How NOT to Install a Rain Barrel

How not to install your rain barrel Round rain barrels are better than square ones — the corners of square barrels can crack. All images in this post: Guy Paul Swenson

Learn from me. Don’t make the mistakes I made when I installed my first rain barrel. It’s not as simple as you might think!

I bought my home in 2011, just as a record-hot Texas summer was getting underway. I wanted to catch every drop of rain I could, so I bought some rain barrels. It seemed like a simple operation to set one up. An open container catches rain falling from the sky. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right? 

Well, let me give you the benefit of what I learned — not to do.

1. Don’t get a square barrel.
I thought if someone manufactured square rain barrels, they must be OK. But after dealing with several of them splitting, cracking, and leaking at the corners, it dawned on me that the pressure of 55 gallons of water is better distributed in a round barrel. Here’s a picture of one of the square rain barrels that gave me so much trouble. (I still have one square one left.)

Square rain barrel

2. Don’t think you can cram a rain barrel in your sedan. Since the 55-gallon barrels I bought wouldn’t fit in my Nissan Altima, I had them delivered. To avoid shipping charges, I bought other items I needed. The square rain barrels I bought from a big-box store were about $75. By the way, 50-60-gallon drums run about $50-$120 online.

3. Don’t rely on the hoses, spigot, clamp, washers, and nuts packaged with many rain barrels. The quality is notoriously poor. You’ll have the most flexibility if you choose a setup with a spigot that can hook up to a garden hose.

I thought I could replace all the hardware, or make my own rain barrel out of a drum — there are plenty of them for sale on Craigslist — but that gets expensive. And it’s complicated by the fact that garden hoses don’t follow standard pipe thread sizes for plumbing, making it difficult to match nuts, bolts, and clamps.

Eventually, I replaced one of my square barrels with one I found on Craigslist for $65. A welder made it from an old tin drum. The spigot is welded to the barrel with a sturdy shut-off valve (adaptable to standard garden hoses).

Tin rain barrel

4. Top off your barrel with a mesh screen to keep mosquitoes from nesting, critters and pets from falling in, and to prevent twigs and leaves from clogging the spigot. Especially if your downspout goes directly into the rain barrel, a screen acts as one last filter.

Oh, and opt for an overflow valve. This lets you attach a hose to direct overflowing water. Otherwise your barrel might capsize!

5. Don’t forget to elevate the rain barrel. It hadn’t occurred to me that using the spigot on my rain barrel required force to make the water flow. In the absence of a pump, that meant help from gravity. I’m here to tell ya, there needs to be a pretty substantial height difference to get the flow of the water going or it’ll just trickle out. My barrels needed to be at least 18 inches off the ground to get a good stream. Unfortunately, by the time I figured this out, I had the gutter guys out to my house four times to adjust my downspouts. Grrr.

6. Don’t let it slant. The supporting surface under your rain barrels should be level and strong. I learned this the hard way, too: There’s nothing like trying to set everything upright in the middle of a thunderstorm with the downspout gushing water at the mud around your feet. It was like an “I Love Lucy” episode.

Also, the support base should exceed the perimeter of the barrel a bit. Before I figured this out, the barrels kept splitting.

Split rain barrel

7. Don’t expect water bill savings. Unless you have a huge rain collection system (and perhaps even if you do), you’re not likely to see savings on your water bill. But there are some ways that rain barrels save you money.

  • They divert water from your foundation, preventing costly repairs.
  • They ease erosion of creek banks and provide relief from flooding caused by runoff.
  • You can use less soil amendments and fertilizers on plants watered with rainwater (and kill fewer plants!) because rain helps stabilize the pH in soil.

You may be eligible for a rebate on the cost of your rain collection system from your city or municipality. I got $27.50 in rebates from the city on each of my first two rain barrels by purchasing them from an approved retailer. In my city, that info is listed on the utility provider’s website.

Note: In some places it’s illegal to collect rainwater because the government claims the rights to it. So make sure you’re allowed to save rain before buying them. 

Collecting water in barrels is only one of the ways I could make use of runoff. Eventually I moved one of my barrels to make way for a rain garden. (But that’s another story.)