University of Illinois Extension

Rain Barrels Make a Comeback

Once a standard fixture at the side of homes, the long-vanished rain barrel is making a comeback, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“By using rain barrels, you are benefiting the environment by reducing sewer runoff, helping your garden and landscape thrive, reducing your water bill, and reducing stress on our water supply,” said Matt Kostelnick.

In nature, rain is welcomed by plants and animals and sustains the natural balance of life. Rain is absorbed by the roots of trees, grasses, and other plants. Remaining water runs purely into streams, rivers, and wetlands.

“In urban environments, the story of rain is a little different,” he said. “Much of the rain in urban areas hits rooftops, roads, or sidewalks and rushes into the storm sewers, carrying anything it picked up along the way. That might include trash, oil, dirt, and other contaminants. Water rushing down into sewers carries these pollutants into streams, rivers, lakes, marshes, ponds, and other wetlands.”

Two major steps can reduce this pollution runoff, he noted. The first is to reduce the amount of pollutants that lie in the path of runoff water. Examples include removing or cleaning up after automobiles leaking oil on the ground.

“The second step is to reduce the amount of water running off into sewers,” Kostelnick said. “Lawns, trees, shrubs, and other plants naturally reduce water runoff by absorbing it for growth. Manually collecting rainwater runoff with a container is another method of reducing runoff.

Rain barrels are becoming more popular with homeowners, especially after the water restrictions and high water bills in some areas of Illinois last

Matt Kostelnick

“This is not a new concept, as people have collected rainwater in containers since ancient times. Rain barrels are becoming more popular with homeowners, especially after the water restrictions and high water bills in some areas of Illinois last summer.”

Rain barrels are barrels that collect water from downspouts on homes. They range in many different sizes, shapes, and designs.

“Rain water is a great source of water from home gardens,” he noted. “It is free, you can use it whenever you want, and it is actually higher quality water than city water. It does not contain the chlorine and fluoride that is in city water. Fluoride and chlorine are not desired by plants.

“Another benefit of collecting rainwater in barrels is that it diverts water that otherwise would collect around the foundation of your home.”

Water from rain barrels can be used for drinking water, but specialized filtration systems need to be used, he noted. Any filtration system that is used for drinking water needs to meet city ordinance codes. Water for plants does not need to be filtered.

“Maintenance is quite low for rain barrels, but there are a few things to keep in mind,” he said. “Mosquitoes breed in standing water so it is important to prevent mosquito breeding in your rain barrel. Cover the rain barrel with a very fine screen and empty the barrel at a minimum of 10-day intervals to prevent mosquito breeding.

“It is also important to keep the barrel covered to prevent children or animals from accidentally falling in. Many rain barrels come equipped with screens and devices to prevent children and animals from falling in.”

Another important factor is keeping the water pressure high enough so water will actually flow out of the spigot. An easy way to think of this is the water tower concept. Water towers are raised above ground to build water pressure. Similarly, a rain barrel that is elevated will create more water pressure than one sitting on the ground.