What are rain barrels?

Rain barrels are containers used to collect rain water from the roof of a building via the gutter and downspout. The downspout is cut to a height that permits the rain water to flow into a barrel placed beneath it. The barrel should have a spigot to which a hose may be attached, and an overflow hose to direct rain water away from the foundation if rain continues after the barrel is full. Rain barrels are often made from 55-gallon food-grade plastic barrels, although they can also be made of wood. The collected water can be used to water gardens or lawns, wash cars, fill swimming pools or do other household chores.

Why use rain barrels?

Conserve water and reduce stormwater runoff: In the summer months, outdoor tasks such as watering lawns and gardens typically make up about 40% of household water use. With seasonal droughts, restrictions and bans on lawn watering, and the increasing cost of water, it makes sense to use rain water instead of municipal water for outdoor uses. Unless it is collected, rain water runs off impervious surfaces, such as roofs and pavement, gathering pollutants which often end up in local streams, rivers, pond, lakes and marine waters. Keeping and using rain water on your property helps reduce pollution, erosion and improves local watershed health.

Water quantity: Just 1/4 inch of rainfall on a typical roof will fill a rain barrel. A modest amount of rainfall can supply much or all of your outdoor watering needs - a full rain barrel will water a 200 square foot garden. A good rule of thumb is that 1 inch of rain on a 1000 sq ft roof yields 623 gallons of water. You can calculate the yield of your roof by multiplying the square footage of your roof by 623 and dividing by 1000.

Water quality: Rain water is "soft," or free from minerals and chemicals such as chlorine, fluoride, and calcium that are often present in municipal water. Rain water is considered ideal for watering plants or washing cars and windows.

How do I install a rain barrel?

  1. Purchase or make a rain barrel.
  2. Select location under a downspout.
  3. Determine height of barrel.
  4. Build a platform to desired height - Elevating a rain barrel a foot or so above ground level increases the water pressure, which comes solely from gravity (unless you install a pump). A full rain barrel typically weighs over 400 lbs, so the platform must be made of sturdy materials such as cinder blocks, bricks, or similar materials. The platform must be flat, level and large enough to support the entire base of the barrel for good stability.
  5. Place rain barrel on platform.
  6. Cut downspout to fit opening - You should connect the house downspout, which you will have to cut with a hacksaw to accommodate the barrel, directly to the lid opening or via a flexible pipe. Or you may simply direct the downspout to the opening in your barrel. You may also wish to install a downspout diverter, which allows you to divert water back into your downspout during winter or when you do not wish to collect rainwater.
  7. Attach a hose to the overflow fitting. Use a length of hose sufficient to drain excess rainfall away from your foundation into a garden area or into another rain barrel. Keep the overflow valve open at all times.

How can I obtain a manufactured rain barrel?

Many Massachusetts towns and cities distribute rain barrels to residents through annual sales. Check with your municipality to see if there is a rain barrel sale planned and for details on how to participate. Or check the websites of the following vendors on state contract for information on sales planned in Massachusetts communities and how to participate. If no barrels are available in your community, try a neighboring community or consider purchasing a barrel directly from the vendor.

You can also check the following Massachusetts businesses that make rain barrels, or search for a rain barrel on-line:

How to make your own rain barrel: (For photographs of the process, required supplies, and step-by-step directions on rain barrel construction, visit Mid-America Regional Council).

Obtain a container with a cover or lid, such as a 55-gallon drum made of heavy duty plastic. Barrels previously used to ship food products are ideal. Do not use a barrel that contained toxic chemicals. The barrel should not be transparent or translucent, which can promote algae growth. Thoroughly wash out any container that is being reused with a mixture of 1/8 cup of bleach and 5 gallons of water.

If there is not already an opening in the lid, cut a round opening using a jigsaw. Install a skimmer basket, like those used in swimming pools, to filter out leaves and other debris. Additionally, you should cover the opening with fiberglass window screen in order to keep out mosquitoes. Make sure the barrel is covered at all times to keep children and animals from falling in.

Install a 3/4 inch hose spigot. This should be attached to side of the barrel a few inches up from the bottom, providing space for any sediment to collect and keeping the drain clear. You can fill watering cans directly from the spigot, or connect a soaker hose for watering a garden.

Install an overflow drain fitting on the side of the barrel near the top, and attach an overflow hose to the fitting. This is to allow excess water to drain away from the foundation, to water plants or to fill another barrel. (You can place the overflow hose into the opening of another barrel, increasing the volume of rain water you can collect and store). The last barrel in the series should have an overflow hose long enough to direct excess rain water away from the foundation.

How else can I conserve water?

Contact your local water department to inquire about the availability of water conservation items, such as low-flow showerheads, dye tables to check for toilet leaks, faucet aerators for kitchens or bathrooms, rain gauges or handheld outdoor hose nozzles. If you live in a MWRA community, you may request free water conservation items using a request form provided at www.mwra.com/04water/html/watsav.htm, available while supplies last. A list of MWRA communities is available at that web site. Below are descriptions of various water saving tools and fixtures. A variety of these are available at your local hardware or plumbing supply store.

  • Low-flow showerhead
    A 1.5 gpm or 2.0 gpm (gallons per minute) showerhead can help save up to 7,300 gallons of water per year!
  • Dye tablets to check for toilet leaks
    Detects leaks in toilets, a common and very large source of wasted water.
    Drop tablet in the tank and wait a few minutes. If the dye appears in the tank, you have a leak.
  • Faucet aerators for kitchen sinks and bathrooms
    A 0.5, 1.0, 1.5, 1.75 and 2.0 gpm (gallons per minute) faucet aerator will all save water over the standard 2.2 gpm bathroom faucet aerator.
  • Rain Gauge
    Measures rainfall to help you eliminate or reduce unnecessary watering of lawns and gardens.
  • Handheld outdoor hose nozzles
    The automatic shut off feature of these hose nozzles can help you save thousands of gallons of water compared to a hose without a handheld nozzle.

For additional water conservation ideas, please see Tips for Saving Water Indoors and Outdoors .