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Your Answers to Rain Barrels - To Use or Not to Use

You may have considered a rain barrel for your yard but wondered whether it was right for you. Rain barrels have environmental benefits but there are pros and cons to using them in your garden. This article provides some helpful information to help you decide whether to invest in a rain barrel for your garden.

Linda Holt, Master Gardener

Your Answers to Rain Barrels - To Use or Not to Use

You may have considered a rain barrel for your yard but wondered whether they were right for you. This article explains some of the pros and cons of using rain barrels to provide water to the plants in your garden. You will want to decide whether a rain barrel will fulfill your garden’s specific needs to the extent that will make it worth the expense and upkeep.


A few of the Pro’s for using a rain barrel in your yard include:


1.     The cost of water is going up and the ability to use municipal sources to water your landscape are becoming more limited. Harvesting rainwater may lower your water bill.

2.     Rain barrels are a good way to “maximize environmental value” by reducing run-off into the streets and the pollutants that are picked up along the way that are feeding into our streams, rivers and lakes.

3.     The rain water is a great alternative for the ornamental plants in your yard as well as indoor plants.

4.     This water source can be utilized any day of the week.

5.     Rainwater may contain minerals that are beneficial to plants;


However, there are some cons to rain water usage:


1.     The water is not safe for drinking nor should it ever touch the edible parts of any plants grown for consumption.  The rainfall is collected from a roof / gutter system, the runoff of which may include various “harmful pathogens” resulting from bird fecal matter, rotting leaves, etc.

2.     To collect enough water for your purposes you may need multiple rain barrels.

3.     Some upkeep is necessary to keep your rain barrel in good shape.


Most rain barrels hold around 50-55 gallons of water.  In order to determine how much rainwater you can expect from your rain barrel, you must estimate the amount of run off from your particular roof. This requires a thoughtful determination of the square footage of the roof area multiplied by the rainfall in inches and a conversion factor that converts the inches of rainfall to gallons per sq foot.  This calculation can be found at: 

Rain barrels can be purchased from various retailers or on-line and come in a variety of shapes and designs.  They can also be self-built.  There are many DIY rain barrel ideas that can be found on the internet if you prefer to build your own.  As mentioned in the above online publication, rain barrels are best dark-colored or opaque as light colored barrels allow sunlight in encouraging algae growth. Rain barrels come complete with a hose guide, overflow tube and screen (to keep critters and debris out) and are relatively easy to install.  You will want to position the rain barrel under a drain spout so that the run-off from the roof will flow into the rain barrel. The overflow tube prevents the barrel from overflowing and directs the excess water to a garden bed or base of a tree. You can attach a drain tube to the overflow tube to reach the area of the garden that you wish to receive the water.


Cleaning a rain barrel should be done annually in the fall when they are removed and stored away for winter, however, you may need to do it more frequently if they grow algae and get smelly.  You should drain the barrel and remove any remaining debris.  Scrub the inside of the barrel with a long-handled brush using water and detergent then rinse thoroughly.


Including a rain barrel in your landscape may be just the answer to your irrigation concerns.  The University of MN extension department has a handy article for you to peruse when giving consideration to this subject.  You will find additional information at:

Photo credits: University of Minnesota (1, 2)


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