Wanted: Your real-life experiences with rain barrels


Here’s what I’ve learned from some Web research and advice offered by local
gardeners on local Yahoo groups:

Some users say "The bigger the better" while others suggest
working backwards to determine how much excess water your garden could
actually use.  Whatever size or combination you use, have an overflow
system because rain barrels can fill up in as few as 5 minutes.
Surprised?  Well, a quarter-inch of rain falling on an average-size
house yields slightly over 200 gallons!  If you’re really serious about rain harvesting and have a larger garden, 450-gallon barrels are available.   


One DC resident wrote to say she first bought four 75-gallon barrels from Gardener’s
, one for each corner downspout.  After several years one of them
froze and cracked, after which she found even better barrels. "They’re
produced by the RiverSides
in Toronto, hold 132 gallons in the same footprint as the Gardeners
Supply 75-gallon, AND they’re designed to withstand freezing." She continues: "If anyone is interested in
purchasing one, please let me know.  We purchased ours through a group buy and
saved a lot – $190 instead of $250 plus.  We’d like to get another and and know
others who want one as well." 

Someone else wrote to recommend the full-service company Aquabarrel and
their website looked so promising, I immediately asked for and got an
interview with owner Barry Chenkin.  He told me they make their barrels
locally in Gaithersburg, MD using recycled materials and sell either
mail order or at two retail sites so far – Amicus Green in Kensington,
the Washington Cathedral, and soon, Gingko’s in DC. They sell kits,
parts, or full service including installation.  Owner Barry Chenkin is
so excited about this stuff he calls himself a Master Rain Harvester,
and indeed he is, offering build-it-yourself workshops and/or
PowerPoints on the subject of rain barrels through the Anacostia
Watershed Society and Community Forklift.  We’ll try to get the details
and help publicize the events. Here’s his video introduction.

More Sources and Prices
The University of Rhode Island
site offers this guidance about prices: "Ready-made rain barrels range
from $89 to $135 each depending on size, style and added features."
Well, that’s not much help, is it?  Unfortunately, the largest size
refurbished barrel is 55 gallons; barrels from unrecycled materials are
available in larger sizes.

  • RiverSides in Canada sells 132-gallon barrels for
    $190 as a group or $250 individually.
  • Another reader recommended the local source Arlington Echo, and here’s their order form.
    [pdf]  Barrels cost $50 each plus $14 for attachment "stuff," but the
    order form doesn’t say how many gallons they hold, though 55 gallons
    would be a good bet.  They’re located in Millersville, MD, so it’s
    possible to pick up the barrels yourself and save on the hefty shipping
    charges (no matter where you buy them).
  • AquaBarrel sells
    refurbished 55-gallon barrels for $100 at retail outlets, which is
    preferable because shipping even locally starts at about $55 for one
    barrel.  They’ll do the installation for you for a $45 preinstallation
    inspection and $65/hour to install (a simple one-barrel system
    typically takes 2 hours).


at Aquabarrel explained to me that by virtue of their shape (something
technie about how freezing works), refurbished barrels must to be emptied for the winter.  His system uses a diverter (photo) to restore the usual rain path down the downspout.  His Owner’s Manual has more.

And from the University of Rhode Island comes this advice: 

  • Fine mesh screen should be used to cover any openings in the rain barrel to
    prevent mosquitoes and to trap debris.
  • Rain barrels can be installed upon blocks or wooden crate to provide height
    for gravity flow purposes.
  • Rain barrels should be drained and removed for the winter months to prevent
    ice damage – the details about how to do that are here on this page.

Ah, this just in from the owner of rain barrels in my town of Takoma Park:

As to whether fine
mesh screen
needs to be used, t
he Gardener’s Supply barrel has a "lid" that’s made of screening material
to keep out debris and bugs. The homemade one is closed except for the hole that
the downspout empties into. In order to keep debris out, we used a piece of
window screening over that hole. If your barrel is screened off like this, then
you shouldn’t need mosquito dunks because they shouldn’t be getting into the

As to installing them on blocks or wooden crate to provide height for
gravity flow purposes, I use my barrels to fill watering
cans so it’s not such an issue for me, but if you want to use it with a hose or
soaker hose, having it higher will create more "flow". Also, the spigot needs to
be really close to the bottom of the barrel so you can get all the water. Having
it up on something makes it easier to get to. Both of mine have hose sections
attached though for more manouverability.
As for that Rhode Island’s winterizing advice in the link above, (which I found confusing) she writes:
This is all about how you have to
have a shorter downspout when the barrel is under it. So you cut off a section
in the appropriate height and then put it away to use again when the rain barrel
is gone for the winter. You’ll need some sort of a joining piece between the
section you cut off and the part still on the house though. For one I replaced
the entire section with those "flexible downspout extensions" they sell
everywhere. For the other I used a small flexible piece to reconnect the cut off
piece. Again, if you see it it makes perfect sense. Just hard to explain in
words. The last sentence refers to something you’d put on the end of the cut off
downspout to direct the water into the rain barrel. The hinged thing they refer
to is something you can get from catalogs. The S-shaped thing seems like too
much work. I used the small flexible piece (available at Home Depot) which I
also use to reconnect the downspout cutoff.



soon: the Rain Garden alternative.  One reader wrote to tell me she
directed her downspouts to carry rainwater to her garden, which brings
us to rain garden techniques as another way to accomplish the same
ends.  So that’ll be the next subject we tackle.

Top photo by
.  Lower photo courtesy of Aquabarrel.


  1. My dad (who has a greenhouse retail business in the UK) used to have a nice little sideline selling used foot container barrels – the stuff big quantities of orange juice, brined vegetables etc are shipped in – as rain barrels (dedicated rain barrels being basically the same thing massively overpriced at the time). These can often be obtained cheap if you have a food factory of some kind nearby and come in all sizes up to massive.

    The diverters are excellent (although I’m not familar with the model featured) and well worth the extra few bucks.

  2. I would like to have one but to do what I’d like them to do I would need some sort of filter to clean the water from my asphalt shingle roof. I don’t think these barrels can be used to help with vegetables and edible plants unless the water from asphalt roofs is cleaned. Too many chemicals could go into the barrel from the shingles. Still if you’re lucky enough to have a slate or other type of roof I think they would be really helpful. I may invest in a stand alone version at some point.

  3. In Colorado, rainwater collection is “is subject to the Constitution of the State of Colorado, state statutes, and case law” but we have a rain barrel anyway in the back yard. We use it to divert the snow melt away from the house since the foundation doesn’t need so much water.

    There is a company in Texas that collects and sells rainwater for drinking: rainwater.org.

  4. Great post! I think rainwater collection is going to become increasingly important in the next few years. Weather patterns are becoming completely erratic in some places, and sometimes it seems hard to justify watering flowers and veg when there’s a drought going on.

    My husband and I built a rain barrel system that holds about 500 gallons. We’ve posted about it a few times (at the “rain harvester” tag on our blog). We plan to write up the detailed how-to this winter. It was simple, and cheap! The whole thing cost under $200, and it provided water all summer. We never once had to turn to the well.

    We are looking to expand the garden sometime in the future–which will mean expanding our water capacity–so we’re very interested in reading up on various collection methods. I can’t wait until I have time to read this more closely and follow through on all those links. Thanks!

  5. Oh, and to answer the question you posed: Can one or even two 55-gallon barrels really make a difference, or are they mainly feel-good items, as one expert suggested to me?

    YES! Before we build our rain harvester we were using a 55-gallon trash can wedged under a downspout. It was a mosquito nightmare, but our moderately dry southeastern PA summer kept it full enough that we could dunk a watering can a few times a week to give our garden a boost. Ten good minutes of rain would refill the barrel.

  6. Rain barrels are just a start. I wish I had a cistern like the house I grew up in had.

    Husband made me one from found items. (he is so handy) I like it , water all potted plants with it, I want one for our detached garage so I don’t have to haul water to the back of the lot.

  7. We have two rain barrels (like the $135 ones from Gardeners Supply) one which we received from the City of Austin at a discount price of $35 as part of its water conservation program and one which was a gift. We intend, someday, to put in a complete rainwater collection system. Toward that end, when a tree fell on our house and we had to have the roof replaced, we chose a metal roof.

    I use the rainwater mostly for potted plants or to water recently-transplanted seedlings. I do not think the rain barrels save me very much on my water usage but as far as I’m concerned every little bit helps. If everyone took small steps, it would have a bigger impact than just a few people taking large steps.

    One problem in Austin is that we can go weeks without rain and then get a downpour of 4 inches in an afternoon. Two rain barrels alone don’t provide enough water to see us through the dry spells and they quickly overflow during floods.

    Our solution, as I said, is to eventually get a much larger system.

  8. In my prairie garden, average 14″ precipitation a year, we had a big metal rainwater barrel, which stood on our back steps. The steps had a little landing at the top and as it was about 4′ above the garden we ran a gravity-fed drip hose from a tap my clever partner soldered into the barrel near the bottom and that serviced all four 10×4′ vegetable beds. Veggies were planted more closely than recommended so that leaves completely shaded the earth once the plants were part grown, as the beds had at least 14 hours of sun a day. Rainfall tended to be short heavy thunder storms during the summer but the barrel provided enough basic water supply. If we had had a long run of very hot weather and tomatos for instance were developing fruit, I occasionally did a little supplementary watering.

  9. We recently installed two 60-g olive barrels re-purposed as rain barrels (and I blogged about it). Both filled to overflow when we got less than one inch of rain last week.

    Unfortunately, both barrels have slow leaks from the hose adapter things, and need to be re-caulked.

    They were badly caulked by the seller, and I failed to improve matters by choosing the wrong caulking material when I gave it a go.

    My garden is small, and only half of it needs supplemental water during the dry season–by which I mean there is no reasonable expectation of rain from May through Sept, and only light rains in April and October.

    Having now emptied one 60-g barrel (in order to dry it for re-caulking) and using the water in the garden as I would normally do, I think if I had one more 60-g barrel, I plant to go without using any city water during a normal dry season.

    I can’t fathom any reason why this should be seen merely as feel-goodery.

    My advice about rain barrels is to buy them locally, with some sort of warranty about quality, or at least good word-of-mouth. Also look for models that have very few places to leak from! Freezing isn’t an issue for me, if that’s relevant.

  10. We have used rainbarrels for the last seven years and absolutely love them.We made the first one out of a garbage can.We cut a hole at the top into the side and added a spigot for easy emptying on the bottom.The other one we bought ready to use from a local Farmsupply store.During long dry spells i use them to top off the small pond we have,we also water potted plants with them.To make them more appealing in the landscape we planted bushes around them,no one knows they are there unless you are standing right next to them.Both hold about 100 gallons and I would highly recommend them.

  11. Great post. We have 2 of the Aquabarrel rain barrels that are linked together. They are great, I love’m. No leaks and best of all the overflow is super huge and we have never had water overflow out the top – it takes a 4″ landscape pipe – we buried the landscape pipe and also used their drainbox at the end of the pipe at the rain garden (limits erosion) – No mosquito issue to speak of either.

  12. I love my rainbarrel and want 3 more – a cistern too would be great.
    Be careful with using collected rainbarrel water on your edibles and herbs IF your rainwater is washing down from your roof – esp. if you have asbestos shingles or live in a very urban (bad air pollution) area.

  13. As a chemist, I’ve thought a little about pollution in my rain barrel water. My conjectures follow…

    Say it rains for three days. Any pollution settled on a roof that CAN be washed off by water likely WILL be washed off in the first two days. By the third day, the water coming off the roof will be reasonably clean. Not necessarily for drinking, but okay for vegetable gardening. (although, I have tasted it and it tastes like plain old water.)

    All it takes is 1″ of rainfall to fill my barrels. So if I just wait to collect the water from the tail-end of a heavy late spring storm, I’m set.

    Asphalt is petroleum-based. Petroleum repels water, and water-soluble petroleum-based leachates are likely to be susceptible to quick decomposition by soil microbes. I’m certain my garden soil is rich with microbes.

    Heavy metals from car pollution settled on the roof are a slight concern. If I was really concerned, I could buy a filter.

    And I think about today’s global food supply chains (https://www.gardenrant.com/my_weblog/2007/11/no-free-lunch.html)
    and I feel pretty comfortable taking my chances with vegetables from my own garden watered with rain water collected off my roof.

  14. I like the concept. I got one at a neighborhood workshop sponsored by some environmental group, and I’m not really happy with it. It has all the problems identified in the Aquabarrel video.

  15. We have two rain barrels, which I use to top off my container pond (the fish don’t have any problem with runoff from my asphalt shingle roof) and to fill up a can for whatever hand watering I do. The overflow from one rain barrel is directed into a dry stream that flows into a rain garden (http://www.penick.net/digging/?p=222). I love my rain barrels–only $65 each from the City of Austin and no problems with leaks or cracking.

    However, as MSS points out, two rain barrels can’t hold enough water to get us through the dry summer months. I’d really love to have a cistern one day.

  16. When we bought our home 15 years ago from a then 80 year old gardener & florist, he had just a huge blue barrel under one of the down-spouts, so I left it and used it for all my potted containers-outdoors in the summer and indoors during the non-freezing times the rest of the year.
    To me, the “new” phase of rain barrels is something that I inherited and cost me nothing, but provided many, many benefits over the years by not having to use our over-chlorinated tap water for my plants.
    Leave it to an 80 year old gardener to guide this newby gardener with something so basic. Plus the exercise I gain filling and lugging my watering cans is another perk.
    I just don’t see myself shelling out the big bucks for all the new barrels and items that are now available. Seems like gardener-gouging to me.
    I am certainly glad to see that we are finally learning the value of water and reinventing more ways to recyle it.

  17. This is a GREAT post and very timely for me. My husband and I have been puzzling over how to construct our own rail barrel(s) after the great drought of ’07 here in the D.C. area. I live on a 0.9 acre lot with 25 mature trees so water for my garden is at a premium! Thanks so much for this post and all the helpful comments.

  18. This is a great post. I have long thought that water supply and water usage will be esssential issues in the 21st century. We were living in Beijing in 1989. Beijing is a desert – and yet we saw the hotel’s cars being washed with lots of water, keeping them up to a ‘western standard of cleanliness’. It seemed a waste then, and even more so now that private ownership of cars is so much more common.

  19. Rain barrels are a moot point in my Mediterranean climate – no real measurable rain fall from late April through late November.
    When it does rain here starting ( fingers crossed ) in December thru March, most of my garden is semi dormant and does not require the rain .
    The captured rain that would fill 2 or three barrels would be used up in a matter of weeks leaving the barrels barren for 6 months of the year.
    At the moment even our indigenous reservoirs are at less than 40 percent capacity.
    The only way a rain barrel system would benefit my small suburban garden is if it was paired up with a grey water system and I modified my sub- tropical plant collection habit to include only drought tolerant plants.
    At the moment the garden is about 60 – 65 percent drought tolerant .
    Darn those Cannas, Heliconias and Bananas !

  20. We’ve been using rain barrels for several years. It took me and my Labor Pool (aka husband) many hours of research and store visits to figure out the best design for our purposes and climate (which we think is superior to many commercial ones). To provide the information to others I created a website on how to build your own rainbarrel for about $40. We’ve got pictures and step-by-step directions, FAQs, safety information, and even a rainfall collection calculator!


  21. I have 5 55 gallon oak rain barrels on our property. For all but the summer drought it supplies all my irrigation needs when combined with xeriscaping and deep mulch techniques. We get about 30 rain events, so our 5 barrels are saving about 10,000 gallons per year. That is not huge, but not insignificant. Again, multiply that out to every home in a subdivision, and you begin talking about acre feet of runoff saved.

    Now, I make rain barrels for profit, so I am biased. But my goal is that Rain Barrels are “toe in the door” items to begin to alter thinking. For families using rain barrels, water is suddenly a Resource to be harvested, not a utility to be paid.

    We need to change our thinking to become more sustainable as a society, and Rain Barrels are a very good way to achieve that end. In my expierence I have seen numerous clients switch to more impactful water management practices like rain gardens and swales once they have a few barrels.

  22. I have one rain barrel (not sure how many gallons–the plastic pickle-barrel kind) so far. It’s great. Fills easily after not much rain, and really helps get through dry spells. I’ve no idea if the lack of chlorination makes a big difference in plant growth, but it’s pretty darn nice water. I’d like to add a couple more barrels.

    Not sure if this was mentioned in the original post, but you can easily “chain” barrels by setting two side by side and placing a hose between them.

  23. I only have a single 55-gallon barrel. It probably doesn’t have much of an environmental impact, but I love it. The lower pressure is just right for hooking up a hose, dragging it to the base of a shrub and leaving it for a while as I putter around other parts of the yard. By the time all my shrubs are watered, I’ve usually accomplished quite a lot of weeding. I also appreciate being able to water my acid-loving plants (I know I should be growing plants more suitable to the soil I have, but I just can’t bring myself to give up the luxury of my own blueberry patch!) with low pH rainwater. I plan to add another, larger, rain barrel this year.

  24. What a wonderful group of Rain Barrel folks. We invite you stop by the Aquabarrel.com website to check out the patent pending rain barrel design. We also offer downspout diverters to get the water from the downspout over to the top of the barrel and a downspout filter to collect the debris before it goes to the barrel or your underground landscape pipe. For those of you with rain gardens we offer a great way to terminate your rain water underground with the DrainBox. Respectfully – Barry

  25. The prairie house I grew up in had a 1250 gallon cistern, repurposed from household water supply to garden supply once the municipality installed water and sewer. The tank would fill quickly in a good early summer rain, and last through the summer with occasional top ups from summer storms.

    These days I use 2 55 gallon garbage cans as rain barrels but still do a lot of supplementary watering. Our summer is short but rainfall is unpredictable and our trees are very thirsty.

    I would love to have a more comprehensive system, but I’m not sure I could collect enough without a cistern.

  26. I live near by you in Silver Spring MD and have 2 linked Arlington Echo barrels – they are 55 gal drums as you suspected (former Coca Cola syrup barrels). Half an inch of rain fills them both up. I don’t have much bleeding from the asphalt roof into the barrels and use the water on the garden. In the winter, I empty the plastic barrels and replace (beautiful duct tape) the old segment of downspout to avoid cracking the barrels. Arlington Echo’s a great facility in Ann Arundel county. I fit 2 barrels into my Prius (barely) and so avoided the mailing cost and it was fun to check out Arlington Echo.

  27. Hi all. I have had a rain barrel for years. It is not actually a barrel, but a 100-gallon horse watering trough I stuck under my downspout. I have a very large (1/2 acre) garden that I can water pretty much only from the water I save. I mulch heavily, and water only about once every 2 weeks. That has handled even severe droughts (no rain for about 6 weeks). Rain harvesting works if you are also a water-wise gardener. I put goldfish in the trough (it has no screen and is open to birds, etc.) and they eat all of the mosquito larvae. By the end of the summer, the goldfish have disappeared (probably to racoons), I empty it for winter and start again the next spring.

  28. Some folks have been concerned about the ‘first flush’ of rain headed to the cistern or rain barrel – I’m happy to announce that http://www.Aquabarrel.com now offers an Australian manufactured – First Flush (roof wash) KIT. We are also offering their Leaf Eater and Leaf Beater downspout filters too. Inventory is due in shortly.

  29. I built a rain water capture system a few years ago that works quite nicely. It uses a single 55 gallon barrel to hold the rain water. Since mosquitos were a primary concern, I put a bit of effort into creating duct work that minimized the amount of exposure for the rain water. I ended up using a combination of PVC fittings, rubber adapter boots, and plastic gutter ducting to attach the drain pipe directly to one of the threaded openings in the top of the barrel. The end result won’t win any beauty prizes but it gets the job done. There is a picture of the system in the garden section of my website for those that are curious.

    In regards to the question about whether a 55 gallon rain barrel is useful or just Dr Feel Good material, well, I think that depends upon several factors. First, if the system is poorly designed and hard to use, it probably won’t be used. Most people are lazy by nature and things that are difficult to use will be ignored and fall into disrepair. A system that is implemented efficiently is more transparent and let’s us get the job done without too much overhead. In a nutshell, a well designed system, even if it is small, can be quite useful. I use my rain barrel on a regular basis in the summer and have been extremely happy with the results. My garden has been equally happy if you ask me!

  30. Thanks!!!! I have so been looking for a website about rain barrels and what a nice surprise that it’s in the DC area.

    American Plant Company on River Road, Bethesda MD now carries them at a price comparable to Garden Supply Company. I have yet to locate them at Home Depot or Lowe’s. This additional info is just what I needed to make my final decision to purchase them.

  31. I like these ideas! Great site!

    One idea to assist with containing any mosquito issues is to add a tablespoon of olive oil to your rain water barrel, it’ll prevent the mosquitoes from breeding.

  32. Don’t waste your money on translucent (white) rain barrels. They will grow algae and your water will smell. Use only dark colored tanks and rain barrels. Block the UV to reduce junk growing in your barrel. We bought ours from Rain Water Solutions (rainwatersolutions.com) and they work great. They come with everything needed even a large capacity overflow hose. The real bonus is they are made from 100% recycled plastic in North Carolina.

  33. Someone up top made a comment about just taking the water from your downspout and diverting it to your plants. I had azaleas around my screened porch. To the downspout on my house I attached a plastic piece of downspout that ran on the ground along the plants. I drilled holes in the underside. Too, to get good water distribution, you should drill holes closer together as you move to the end of piece on the ground. Too I added a 90 or 45 degree piece of downspout on the end so in a huge rain it would not all come gushing out of the end.

    For longer pieces you can buy small flexible black plastic pipe. You can drill hoes in it for water to come out and you can curve it around your plants. Too, over time as the sun hits it, this hose will become more flexible.

  34. That Aquabarrel is a piece of garbage, do not waste your money. I have yet to see a more over-hyped product online that doesn’t hold water!!

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