Adding a rain barrel to your property

Photo © ECV-OnTheRoad

Collecting rainwater for use during dry times in rain barrels or other storage devices, like cisterns, may be an age-old practice, but that doesn’t mean everyone out there is aware of this water-saving DIY. Read on to learn rain barrel basics and find inspiration in other people’s incorporation of this tool into a site.

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 12.18.49 PM

Photo © Megan Funk

When it rains, water hits the impervious surface of our roofs and runs down into gutters (unless you have a green roof). The gutters collect the water from the roof and rush it to downspouts where it either soaks into the ground (you can aide in this with a rain garden), finds its way to the nearest sewer, puddles up, or runs to a stream, river, or pond. Most of the time it leaves your property, leaving you high and dry later when you need to water your plants. Rain barrels can disrupt this cycle, putting water at your fingertips, without having to draw on your local source of drinking water.

owl barrel

Photo © barb howe

Consider this: If you live in a single story 1200 sq ft house, every time it rains 1 inch you can collect over 700 gallons of water. To do this calculation for yourself, visit a rainwater calculator like this one. Various municipalities handle domestic rainwater collection differently. In the past, some would prohibit household rainwater collection in order to ensure that rainwater was finding its way into local water caches, while others incentivize it to help with stormwater management, or drought.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 1.21.29 PM

Photo ©

Collecting that much water at once requires a large rain barrel. The image above, pictures just such a tank next to a tall man. Designing a rain barrel system, however, doesn’t require you be prepared to catch every drop of rain every time it rains. You can start much smaller.

Rainwater harvesting was previously illegal in several states. Currently, Colorado has the strictest regulations, but even there, laws are trending towards deregulation. Some states may require permitting or registration, and other states like California, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and New Mexico offer credits and incentives for harvesting. To learn what is happening in your community check-out this guide to rules and incentives.
pretty barrel

Photo © Field Outdoor Spaces

Some people, especially in places where water is not typically hard to come by, start with just a basic 50 gallon barrel. They pick a downspout near plants they want to water, and drain that single downspout into the barrel. When it rains more than the little barrel can take, the water is directed through an overflow outlet that carries the water out and away from the house. On the barrel above, you can see the spigot attached to the barrel where the homeowner accesses the cached water.

400 gallons

Photo © Susy Morris

Live somewhere dry, and you might want to dream bigger when it comes to harvesting rain. The system above holds almost 400 gallons of water, which, depending on the size of your garden, can go a long ways towards keeping your plants well-watered for a couple of months.

400 gal 2

Photo © Susy Morris

The image above shows how these barrels are connected via PVC pipes from the gutter. These homeowners elevated their system on a small deck so they could use gravity to their advantage when accessing the water via hose. Elevating the barrels helps a lot with water pressure.

Want to be inspired? Check-out this featured site in Virginia which uses a large system of water storage tanks to collect water used on their extensive vegetable and native plant gardens

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 10.49.26 AM

Photo ©

Photo © Roger Mommaerts

It may seem intimidating, but you can buy supplies to easily connect an existing downspout straight to PVC pipe or rain barrel. A quick google search will get you started on the right path.


Photo © AgriLife Today

There are many strategies for adding a rain barrel to your property. Some people opt for one large cistern-type rain barrel holding upwards of a 1000 gallons (see the one pictured above for example), where others prefer smaller barrels scattered around the perimeter of their house creating multiple access points for watering nearby plants. This decision depends on your personal gardening preferences, the layout of your site, and your budget. Typically, the larger the container, the greater the total cost, but the smaller the cost-per-gallon of water.


Photo © Evelyn Berg

It is generally recommended that rain barrels be completely enclosed. This is important for the safety of small children and animals who can drown in standing water, but also to prevent the water from hosting mosquito larva. The open rain barrel above might be pretty with its collage of leaves, but it is also a hazard. Put a lid on it, and take the time to screen-off all the openings to the barrel. Mosquitoes can fit through very small openings.

ice barrel

Photo © Joan

Live somewhere where it freezes in the winter? The best course of action is to completely drain the rain barrel and all the associated plumbing during the winter months. This will prevent any damage to the barrel and the piping that make-up your system.

Adding a rain barrel to your map

Use the rain barrel object to indicate the location(s) of your rain barrel(s)

rain barrel

Photo © Cornell YardMap

Set the characteristics for this object

Once you’ve added the rain barrel to your map make sure to set the characteristics. Click on the object, and open the infowindow to access these settings under “Characteristics.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 12.23.46 PM

Photo © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

For a rain barrel, you only need to set the % irrigation your rain barrel covers. Here we set it to 25% since about 25% of the landscaping irrigation at this site is provided with this rain barrel.

Don’t have a map yet? Start One Now

Need some design inspiration?