Many people overlook rain as a simple and inexpensive water source.

This article has been updated.

Homeowners can conserve water both indoors and outdoors by adopting simple conservation strategies, but many people overlook the opportunity of collecting and storing rainwater for use in the yard, garden and outdoor cleaning projects.

Simple catchment systems with storage capacities of 40 – 100 gallons, can be easily installed by the homeowner to collect rainwater for use in the yard and garden. This water is untreated and therefore not intended for drinking or bathing. More complex systems can also be installed which involve large cisterns, with up to 5,000 gallon capacity, a water pump and a treatment system if the water is intended for drinking or bathing.

Before purchasing a rain barrel, check to ensure that installing a rain catchment system is permissible in your municipality.

Homeowners looking to install a simple rainwater catchment system using rain barrels can benefit from these tips:

1. Take roofing material into consideration

If you’re using the collected water for outdoor landscaping purposes, most roofing material will suffice. Be aware that asphalt shingles leach toxins, so runoff should not be used for watering the vegetable garden or for potable purposes. Roofs made of slate, terra-cotta tile, copper, untreated wood shingles, concrete and epoxy-painted metal are acceptable for collecting potable water.

rainwater collection barrels

2. Choose a barrel designed for holding water

Using an old garbage can for collecting rainwater may yield disappointing results. Rain barrels are designed with a wall thickness that can withstand freezing, expansion of freezing water, and distortion from the weight of the water and/or the effect of prolonged direct sunlight. Barrels used for water collection and storage should:

  1. Be opaque to inhibit algae growth
  2. Not leach toxic materials
  3. Be securely covered to prevent small children, pets and wildlife from drowning
  4. Be screened to keep out debris
  5. Be accessible for cleaning

3. Locate barrel with safety in mind

Never place a rain barrel near stairs or structures that would allow a child to crawl on top of the barrel. In addition, children should be discouraged from playing near rain barrels.

rain barrels on cinder blocks

4. Block up rain barrels several inches

Rain barrels should be installed at or near ground level, on a level surface to prevent tipping when the barrel is full. The barrel can be set directly on the ground, but raising the rain barrel a small amount will allow more room to get a small bucket under the outlet spigot, which is located near the bottom of the barrel.

Use cinder blocks, cement or a solid 4” block of rot-resistant wood such as cedar to raise the collection barrel a few inches off the ground. This blocking should be absolutely level, and protrude at least 1” all around the base of the barrel to ensure stability when the barrel is full.

Once the blocking is in place, set the barrel in place and mark the height where the downspout will be cut to attach the elbow. Use a hacksaw to cut the downspout; it’s easier to make this cut if you leave the downspout wall straps in place. The outflow end of the elbow should be close to the filter screen. (Over time the barrel and its base will settle into the ground a bit.)

As an added precaution against tipping, a small chain or line can be run around the barrel, near the top, and secured to an adjacent wall. (Rain barrels are stable by design, but installation should allow for the possibility of small children trying to pull themselves up the side of the barrel to see inside–not to mention earthquakes in areas where these are prone to happen.)

5. Attach spigots and hose connections finger-tight only

When assembling the rain barrel, take care to screw in the spigots straight, to avoid cross-threading damage. Screw in only until fitting is finger-tight. Do not use a wrench or pliers because the excess force can cause thread damage, resulting in leaks.

6. Clean gutters periodically

Gutters should be cleaned and inspected twice a year, with extra attention given before a rainy spell. To ensure the cleanest delivery of water, gutters should be sloped enough to ensure continuous water flow, with no low spots which collect puddles. Debris will also collect in any low spots, then break down and add contaminants and particulate matter to the water and filter screen. Older gutters which use soldered seams are suspect because they may leach lead; gutters which have riveted seams are preferred.

Once your rain barrel is installed, remember to observe these basic precautions:

  • Be sure to leave the overflow valve (nearest the top of the barrel) fully open at all times. A short hose can be attached to direct any overflow runoff to the existing downspout drainage pipe, or nearby shrubs or trees.
  • Keep the inlet screen clean of leaves and debris.
  • Never let people or animals drink from the rain barrel.
  • Instruct children not to play on or with the water barrel.

To purchase a rain barrel, click here.

Related pages:

25 Ways to Save Water at Home
Water Conservation
Drought Survival for Lawns

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