Many homeowners harvest beans, squash, and tomatoes from their garden.  Some collect delicious eggs from a small

backyard flock. Too few harvest one of life’s free necessities – Rain Water!

We set up five rain barrels at Winding Pathways a few years ago. They are so handy we don’t know why we didn’t start harvesting rain years ago. Rain barrels are relatively inexpensive and easy to set up. Water from the barrels irrigates thirsty gardens, provides drinking water for our backyard hens, and is handy for rinsing off dirty hands and tools when working outside. 

Tap water costs money.  Rain water is free. It’s delivered by nature without chlorine. Too many homeowners swish rainwater down storm sewers and pay their city for tap water to irrigate.

Rain barrels yield free water but also create social and environmental benefits. They reduce pressure on municipal water systems and wells during droughts and reduce erosion and flooding caused by runoff.

A rain barrel is simply a container that collects and stores water falling on the roof. A faucet positioned low on the barrel makes filling a bucket or attaching a hose easy.

They are hardly a new technology. People have been catching and using rain for thousands of years, especially in arid areas. Relatively new are myriads of lightweight attractive barrels on the market, ranging from plain and simple to highly decorative. Most hold about 50 gallons.    Do it “yourselfers” can easily make a rain barrel from a 55 gallon drum and fittings sold in any hardware store.

Most first time rain barrel users are astonished at how much water falls on the roof during even a minor shower. For example   625 gallons of rain falls on a 1000 foot roof during a one inch storm. That would fill nine or ten typical sized barrels, and most houses these days are much larger than 1000 square feet. Even during Iowa’s occasional droughts enough occasional showers fall on our roof at Winding Pathways that we always seem to have water in our five barrels.

What’s Needed to Harvest Rain?

Setting up a rain barrel outside a home that has gutters and downspouts is easy. All that’s needed is the barrel itself, a stand to elevate it, and a way to point the downspout so water goes into the top of the barrel.

The Barrel:   Many websites detail how to make a rain barrel from common materials. Simply GOOGLE How to Make a Rain Barrel and several excellent well illustrated instructional sites appear.   Manufactured rain barrels can be purchased in big box stores that sell yard and garden equipment. They can also be ordered from numerous places online.

The Stand:  A stand gets the barrel up off the ground. Normally a hose fitting is situated near the barrel’s bottom to allow complete draining. We made stands from lumber scrounged from construction site dumpsters. They are about 18 inches tall. Placing the barrel on several cinder blocks is even simpler and requires no carpentry. Remember that a rain barrel holding 50 gallons of water weighs around 400 pounds. Stands must be stout.

The Downspout:   Most downspouts extend from the gutter to the ground. Situate the stand and rain barrels below or near a downspout. Common soft aluminum or plastic spouts are easy to cut with a hacksaw.  Cut it off above the height of the rain barrel so water falls directly into the top of the barrel.  Or, if the barrel needs to be set to the side of the downspout buy a 90 or 45 degree angle elbow from a hardware store and attach it so water reaches the barrel. Be sure to drill a few holes in the joint and secure it with sheet metal screws.

Where to Locate the Barrel. Obviously a rain barrel needs to be located near a downspout, but most houses have several of them.  Put the barrel as close as possible to the garden or wherever the water will be used.

Hooking More Than One Together. Most people start with just one rain barrel and then discover that it fills quickly in just a light rain.   And, it’s easy to use all the water quickly. The solution is simple. Set up several rain barrels in a way that once the first barrel fills water flows through a small tube into the second, third, and any subsequent ones.

Rain Barrel Maintenance. Barrel maintenance is important but simple. Every five or six weeks we drain our barrels, brush the inside to dislodge the slimy material that forms on the plastic, and wash it out with tap water from a hose. Ice can crack a rain barrel, so in late fall we drain ours, turn them upside down for the winter, and put a rock on top (actually the inverted bottom) to keep the wind from blowing them away.

A Caution.  Most roofs are constructed of nontoxic materials, but some may leech toxic chemicals into rainwater.  Most cedar shakes have been treated with chemicals so don’t harvest water from such a roof. It’s best to wait three or four months after installing a new asphalt roof before collecting rain.

It’s exciting to bring fresh eggs into the kitchen from a flock of backyard hens, and another satisfying delight of the yard is the delicious beans, chard, and other vegetables that come from the garden.  Harvesting free rain after a summer shower is another pleasure offered by a wondrous yard.

Rainwater Solutions



 A few years ago Lynn and Mike Ruck, owners of Rainwater Solutions, helped the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa mount a major effort to encourage residents to buy and install barrels they make.    Eager residents retrieved barrels they had ordered from the back of a huge semi-truck, and soon nearly 1000 residents began harvesting water.

Many companies make and sell excellent rain barrels. We use ones made by Rainwater Solutions at Winding Pathways, and they’ve served us well. One of their models, called The Moby, holds 65 gallons while its slimmer cousin, The Ivy, holds 50.

Rain Water Solutions rain barrels are made in the USA of 100% recycled content. It is their mission to work with government agencies and non-profits to use rain barrels as an education / outreach tool for water conservation and water quality issues. They also design, consult, and install above and below ground rainwater harvesting systems. For information check their website at

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