel system, as well as pointers and places to find the perfect rain barrel for your needs and taste.

The Benefits of a Rain Barrel

Capturing rainwater is not only good for your plants since it is pure and untreated, it can also lower your water bill depending upon how much you need to water your plants, especially if you live in a dry area or in a locale that experiences drought. In fact, you can also use captured rainwater to clean off patio pavers, hose down the driveway or wash the car—you just can’t drink it. With a little investment of time and money, you can go a long way to long-term water conservation.

rain barrel

Rain Barrel Basics

  • When it comes to rain barrels, the first thing to do is determine if it is legal in your state to capture rain for at-home use. Check this list for state-by-state water harvesting rules. If you’re in the clear, it’s time to plan your rain barrel system.
  • First, choose a location that is unobstructed and can collect rain. Underneath an active downspout where water drains from your roof is an ideal choice.
  • Rain barrels need to rest up off the ground at least two feet above the highest spot in your garden so you can drain the barrel fully and fit a watering can underneath even if you plan to primarily use a hose. Build a firm foundation to support the barrel because when filled to capacity, it can become quite heavy.
  • Remove the bottom piece of your gutter and attach a piece of flexible gutter/hose to drain water into your barrel.
  • Most store-bought barrels come with a debris screen covering the top hole to keep mosquitoes out. Use your water regularly as standing water can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes. You can use anti-larvae tablets if mosquitoes become a problem.  
  • Barrels come in a variety of sizes, but most hold around 50-gallons. How fast it fills up depends on where you live and how much rainfall you get. For example, if you have a moderate rainfall, about an eighth of an inch of rain within an hour and you’re capturing water from a 500-square-foot roof, your barrel will fill up in about an hour. If you live somewhere that’s more prone to rain, you may need a larger barrel, or multiple ones.
  • If you buy a commercial rain barrel from a retailer, it usually comes with a diverter kit that will drain off water if it gets too full and will send rainwater back to flowing down the gutter. If your barrel doesn’t have a diverter, it probably has an overflow valve, which stops the barrel from major overflow.
  • Remember, rain barrels are primarily used for supplying a soaking hose or drip line, or for use with a watering can. While they can be hooked up to a sprinkler, it may not be the best solution.  An average sprinkler can expel up to 5 gallons of water every minute, which means that your 50-gallon rain barrel will last for only 10 minutes.
  • It’s best to clean your barrel once a year—possibly twice—to prevent build up. You can use baking soda, which is environmentally friendly. Add baking soda, use a long handled brush to scrub and then drain.

What’s the Best Type of Rain Barrel?

terra cotta rain barrel

There are a wide variety of rain barrels on the market and the choice is up to you. Some choose to purchase a standard, no frills barrel from a big box retailer, local gardening center or Amazon. Others go with a more aesthetically pleasing style such as a repurposed wine or whiskey barrel, plastic faux barrel, terra cotta jar and more. For handy DIY’ers, there are directions on how to create your own, like this video from Home Depot.

Looking for some barrel ideas and inspiration? Check these out.  Many cities and towns distribute rain barrels to residents through annual sales, so check with your local municipality to see if this is an option. If you live in an area further north with a heavy freeze, snow and thaw cycle, it’s best to disconnect your rain barrel for the winter, clean it and store it in the shed or garage until you need it again the following spring and summer.

Remember, we can’t control the weather, but we can adapt. Rain barrels are one way to not only have water on hand when you need, but also save money on utilities and protect the environment. Consider adding a rain barrel for your home’s outdoor living areas this season.

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