Installing a rain barrel or two in your yard can save you money on your water bill, especially if you do any gardening or have a sprinkler system. But, rain barrels don’t come without their own issues. Even though these barrels are specially designed to keep mosquitos and other bugs out, they can wind up attracting them.
They also require some maintenance and upkeep. Ultimately, getting a rain barrel is a decision you must make for yourself. This is why I’ve decided to write this ultimate guide to rain barrels. It will tell you what you need to know to make an informed decision.
We’ll go over how they work, how to install them, how much money they can save you, and how they help the environment. I’ll also discuss the pros and cons of rain barrels, DIY options, and ways to keep your rain barrels mosquito-free. Read on to discover everything you need to know about rain barrels.
What Are Rain Barrels Used For?
As you can probably guess, rain barrels are used for collecting rain. They attach to a gutter downspout to collect rainwater that would otherwise flow into the yard or down into the city’s storm drain system. In design, they are simple systems that allow homeowners to gather and use that rainwater on plants around their property, therefore saving some money on water usage.
Rain Barrel Legality and Safety
Before we go any further, I need to get the issues of safety and legality out of the way.
Rain barrels are designed to collect rainwater for use only in gardens and on other plants. Rainwater is not potable and should never be used for bathing, drinking, or cooking. This is because it is untreated and most likely contains toxins and bacteria that could be dangerous for human (or pet) consumption. Using it on plants is perfectly safe.
Legality is not much of an issue these days. Most laws against rainwater harvesting are leftover from a bygone era. They were usually the result of concerns about “stealing” rainwater that would eventually flow into a stream or river on another person’s property. The thinking was that collecting rainwater would be taking it away from another person’s water supply. This is not much of a concern in our modern society.
However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still laws against collecting rainwater. Two states, namely Colorado and Utah, still have widespread laws in place. Most of the other American states have little or no rainwater regulations. Still, it’s best to check for sure. Some places have limits on how much rainwater can be collected per household. For most of the country, this won’t be an issue. Whether you live in the US or not, check your local laws before committing to a rain barrel.
Do Rain Barrels Help or Hurt the Environment?
Many people assume that rainwater will help the environment. After all, when you use rainwater on your plants and lawn, you’re not using city water, which takes energy to process and transport. Not to mention the money it costs you.
However, there are two sides to this coin. People theorized that rainwater collected by private residents would interfere with the hydrologic cycle, robbing aquifers and streams of water that would otherwise end up there. But, at least one study showed that the amount of rainwater collected by individuals would in fact be beneficial for the environment.
The water that flows into aquifers or reservoirs would eventually end up back at those homes after being processed. Collecting rainwater is essentially cutting out the middleman and, in doing so, reducing the amount of energy associated with transporting and processing water.
This can help reduce your carbon footprint as emissions are closely associated with electricity usage. Plus, collected rainwater used on plants winds up back in the ground anyway. Any water not absorbed by plants will eventually flow to the local aquifer, after all.
So, installing a rain barrel in your yard can help the environment in the long run.
Do Rain Barrels Save You Money?
Rain barrels can absolutely save you money. According to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 30% of daily household water usage goes to plants and lawns. That’s 30% of 320 gallons per day, on average. So, if you started using the water from a rain barrel on your lawn, garden, and other plants, you could cut the cost of your water bill by nearly one-third!
And if you live in an area that is prone to drought, you may even be able to cut your bill even more than that, provided it rains enough for you to collect and save a decent amount of water.
Are Rain Barrels Effective?
Overall, rain barrels are an effective means of collecting non-potable water. Their ultimate effectiveness has more to do with where you live than anything else. If you live in a place where rain is incredibly rare, you may not collect enough water for it to be effective. But most places get enough rain for these barrels to be highly effective and worth the investment.
Rain Barrels and Mosquitoes
One major concern people have with rain barrels is their ability to attract mosquitoes. Luckily, the best rain barrels are designed to avoid attracting bugs and algae growth. They have a closed-top design, with a small hole into which a downspout fits.
Unfortunately, mosquito larvae can get washed down the gutters and make it past the debris screen. In which case you can use anti-larval tablets to keep your rain barrel free of mosquitoes. What you don’t want to do is have an open-top rain barrel, as this will surely attract mosquitoes and algae.
Here’s a video on how to prevent your rain barrel from becoming a mosquito hangout:
Proper Rain Barrel Use
Using a rain barrel properly is easy, but there are a few things to keep in mind. For one, if you use the rainwater on vegetables or herbs you plan to eat, pour the water on the soil around the plant instead of on the plant itself. This allows the roots of the plant to filter out anything you may not want to ingest when you eat the veggies.
How Often to Empty Them
For best results, it’s important to use the water in a rain barrel within two weeks. This not only keeps the barrel ready to collect more rain, but it also helps prevent issues with bugs and other organisms that are attracted to standing water.
If you don’t want to collect rainwater, you can simply open the valve on the front and place a splash guard under it so it doesn’t erode the ground there. The water will flow right though, and you can simply close the valve again when you want to collect water.
Rain Barrel Maintenance
Like anything else around the house, rain barrels do require some maintenance. They should be cleaned once a year at least. This usually just involves spraying the barrel out with a hose and using a mixture of white vinegar and water to swish it or scrub it down.
Then you can spray it out again, let it dry, and make sure the valve isn’t gunked up and that there aren’t any cracks or holes anywhere if you’ve had the barrel for a long time.
If you live in an area with harsh winters, you’ll probably want to empty the rain barrel and store it, to prevent the water inside from freezing and possibly damaging the barrel.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Rain Barrels
We’ve gone over a couple of the benefits and drawbacks already, but let’s get them all in one place now for clarity and easy reference.
- Can save you money on your water bill.
- Can help the environment.
- Helps reduce your carbon footprint.
- Easy to use and set up.
- Low upfront cost.
- Collects natural rainwater which is good for plants.
- Water collected isn’t safe enough to drink.
- May attract mosquitoes and other bugs.
- Requires some maintenance and upkeep.
- Not great for areas where it doesn’t rain much.
- If used improperly, can be dangerous for children.
Are Rain Barrels Worth It?
The question of whether rain barrels are worth it mostly depends on you and where you live. In most places, rain barrels are absolutely worth the small investment and installation time. They’re great for people who like to spend time outside and are interested in saving money on their water bill.
But, for those people who live in drought-prone areas or deserts, rain barrels may not be worth it. People who don’t have plants or a lawn to water will not have much use for a rain barrel.
Which Rain Barrels Are Best?
The best type of rain barrel is one that fits your personal aesthetic and is large enough to cover your needs. They come in all different shapes, sizes, and materials. There are a ton to choose from. The good news is that I’ve done a bunch of research to bring you the best one from each category, to make your decision easier. Check them out below.
Different Types of Rain Barrels
Rain barrels come in plastic, metal, wood, and even ceramic. However, the best types tend to be some form of plastic, since they don’t rust, are less likely to crack than wood, and are lighter than ceramic. Here’s the rundown on some of the best options on the market.
Best Flat-Backed Rain Barrel
This one from RTS Accents looks like a classic oak barrel but is really made from plastic.
- It holds 50 gallons of water, includes a screen to help keep debris and insects out, and has a brass spigot to which you can attach a hose.
- It is made with a flat back so you can put it flush against the wall of the house.
- It won’t rust or rot and is built to resist insects.
- It also has the ability to link to other rain barrels if you need more than 50 gallons of space.
Be aware that due to the size of the intake slot, it can be hard to clean thoroughly.
Best Collapsible Rain Barrel
VINGLI makes a highly-rated collapsible rain barrel that is one of the more affordable options on the market.
- It’s made from PVC and designed for long-term use.
- It’s available in 50, 66, or 100-gallon sizes.
- It has a zippered top with a built-in water inlet filter so you can don’t wind up with debris in the water.
- It also has a double-ringed spigot and valve to prevent leaking.
This is probably the easiest rain barrel to clean since the top opens fully.
Best Rain Barrel With Planter
This rain barrel from Good Ideas is made to look like an urn, which can add a bit of flair to your yard.
- It holds 65-gallons and comes in many different colors including terra cotta, light or dark granite, and khaki.
- It comes equipped with a mesh screen for the water intake and a planter on the top so you can put your favorite flowers there to make it even more aesthetically pleasing.
- It has a sturdy brass spigot and includes a routed channel on top to direct overflow rainwater away from the house.
- Made in the USA from BPA-free materials.
The only problem with this one is that it can be hard to clean thoroughly since it doesn’t open on top.
How to Set Up A Rain Barrel
Setting up a rain barrel is fairly straightforward. You just need to locate a downspout that’s out of the way and has level ground at its base.
You can either position your rain barrel directly underneath the downspout or you can place it to the side, using a downspout collection system.
If it rains a lot in your area, a downspout collection system is probably the way to go because it diverts rain from a downspout and into the rain barrel without totally getting rid of the downspout itself.
Rain Barrel Stand
You may also want to consider some sort of stand for your rain barrel. Lots of people like to put watering cans directly under the spigot instead of using an attached hose. But in order to do this, the barrel can’t be sitting directly on the ground. With a stand, you can use a hose or the spigot itself to easily transfer water out of the barrel.
You can purchase a stand like this one made from reclaimed wood designed for rain barrels, or you can build one yourself out of cinder blocks or any other sturdy materials. For best results, you’ll want to stand to be a foot or two off the ground.
Most climates are hospitable to rain barrels. After all, saving even a few gallons of water over the course of a month can help you cut down on the water bill. Besides yearly cleaning and checking for mosquitoes on occasion, rain barrels are pretty easy to maintain. They don’t require much aside from the initial setup, and even that isn’t very difficult.
Just be sure to check any local rain collection laws, and make sure you secure the rain barrel’s top if it has one. Pretty soon you’ll see your water bill start to fall, and you’ll have the peace of mind that you’re helping reduce your carbon footprint.