Clean Air & Fresh Water

Conserve Water and Reduce Runoff: Raindrops Keep Falling

Simple, homemade rain barrels harness one of nature's most basic and valuable resources, reducing water costs and stormwater runoff.

Published: February 21, 2007 @ 11:30 AM CST from the March/April 2007 issue of Natural Home.

Laurie Bullard uses rainwater collected with barrels from a vineyard to irrigate her yard.
Insect-Screen.jpg LauriePours.jpg sidehouse027.jpg planter030.jpg LaurieGreenBarrel.jpg redbarrels026.jpg closeUnderdrain.jpg Illustration.jpg
View the Full Image Gallery

By: Carol Steinfeld

Some of the cleanest mineral- and chlorine-free water arrives free of charge to most homes regularly. Rainwater can be used for watering lawns and gardens, filling swimming pools, washing cars and pets, rinsing windows, and even bathing and drinking, if it is filtered and treated.

Using rainwater reduces water costs, takes a load off water supplies, and reduces stormwater runoff. It's a resource thatŇs free, save for the cost of catching and storing it. That can range from collecting it in a plastic barrel under a downspout, to containing it in large cisterns, above or below ground, to supply all of a home's water needs. Unlike water derived from the ground, rainwater is soft; it contains no minerals that leave calcium scale or residues, no sodium, and no chlorine or fluoride. However, it can carry debris, bird excreta, and anything else that washes off a roof. During storage, bacteria and insects can proliferate. This can be managed with screening and steady use of the rainwater to keep the water moving and aerated.

In Texas, thousands of fiberglass, plastic and galvanized steel cisterns have been installed to supplement mostly lawn watering (as much as 40 percent of home water use).

Outside of Boston, watershed protection programs promotes underground rain collection tanks with interior support walls allow big storage capacity under driveways. For indoor use, rainwater is usually pumped, filtered through a particle filter, and either carbon filtered or disinfected.

12 barrels of rain on a wall

Along the western side of their Cape Cod home, Laurie Gates and her partner Mark Massoni installed a series of 12 plastic 50-gallon barrels previously used to transport pickles from Europe. A roof-gutter downspout on one end drains to the top of the first barrel and fills the barrels equally from the bottom up as they drain to a 2-inch pipe running underneath the row, which is elevated on a wooden platform, to a spigot. As the barrels fill, a portable pump is attached to the spigot to pump the water 10 feet up to an elevated 100-gallon water tank. This drains to drip-irrigation lines in their several raised-bed gardens. She redirects the downspouts to the ground in the winter to prevent freezing. "It was an easy way to reduce our water bill and reduce our yard's runoff to the pond at the same time," Gates says.

Rain harvest in style

Behind the 1845 Gothic Revival home of Laurie and John Bullard of New Bedford, Mass., two oak wine casks each collect rainwater from a downspout. Hidden drains divert overflow to a 40-foot-deep well from which water is pumped to a separately marked spigot on the house. This is used for irrigation and outdoor washing. Laurie fills her watering can from the rainbarrel spigot to water the shrubs and flowering plants around the home. As the costs of supplying and cleaning water increase, stacked rainwater cisterns will be integrated into home design, perhaps even helping to insulate and cool the house, while supplementing indoor and outdoor water with this free resource that keeps water cycling locally.

As the eccentric Austrian artist Hundertwasser proclaimed, "Save the rain! Each raindrop is a kiss from heaven."

Rain Barrel Basics

Unlike water pumped from the ground, rainwater is soft; it contains no minerals that leave calcium scale or residues, no sodium and no chlorine or fluoride. However, it can carry debris, bird excrement and anything else that washes off a roof. During storage, bacteria and insects can proliferate in standing water. Users can manage this easily by topping barrels with screens and using their water supply frequently, which keeps the water moving and aerated.

To store rainwater, rain barrels and cisterns are available in a variety of sizes and shapes. An easy option is a sturdy trash barrel or a food-grade, plastic, 55-gallon barrel available from food importers and processors. Either dip a bucket or watering can in the opening of the barrel or outfit it with a spigot and overflow drain.


Advanced Water Filters
(800) 453-4206
reverse osmosis systems, water filters, water softeners, and replacement filters

Arid Solutions
(866) 629-7246
rain barrels and rain chains

Center for Watershed Protection
online guide to making a rain barrel

Clean Air Gardening
rain barrels and attachments
(800) 233-8438
rain barrels and water accessories

Gardener’s Supply Company
(888) 833-1412
rain barrels and attachments

Master Garden Products
(800) 574-7248
rain barrels and other sustainable garden supplies

Rainwater Recovery Systems
(781) 647-9500
high-capacity rainwater storage

(503) 248-1111
copper rain chains

Further Reading

Rainwater Collection for the Mechanically Challenged
by Richard Heinichen and Suzy Banks
(Tank Town, 2006)