Rain barrels

A few weeks ago one of our readers, landscape architect Owen Dell, sent me a link to his blog where he takes on rain barrels. It’s a great analysis of the (im)practicalities of rain barrels and it got me to wondering how many of our readers (and my GP colleagues) use these as supplemental sources of irrigation water?

I have two in our back yard that were made from old olive oil containers retrofitted for collecting and dispensing water. They’re hooked together so that when one fills, the rain is diverted to the second.

We use this water pretty much for watering container plants, especially those on our south-facing front porch that require watering every other day during the summer. The barrels each hold 55 gallons and are always full during the winter and spring. We drain them almost dry over the summer, but even a brief rain results in several gallons collected.

So I think they’re a pretty good deal, since we use relatively little water from the hose to keep our container plants happy. But Owen brings up some valid points in his analysis, as do commenters on his blog.

What do you all think?

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Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

38 thoughts on “Rain barrels”

  1. I live in a suburb of Minneapolis. I installed a rain barrel that I use to hand water some of my backyard garden. I didn’t install it with that as a primary intent, rather I installed gutters on my garage to capture the rainwater that was dumping into the alley and ran the downspouts back to my yard to be captured by the rain barrel. The rain barrel’s overflow is on to my yard rather than washing out to the street.

    The barrel frequently overflows with rain through our brief growing season. I feel great that the rain that was once washing out to the storm sewers is now instead back on ground.

    What I would most love to accomplish is to attach a functional soaker hose to the 75 gallon rain barrel and have the hose run through a small vegetable garden. I haven’t done great research but until I can find reliable information on what would be needed to get a functional soaker hose off a rain barrel, I think I’ll just continue using it to supplement watering by watering can.

  2. I live in Reno and I have a rain barrel that has worked great for me for six years. I use it to water container plants, my compost, and to keep things wet in the winter, when the main water is off to prevent freezing. It seems like Owen Dell is using rain barrels as a straw man to convince people to change their landscaping. If however you have already changed your landscaping and you live someplace where it rains more than once a year you are likely to collect a lot more than one barrel full of water and you might not need the full 140,000 gallons of irrigation. I fill and empty mine multiple times a winter even here in the high desert. The analysis that Owen provides seems more intended to be amusing (which it is) than informative. This sort of screed about environmentally friendly ideas tends to discourage people from making any effort. People make the same argument about bringing your own bags to the grocery store, they take energy to manufacture, they are a pain remember, you have to wash them…If we wait for the perfect solution that will allow us to capture all the water we need off our roofs we will never make any progress. Instead we should encourage people to make whatever incremental changes that they can. Sorry about the rant.

  3. I have two rain barrels (actually they are repurposed industrial plastic containers on palettes, each has a capacity of 1,000 litres/about 265 US gallons) and this has worked great for me so far. As I’m a rose addict I mainly use the water for those roses that need additional irrigation in late spring and summer (e.g. newly planted ones).

    I garden in an area with the least rainfalls in Austria but as Wendy said, where it rains more than once a year you are likely to collect a lot more than one barrel full of water. Owen Dell might have raised a few valid points in his blog post but I agree with Wendy’s rant above, this shouldn’t discourage us from making any effort.

  4. Maybe rain barrels aren’t the best solution for a serious environmental issue (wasting municipal water) but they do at leas
    t get people to think about the problems. Those who are willing to make or buy the barrels tend to be more interested in environmental issues than the general populace and just might come up with even better ways to prevent the loss of all that precious and free water from the sky.

  5. In the west, it would be worth gathering water just to take care of your acid loving plants as your tap water runs extremely alkaline.

    That said, if you want to be read your blog must contain contraversy. That would appear to the main point in attacking the humble water barrel.

    However, there is a valid point in presenting the real environmental results of something like this. People use the purchase of such products appease their conscience while, for the most part, maintaining their consumptive life-styles that are at the heart of our growing environmental assault. Every time I go to the recycling center I’m amused, angered or bemused (depending on my mood) by all the unnecessary products, such as bottled water, that people feel good about recycling- either the broken product itself or the container it came in.

    I bought a house in southeastern NY that has it’s own underground cistern that provides about 500 gallons. Because of summer rain, that’s generally enough to get me through drought. It is uphill from my vegie garden so it requires no grid power to use- my well uses electricity.

  6. From reading Owen’s piece, I suspect that he doesn’t own any rain barrels himself. They’re not the answer to an entire property’s irrigation needs (and the guy from Hayneedle who suggested he look into a cistern system wasn’t not getting the point; he was making a reasoned and reasonable response to a silly question), but they can provide valuable supplemental water, and as others note, that’s water that stays onsite and out of storm drains. We have a water barrel at our community garden, and it’s quite helpful; it doesn’t store and give us all the water the garden needs, but with careful watering (right over each plants roots, rather than a blanket spray over the whole garden) we get good results. We also use water we pay for, when the barrel runs dry. The garden is run on a shoestring budget, so any free help we get from the sky is useful.

    We empty our rain barrel for winter and rinse it out before using it each spring. The ‘first storm’ argument seems silly. The mosquito screen has worked fine for three years, and we anticipate no problems with it for a long time to come; it’s plastic, and it’e also easy to clean. Our biggest problem is in getting enough water pressure in the hose. The barrel sits on a slope about 6′ above the garden, and we only get a trickle (we have a bunch of patient gardeners). Raising the barrel up on a higher platform will help with that problem, but if someone could develop a nice little solar-powered pump for a water barrel system I bet they could make a mint.

    Rainwater harvesting systems on a larger scale are viable, so are much smaller scale above-ground rain barrel systems. One size doesn’t fit all landscapes in any scenario, and that goes for watering issues too. Water is a valuable commodity; we should look for practical ways whenever possible to conserve and use it sensibly. Water barrels are one viable tool in the tool kit.

  7. I LOVE my rain barrels–we have 6 (down from 7). Here in Florida, we average 50 inches of rain per year, but it’s uneven–7 dry months through the winter when it’s our best season for growing vegetables. Last October, which is not a dry month, we had no rain at all.
    I think some of the problems with rain barrels is that they are sold like a fairy tale–get one and you’ll live happily ever after, but there’s more to them than that. See my three articles with extreme details starting with this one: http://www.sky-bolt.com/Rainbarrels.htm. I particularly appreciate my 3 elevated barrels near the vegetable beds so I can irrigate with a hose.

  8. Just an additional thought. The rain barrels I have I did not buy. They were repurposed. I will have a third one this growing season a repurchased good grade garbage can.

  9. I should have added that the point of toxic runoff from the roof seems almost completely specious. First of all, it’s a statement without evidence and secondly, by the time the growing season comes around the barrel should be flushed many times by new water off a well rinsed roof.

  10. I have a rain barrel on the northeast side of my house. There is really no environmental reason for this – I live in a forest in the Northeast with a private well and adequate rainfall. I have and use it because I’m lazy, you see. It is located in a convenient spot for watering my containers on my porch without dragging heavy hoses around. And if I lived in the desert I would grow rocks.

  11. I have a rain barrel here in Los Angeles but I’d be the first to admit it’s kind of silly. Rain barrels make more sense in a climate with year round rainfall where you can bridge gaps. Here it rains all at one time of the year. You’d need a huge cistern to make a difference (what ancient Roman villas had, actually).

    What makes more sense to me, at least in a dry climate, is simple earthworks that help slow runoff. A good mulch layer can also help retain water. Combine these simple solutions with drought tolerant plants and it’s surprising how lush a landscape you can create. We’ve got pomegranates, cardoons, prickly pear cactus and lots of flowering plants growing on almost no supplemental water.

  12. I also have a repurposed olive barrel that I attended a county workshop to make. I see no downside–it keeps runoff out of the Chesapeake watershed, and it provides supplemental water to my garden–saving me money. I actually need one or two more, as I have to drain it into
    my yard after one hard rain. Though I live in a 9900 sq ft house, it fills quickly. In summer, the water can become stagnant before I use it all, when I need to use a hose to efficiently water, and I use Bt rings to prevent mosquitoes. Now if someone can invent a pump so I can water more easily with it, it would be perfect!

  13. I have a rain barrel and intent to get at least one more this year. I have several large fish tanks and the weekly water changes provide plenty of water for the rain barrels. As an added bonus – used aquarium water in enhanced with nitrogen containing fish waste!

    Like many of the commenters I use mine to water pots (both inside and out!). It’s easier to fill the barrel than to fill a bucket, haul it around to water containers, fill the bucket again…

  14. Well now I have a new reason not to clean my gutters. With all the leaves, I am creating a great batch of compost tea!!

  15. Here in Greece water barrels were kinda impractical as there were months going by during the summer without a drop of rain and, as Owen calculates in his blog post, huge quantities should be stored at the start of summer without refilling in between. However, there is an increased rainfall frequency in the summer months for the last 4-5 years (last summer we had the 2 o clock noon storm that would shower real hard for 30 minutes and then clear instantly) and this refills rain barrels many more times than they used to. Looks like we’re getting closer to the tropics…

    In my father’s house, built around 1930, there was an underground cistern (“sterna” in Greek) like in all the other houses in that village. They too let the first autumn rains wash the roof tiles and collected water all winter long. My father took samples of water twice every year to labs for testing and it was safe not only for watering plants but for drinking as well. Public water supply arrived there sometime in the 80s and during the summer months treated salt water was added in the system when the demand was high. This cistern needed some maintenance every 2-3 years, as nearby pine trees opened small cracks in the cement wall with their roots, but that wasn’t much trouble. This same cistern now can water 6 olive trees, 2 almond trees, 3 lemon trees, 2 orange trees and a flower garden during the summer months, getting some help from summer storms (it’s not used for drinking anymore).

  16. I say rain barrels don’t go far enough. Bring back cisterns! Mine has never needed repair in the last 20 years and probably not in the 80 years it has existed.

    Get all those unemployed construction workers building cisterns.

    OK, I’m being a bit whimsical, but it’s worth looking into if Owen wants to do some useful number crunching. These are relatively simple structures and could probably be made from recycled plastic, especially if they were just for landscape use.

  17. One purchased rain barrel to water 35 containers and one birdbath in zone 5. It keeps up until a drought. I’m asking for a 2nd barrel for Mother’s Day.

  18. As others have mentioned, Owen doesn’t calculate that the rain barrel(s) will fill up more than once a year. I have one which I also use mainly for container plants and the compost bin. And as others have mentioned I am at least keeping the runoff in my yard instead of into the street which runs rather quickly into a part of Puget Sound which is an estuary. I am planning on getting a second one to place on the opposite of the house as soon as the shrubs growing there would cover it. I have been in this house 5 years and in another couple of years after my plants are established, I will be watering less anyway since I am planting mostly drought tolerant trees shrubs and perenials.

  19. In some ways Owen is right: buying stuff very rarely enviromentally friendly. This is true for cars as well, no matter how hybrid is what you get, you’re better off using your old one some more years.
    And of course it is a good habit, to raise question about stuffs like these, because your instinct lots of times can steer you wrong. I highly recommend this TED video for everyone who is interested in topics like this: http://www.ted.com/talks/catherine_mohr_builds_green.html

  20. But I agree with most of you, rain barrels can be useful as well. Tap water might be far away, or simply polluted, so having a barrel of water for the delicate stuff can come handy. In some ways filling it up with tap water might be wise as well (during drought periods), to let the chlorine decay a bit before using the water.

  21. I thought the piece was terrible for two reasons. First, the presumption that everyone lives in Southern California and second, that everyone has a large lawn that needs watering. I’ll take my rainbarrels that fill throughout the year and allow me to pull less water out of our local watershed which helps the endangered fish stocks.

  22. Hi all,

    Thanks for the lively discussion. WIthout getting into a long rebuttal (the original piece was long enough!), I just want to reiterate my main point, which none of the commenters really refuted with any hard evidence. That point is that a little bit of rainwater in a barrel is nothing more than a token effort and probably makes little or no positive impact on either the garden or the environment when you take into account the impacts of creating and disposing of the barrel. While a barrel may indeed be convenient, and yes it can certainly be nice to have a little rainwater for one’s potted plants, it is not an environmentally sound strategy. If anyone has hard facts to go up against mine, I’d love to see them. If not, it’s all emotion, isn’t it? I’d love to see people put this kind of energy into real solutions instead of toys. Sorry to be so intemperate about this, but the numbers don’t lie.


  23. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I think the effort that goes into installing and using rain barrels is a practical one. The water that is captured in the rain barrels would normally run off and wash away. Is it a lot of water that you are saving? No. Are you going to be able to unhook your pipe from the city supplied water? No. Will your water bill decrease? Yes. I have four rain barrels that I intensively use during the summer months. They supply me with water enough to water my plant containers and to give my garden a drink during drought periods. I find them very helpful. The point is not to gauge their effectiveness based on being able to water the entire yard and garden, but to appreciate the fact that they capture water which can be used in addition to the water supplied by your jurisdiction. The effects are not grand if you measure by individual, however the effects are extraordinary if you measure collectively.

  24. Owen,
    We used all surplus barrels (from a bottling plant), so our using them as rain barrels actually keeps them from the landfill for a decade or more.
    The other big positive about rain barrels, where there is actual rain, is that they keep more water
    out of the storm drainage systems and therefore cut down on the residential non-point source pollution of our waterways. Even more rainwater will be retained and be allowed to percolate into the strained aquifers with the use the rain barrels in conjunction with rain gardens. EPA has lots of statistics on the problems of non-point source pollution.
    I say anytime you get people to think about being responsible about their water use, and rain barrels do that, the better it is for our limited potable water supply. Maybe it’s emotional, but we need to start somewhere. We’ve been wasteful for too long.

  25. As far as the environmental impact of manufacturing rain barrels and disposing of them. First, they last a long time if cared for properly. Second, most are recyclable. And third, the manufacture of them is, of course, an issue, but there are many other things without these potential benefits that could be marked off the list. If you wanted to reduce your carbon footprint, use glass storage containers instead of plastic ones. Now, you have evened the playing field to buy a rain barrel.
    Here are a few links that offer calculations on water savings:


  26. i think the reason why people get caught up in emotional responses, is that the original argument was not serious or rigorous. as people have pointed out above, the original poster compared a barrel’s capacity to total water usage. its essentially meaningless.

    a real analysis would have to factor in the roof’s capture ability, season watering vs. seasonal rain. etc etc.

  27. Four thoughts: 1) If it’s raining enough to fill your rain barrel, the rain is also falling in your garden, right? So it seems the big issue here is disconnecting your downspouts from the sewer system and routing the water into your ground or garden. 2) Using the rain barrel is a tool to control where that water goes and when.
    3) Using a rain barrel shouldn’t be a substitute for awareness of what it is practical to grow in your area, given rainfall and soil conditions. 4) Re-purposing containers for rain barrels seems like the way to go; I’m horrified by the thought that rain barrels are being made from scratch, but then no one seems to be taking on the environmentally-questionable practice of the manufacture of garden gnomes and other ornaments.

  28. I grew up among subsistence farmers who had surpluses of some things but were cash poor. Barrels cost money so were used only for valuable things like kerosene.

    So they all used cisterns to capture rain water.

  29. I think he has a very valid point about non-recycled barrels. We use way too much virgin plastic in our environment.

    I also think he is doing a great community service by pointing out the potential dangers of roof runoff (toxins in the dust that washes off the roof, mosquitoes breeding in the barrel).

    I think his all-or-nothing argument is, by definition, self limiting. Shame that he wants us to accept his viewpoint without any compromise or consideration of our own situation and circumstances.

  30. Mosquitoes can easily be prevented with some screening to keep out the adults or to prevent possible new adults from leaving. The screening also prevents tree waste from getting into the water.
    Again, we have 50 inches of rain per year so our roofs get washed on a regular basis and toxins are less of a problem. Owen’s southern California omments do not apply to the rest of the country.

  31. We are a 4 year old Atlanta, Ga based company. We see rain barrels as a great way for people to “stick their toe in the sustainability move ment with out going to the bank. Many of our customers after purchasing a rain barrel will then buy a composter and then some buy a rain tank. One of our most popular items this year is our rain barrel kit which features a diverter that eliminates mosquitoes by creating a closed system. We have also finally found a great solar powered rain barrel pump. In conclusion, everybody has to start somewhere conserving water and a rain barrel is a great place. gene kelly, http://www.therainbarreldepot.com

  32. Owen, how you pontificate! You can’t change people by beating them at a debate, and this one is so trite.

    Rainbarrels are not a big issue- take a trip to your nearest refuse dump and survey the useless or nearly useless products that create the mountains of our waste. Bet you don’t find a single discarded rain barrel!

    Exposing the futility of one of very few purchases that at least has an upside ecologically is more divisive than helpful IMO.

    Most of us just don’t have the time to crunch statistics to prove our arguments but statistics can generally be used to endorse any position when used selectively.

  33. I’ve observed that in Southern California many suburban homes have irrigation systems. I think that’s why the rain barrell doesn’t make sense there. Back East, there are fewer homes with irrigation systems. We still use well or municipal water for lawn and garden, but I would venture to guess that a home without an irrigation system uses less water for lawn & garden. A rain barrel makes more sense in these areas.

  34. I have 13 55 gal drums linked together using all 4 parts of my roof to capture. in florida you can get these barrels from orange farmers they cost me 5 bucks a piece. my dry season is my grow season but I’ve never ran out of water

  35. I just ran across this blog and am looking for ways to implement rain barrels at my school campus which is a middle school in Tampa, FL. I was hoping Andre could tell me where and how he contacts his orange farmers to purchase the rain barrels from. Hope to hear back with any recommendations anyone has for me. Thanks!

  36. If I lived in an area of frequent drought doing new construction, screw rain barrels! I’d have 2000 gallon tanks under the yard and would divert all roof and hard scaping water to it. Rain barrels are nice for container plants or a small veggie garden, but that’s all.

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