rain barrel basics

“Rain rain go away”—said no one with a growing awareness that our changing climate means drier conditions. In recent years, global warming has been associated with earlier spring seasons and longer, drier summers. For anyone with a lawn, garden, or even just a slip n’ slide, worries over water have become more frequent. 

Fortunately, we can make better use of the rain that does fall. Humans have captured rainfall for millennia, and now we have better tools available at our disposal to do so. That said, let’s take a look at some rain barrel basics and benefits, as well as why harvesting rainwater is more important than ever.  

Rain Barrel Basics and Benefits

What is a Rain Barrel?

As you likely gather from the name, a rain barrel is a vessel that connects to a downspout and captures and holds water from a roof (or any other surface rainwater might run off of).

Rain barrels come in a few different shapes and sizes, typically ranging from 50 to 80 gallons. They often have an attached spigot that makes filling a watering can or connecting a hose easy. 

Am I Allowed to Use a Rain Barrel?

Is it illegal to collect rainwater is a commonly asked question. Fortunately, there are no federal laws that restrict the collection of rainwater. Colorado is known for having the strictest state laws regarding rainwater harvesting, and even there, the collection of 110 gallons (two barrels) is still permitted. 

In fact, many towns and cities encourage rainwater collection. Some offer rain barrels to residents at discounted prices. In New York City, residents can even take advantage of a free rain barrel!  

World Water Reserve is a great resource so see each state’s position on rainwater collection. However, before establishing one in your backyard, it is helpful to check with your state or local government itself for more information (and hopefully to obtain a low-cost rain barrel!). 

Why Should I Use a Rain Barrel?

The biggest benefit of a rain barrel is that it produces water that can be used in multiple ways—to water the lawn, support a thriving garden, or keep indoor plants hydrated. 

Even better, it keeps plants hydrated with water that hasn’t been treated with chlorine, or contains inorganic ions or fluoride compounds. These accumulate over time, and may lead to unhealthy soils, damaged plant roots, and a decrease in microorganisms. 

While using rainwater has obvious benefits for your garden, it provides even more benefits for your wallet! 

It’s been estimated that 40% of residential water use during the hot summer months is attributed to watering lawns and gardens. Rain barrels provide a free water source—helping to reduce the load on both your utility bills and your city’s water supply.  

Beyond that, rainwater collection also helps to prevent runoff, or the loss of water that flows away from your property. 

This is also advantageous, as storm water runoff has been associated with water pollution, especially in urban areas. When concrete replaces soil, water has nowhere to soak in and will carry bacteria, pollutants, and heavy metals into larger bodies of water. 

We’re simply overflowing with rain barrel benefits! Here are a few more to be aware of:

  • In addition to pollution, runoff can also be associated with erosion and habitat damage. Capturing rainwater can help to prevent some of this damaging flow, and support areas normally compromised by erosion.
  • Not only is rainwater free from many of the problematic components found in tap water, but it’s also highly oxygenated, which is helpful in keeping plants strong and healthy. 
  • A healthy compost bin requires adequate moisture levels. Rainwater that doesn’t contain chlorine is even better for healthy compost as it won’t harm beneficial microorganisms. 
  • By capturing rainwater, you’re supporting healthy moisture levels around your home’s foundation. This can be especially beneficial during periods of flooding. 
  • It’s also important to consider that as drought will be something that we’re going to face more often, so too are water restrictions. Rain barrels provide a reserve of water that could come in handy when restrictions mean that you’re not permitted to water your garden or wash your car.

Best Practices for Using a Rain Barrel

It’s important to remember that any surface used for harvesting rainwater might be prone to environmental pollutants or bacteria from animals and birds. It may also pick up any chemicals that were used to treat your roof. This is why harvested rainwater isn’t recommended for drinking, and it’s also something to keep in mind when using it to water edible plants.

While completed studies are scarce, evidence suggests that pollutants like cadmium, lead, and bacteria are typically found only in small quantities—meaning that harvested rainwater can be safely applied to vegetable/herb gardens. 

However, there are still some steps that can be taken to make harvested rainwater even safer:

  • Certain roof types pose additional risk, and might want to be avoided. Treated wood-shake roofs posed a higher risk of pollution. Roofs treated with toxic chemicals to prevent rot, algae, and moss were also associated with potentially dangerous rainwater, as well as those made with zinc strips or copper components. 

As you can probably assume, it’s not recommended to capture rainwater from roofs that contain asbestos either. 

  • Wait until the second flush. After a heavy rain (and especially following a dry spell), any accumulated pollution might end up in the collected rain water. In this case, consider not collecting it and wait until the next big rain event. 
  • Add bleach to kill bacteria. If you’re concerned about the risk of bacteria, you can add unscented chlorine bleach to a 55-gallon water tank. Allow 24 hours to pass so that the chlorine can dissipate. Then it can be applied to your garden. 
  • Apply the water in the safest manner. Soil can act as an additional level of filtration. That said, it’s best to water close to any edible plants, as opposed to directly on them. The water will likely still reach the roots, but microorganisms will help to clean it first. 
  • Keep your rain barrel clean. It’s helpful to use a screen to keep out debris and a tight connection at the entry point to prevent mosquitos or algae buildup.

Every once in a while, it’s also good to use a cleaning solution to support your barrel’s hygiene. This could be either a bleach solution OR ¼ cup castile soap and ¼ cup vinegar for every five gallons of water. Rinse with clean water afterwards. 

Bear in mind that even contaminated water can still be used to water lawns and non-edible gardens.  

Rain Barrels: An Essential Tool for a Warming Climate

While we often don’t think of it as such, water is a finite resource. Unless you live in an arid area prone to drought, it may seem like our taps can provide unlimited H2O. This is certainly not the case, and given that our global population (and everything we need to survive) requires water, adopting conservation practices is a very important environmental effort. 

It’s also one of the easiest! A rain barrel can be purchased for well under $100, can be installed in around 30 minutes, and can provide your garden with eco-friendly hydration. Rain barrel benefits are too numerous to ignore, so we hope this article inspired you to install one today!


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