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Save Money (and Water!) With a Rain Barrel

Written by Matt Jabs - 64 Comments

Installing a rain barrel is an excellent way to reduce runoff, keep storm water out of the municipal system, and save money. Pure rain collected from your rooftop has relatively few contaminants, and is perfect for a variety of outdoor uses.

The idea of harnessing rainwater has intrigued me for years now, but I’ve never gotten around to implementing it. That is, until a few weeks ago when I stumbled on a promotion for heavily discounted, professionally crafted rain barrels. I was smitten!

Why you should use a rain barrel

What follows is a list of some of the advantages of using a rain barrel:

  • Rainwater is free. Using rain water will reduce your water bill. If you have “city water,” you pay your municipality for supplying the water based on your usage level. If you have “well water,” you pay for the electricity to run your water pump. Rain barrels
  • Rainwater can reduce your sewer bill. Because many cities base your sewer bill on your water consumption, rain barrels can provide additional savings. In such cases, your only real alternative is to have a separate water meter installed for your outdoor spigots. A rain barrel is much, much cheaper.
  • Rainwater is natural and useful. It’s soft, free of dissolved minerals, and chlorine free. In other words, it’s great for use on your plants, garden, lawn, and for washing vehicles.
  • Rainwater usage is sustainable. Collecting rain water for use around my home is no different than the concept of harnessing wind power for electricity. Use of naturally occurring systems reduces the load on our existing infrastructure. I’m not a tree hugger, but I am interested in a more intelligent system.

Rain barrels are a simple, inexpensive, and practical way for us to save money, reduce our environmental impact, and increase our independence from established municipalities. Whether you live in the city, the country, or the suburbs, you too can use and benefit from a rainwater collection system.

Why municipalities want us to use rain barrels

Rainwater collection systems don’t just benefit individuals — they benefit local communities, as well. This is especially true in areas where storm sewers and sanitary sewers are still combined; by collecting rainwater, you can reduce the load on your local water treatment facilities.

In addition, 40% of the water that people use during the spring, summer, and fall goes into such outdoor applications as washing cars and watering lawns and gardens. As such, rain barrels can reduce demand during peak months.

Where can you get rain barrels?

Given the above, it’s not too surprising that many municipalities are selling truckloads of rain barrels with little or no markup. If you’re curious about this possibility, contact your local government to see if they’re doing something like this. I purchased 2 rain barrels for $48 apiece. At retail prices, these would’ve cost me around $150 apiece!

If you’re not as lucky as me, you still have some options:

  • Make your own rain barrels. I won’t delve into the necessary parts, tools, and instructions that you’ll need if you go this route. Instead, I’ll provide you with this links to a downloadable pdf with instructions on how to build your own. Unless you find a great deal like I did, I’d suggest going this route — the difficulty level is not very high.
  • Purchase retail rain barrels. If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, and you can’t find a deal from your local government, then check your local hardware store. Not everyone sells them, though, so you might want to call ahead to be sure they have what you’re looking for.

Closing thoughts

I’m fired up to finish the installation of my new rainwater collection system! They’re assembled and ready to go… I just need to connect them to my downspouts. I plan on finishing this project over the weekend.

Have you been kicking around the idea of installing some rain barrels for your home or business? With the many benefits outlined above, this is a great time to put your plan into action and realize the idea! Or do you already have rain barrels in place? If so, let us know how you like them.

Published on June 4th, 2009
Modified on June 11th, 2009 - 64 Comments
Filed under: Frugality, House & Home

About the author: is a thirty-something IT manager and blogger who wants to help himself and others get out of debt. He writes about personal finance and debt-free living at Debt Free Adventure.

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64 Responses to “Save Money (and Water!) With a Rain Barrel”

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  1. 1
    DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad Says:

    Great post! Little things can mean big changes and returns. Thanks for sharing.

  2. 2
    Mike Says:

    I’m working on converting my inground pool into a rainwater cistern. Everything thing is working but I still need to come up with an econimical top for it.

    I currently have about 18k gallons of rainwater in it from the spring rains.

  3. 3
    AG Says:

    Hey FCN, nice post here!

    In India rain water is used for small scale harvesting they call it Rain water Harvesting. How are you going to use your rain barrels ?

  4. 4
    Sam Says:

    Has anyone done an analysis on what the payback schedule would be based on average rainfall for an area?

    Where I live in Southern California the average rainfall is just under 13 inches a year. It seems like it would take me a lot longer to get something meaningful out a system like this than it would a person with an average rainfall of say 51 inches a year (4 times as much).

  5. 5
    Nickel Says:

    Sam: It really depends on how heavy your water demands are. Remember — if there is higher average rainfall, more water can be harvested, but there is perhaps less of a need for irrigation, etc. Once the barrel is full, the excess spills over — unless you have a swimming pool cistern like Mike!

  6. 6
    My Journey Says:

    FCN,

    How are you logistically going to use the water? Is there a hose attachment to the barrell?

    I currently live in a condo so this isn’t an issue, but regardless, I just can’t imagine trying to water my lawn one barrell at a time!

  7. 7
    Nickel Says:

    You’ll have to ask Matt about his intended uses (he wrote the article). But yes, there is typically a spigot at that bottom of the barrel to which you can attach a hose, or from which you can fill containers.

    If it were me, I’d use it for spot watering plants, etc. I wouldn’t mess with trying to water the lawn.

  8. 8
    Jeremy Says:

    Just keep in mind that in some places (particularly out west) it can be illegal to harvest rainwater. If you get a big fine it could offset some of the savings :D

  9. 9
    Quill Says:

    I shudder to think of the mosquitoes that would breed in it half the year where I live.

  10. 10
    Nickel Says:

    Quill: When made properly, that’s not a concern. All openings are screened, so no bugs can get in or out.

  11. 11
    Stacey Says:

    We didn’t buy a rain barrel, but made our own with an 80-gallon drum. It doesn’t have a tap at the bottom… we just dunk the water can in when we need to water the plant. There’s a tight-fitting lid to keep out bugs and mosquitos, and we remove the lid when it rains. Our house’s roof runoff runs directly into the drum, thanks to a short pipe extending from the rain gutters.

  12. 12
    Jeff Says:

    Harvesting rain water is a good idea, and is great for gardens, plants, lawns, etc…but with that being said, I would never wash my car with it.

    The notion that rainwater is “clean” and devoid of dissolved minerals is…interesting. Rain drops collect tons of particulate matter as they fall, so whatever is floating in the air (dust, smog, whatever) ends up in the water. In thunderstorms some of the best nuclei for hailstones are dirt particles. And what about when it hits your roof? Is that clean? The last time I looked, birds liked to congregate at the peak of my roof and do their business. That all runs into your barrel. Anyway…go ahead collecting rainwater (where it’s legal) but don’t use it to wash your car unless you don’t value your paint job!

  13. 13
    Kelly Says:

    We have 2 rain barrels purchased from a local township for $40/each! It was a steal. The local hardware store sells them for $100 a pop!

    We have yet to find time to install them, but the hubby devised an irrigation system for our small garden with them.

    Hoping to make time to install them this summer.

  14. 14
    Matt Jabs Says:

    @Mike: Wow…incredible idea! I love it.

    @AG: My wife & I are harvesting rain as well! We’re installing the rain barrels (rainbanks) this weekend. We are placing one on a downspout by our garden and the other on a downspout by our landscaping.

    @Sam: Excellent question! Like Nickel said, it depends heavily on where you are. Another key point to address that I did not mention in the post is the ability to “daisy-chain” your rain barrels, this allows you to harvest as much as possible with each precious rain storm. Also, the average yield on a 1,000 sq.ft roof is approximately 6,000 gallons per inch of rainfall.

    @My Journey: Ha ha ha ha, that’s hilarious. No, I’m definitely not going to carry my barrels around and dump the contents strategically on the garden. :-) Like Nickel said, each barrel does have a spigot attached to the bottom where I attach a hose. Also, I am using them to irrigate my garden and landscaping.

    @Jeremy: Take Jeremy’s advice and check with your local municipality to ensure the legality of harvesting rain in your area. It may not be allowed although this will be very uncommon.

    @Quill: As Nickel said, yes…barrels are covered & have mesh screens over openings to prevent infestation. If you do become infested, dump out the entire contents of the barrel and start over. This will kill all the mosquito larvae.

    @Stacey: Yep, sounds spot-on…nice work!

    @Jeff: The screens in the eaves troughs and over the rain barrel filter any organic material out. Rain water is actually very clean and is excellent for washing cars since it is naturally soft water. Personally, I’m not going to wash my car with it…just irrigate my plants. For washing my car, opportunity cost warrants me to simply drive through an automatic car wash.

    @Kelly: Awesome & congrats. There is something liberating about harvesting & using your own water! It is definitely akin to using solar/wind power for electricity! Best of luck on getting them installed, ours were very easy to assemble, and won’t be to hard to install this weekend.

  15. 15
    Jeff Says:

    @ Matt Jabs: Ok, I’ll give you the fact that the water is “soft” because it contains no dissolved minerals, but the dust, etc. are still in suspension. Unless your screens filter out dust and other airborne particulates that are on the order of 10 microns (1/7th the thickness of a human hair), you’re going to get sediment in the water. The design you linked to doesn’t account for this, so you need to find a way to avoid churning up the sediment if you are going to use it for such an application. That’s all I’m saying here. Until then, I’ll either go to the car wash, as you do, or use a few extra gallons of municipal water. The rainwater that is being collected in my barrel will be used strictly for plant watering.

  16. 16
    bas Says:

    I installed 4 rainbarrels last spring when we had our gutters replaced – one at the front of the house, 2 linked together at the back of the house, and one to catch the runoff from the garage. The city was selling them for $27 apiece. I attached soaker hoses to the bottom spigots and ran them thru the adjacent flower beds – now all I have to do is flip the on/off on the spigot on the barrels to water the beds. Mosquitos weren’t a problem last year – there are screens to filter out debris, and if you aren’t using them to water edible plants, there are rings you can float in them to kill mosquito larvae.

  17. 17
    Chris Says:

    @Matt (#14):

    Actually, it’s quite common for it to be illegal to collect rainwater in the west due to water rights. Colorado just passed a law allowing people who live with a personal well to collect rainwater – before that it was illegal for anyone in the entire state.

    I have been told by our local municipality they are more concerned about agricultural/commercial use than a homeowner watering his flowerbeds, that doesn’t mean you can’t be fined.

  18. 18
    Wise Money Matters Says:

    Unfortunately, as Jeremy mentioned, it’s actually illegal for me to harvest rainwater. I wish I could but Phoenix relies on runoff from this area and there are laws protecting their water.

  19. 19
    Matt Jabs Says:

    @Chris & WMM: Thanks for the heads up gentlemen. Before the comments in this article, I had no idea it was illegal anywhere! I understand limiting commercial harvesting I suppose, but making it illegal for a homeowner to harvest rainwater is another gov’t issue that simply boggles my mind. As mentioned in previous comments, make sure to call your municipality & ensure the legality of harvesting the rain.

  20. 20
    Chris Says:

    As everyone has noticed, water rights on the west coast are paramount. Especially in the desert locals which include Arizona, parts of southern california and Utah is where you will run into this. If you look close many municipalities will post signs showing that water is not potable, i.e. not drinkable, it is grey water. The most private yet best paying positions in California municipalities are with any of the water agencies in which there are litterly hundreds of them. It is how a municipality can limit growth by restricting water meters.

  21. 21
    Zyzyx Says:

    I’d love to get some rain barrels, daisy chain a few together, and make use of harvested rain. A couple big glitches for me though.

    1. I’m in SouthEast Washington. Its the opposite of what most folks think of for the PNW, its a desert here. I think we average 6″ of rain/year. And when it does rain, its not when I need to be watering stuff anyway.
    2. Since it doesn’t rain much, there are no gutters on the house. Bit more of an initial expense there before being able to use rain barrels.

    Still… I love the idea, and if/when I move someplace else, will most likely put it to use.

  22. 22
    KevinatOutOfYourRut Says:

    I actually heard of this from a friend last week. He grew up in farm country and said collecting water from the roof was a routine practice.

    In my neck of the woods it has merit since we traditionally get a good bit of rain, and in most places it’s illegal to sink a well, so the water company has you in a tight spot.

  23. 23
    bogart Says:

    Interesting and informative post, thanks.

    We pay $22/month, most months, for all the water we use … most of it indoors, and with no sewer charges (we’re on septic) (we use ~3,000 gallons/month, though I do keep trying to reduce that). So it’s hard to come up with a scenario where this is worth the effort in financial terms. That said, once my son is older (now just 2), it might be an interesting/educational project to intall and use one or more of these just to give him an idea of systems, inputs, outputs, etc. So there could be other sorts of value added.

  24. 24
    Matt Jabs Says:

    @bogart: Great point. Educational projects for kids are always a good idea, especially lessons in economics, self-reliance, & sustainable living. I say especially because none of these subjects are adequately taught (if at all) to the vast majority of children growing up in the States today.

  25. 25
    daizy Says:

    I was listening to NPR earlier this week and they were talking about the restrictions on rainwater harvesting being slightly loosened in Colorado. They said the restictions have a lot to do with Native American water rights. They also said it was illegal in Utah and Washington. I have not heard of it being illegal in Phoenix.

    I live in Tucson,AZ and it is actively encouraged. I get all of my water except drinking/cooking water from rain I collect off of my garage. Even with less than 12″ a year I get all that I need with 1500 gallons of storage space although I must add that I am a super-water-conserver living in an RV. A little bleach in the water keeps the water clear and mosquito free.

    Drilling a well costs around $35k. Some neighbors have wells others haul their water or have it delivered. I am the only one in my area that I know of who relies almost solely on rainwater. People just can’t believe it when I tell them.

  26. 26
    Matt Jabs Says:

    @Daizy: nice to hear from someone who is already harvesting. Glad to know it is working so well for you, keep up the good work!

  27. 27
    CL Says:

    Another water-saving idea: dual flush toilets. Widespread in Australia, but I think I have yet to see one in the US.

    http://home.howstuffworks.com/.....toilet.htm

  28. 28
    WIse Finish Says:

    I am interested in hearing about ways to hook rain barrels up to an irrigation system, such as a low-pressure soaker-hose system. This is the ultimate in conservation: rain barrel collection of free, natural rainwater along with very effective distribution of that water directly to your garden. I hope to feature an article on my site about this in the future, but if you know of any resources, please share!

  29. 29
    mbhunter Says:

    Some municipalities (like ours) charge a minimum fee for water, and a per-gallon charge if you go over that limit (which for us is pretty high). So I wouldn’t save any money right now, but the other benefits are good.

  30. 30
    Matty Says:

    I bought my rain barrel from Eagle Peak – for $30. They sell recycled 55 gal. food container barrels.

    Website here: http://www.epcontainers.net/id10.html

  31. 31
    Matty Says:

    @CL – we have a dual-flush toilet installed in our house here in Washington DC. They’re few and far between in the states, but catching on!

  32. 32
    Sean Says:

    In some cities (such as Denver) it is illegal to use a rain barrel. I think that it’s crazy to try and enforce this but it is true. Might be a good idea to check into your city code for this unless you’re like me, stick it to the man!

  33. 33
    Matty Says:

    @Sam – I can’t remember where I read it, but I THINK I remember an article saying that 1 inch of rain equals approximately 60 gallons of rainwater off of an ‘average’ single family home roof. Kudos to anyone that can find the proof, but to me it doesn’t seem all that unreasonable when I think about how much water comes pouring off a roof during a rain-storm.

    Sooo… even if you only get 13 inches of rain a year, that’s plenty of full rain barrels!

  34. 34
    Zyzzyx Says:

    @Matty (and others) –

    Basic calculations for a 2000 square foot roof area to gather gives 1246 gallons.

    2000 sq ft = 288,000 sq in
    288,000 sq in x 1″ rain = 288,000 cubic inches of rain
    At 231 ci per gallon, that gives the 1246 gallons.

    Or, if you just want to look at how much per area, you get .62 gallons per square foot per 1″ of rain.

  35. 35
    Juggling Frogs Says:

    We love our rainbarrels. They have paid for themselves in a year, and then some.

    For the mosquitoes, try goldfish:
    http://blog.jugglingfrogs.com/.....arrel.html

    Alternatively, BT mosquito dunks are reportedly safe for children and pets (though you shouldn’t drink the water) and don’t use chemicals. They use a mosquito-killing bacteria naturally found in soil.

  36. 36
    Lindsay Says:

    Thanks for the info. This is something I’ve been wanting to do but haven’t done yet. I’ll have to get to work on this!

  37. 37
    chris Says:

    Funny you guys are all trying to conserve water I spend all year trying to keep it out of my basement and away from my foundation with sump pumps…

    During the winter melt/spring rainy season my 1/2 horse sump pump runs every 60 seconds….I’d need an absolutely massive cistern to store all of that water.

  38. 38
    Juggling Frogs Says:

    @chris: Actually, rain barrels are part of our dry-basement strategy. Keeping the water away from the outside foundation is another reason we like rain barrels.

  39. 39
    chris Says:

    @juggling

    I’d fill a rain barrel in an hour, I have to push the water about 60-70 feet out….

  40. 40
    Chris Maxwell-Gaines Says:

    Check this out… http://www.watercache.com/rain.....rflow.html

  41. 41
    Matt Jabs Says:

    @chris: Sounds like your basement is below the water table.

  42. 42
    Juggling Frogs Says:

    @Chris: Wow, that’s hard-core!

    Right now, we’re hoping for rain, because we’re almost at the point of needing to use the house-spigot!

    Where do you live that you get so much water?

    We’re in Boston. Sometimes the rainbarrels overflow, but I try, if I’m home, to fill up a bunch of (gleaned from other people’s recycle bins) modified 2.5 gallon plastic “bottled water” containers. They were meant not to be refillable, but I cut large holes where the pinhole was, and close them off with metal jar lids, which have glue-gunned corks on them, to keep in place.

  43. 43
    Nic Says:

    What kind of pressure do you get from the spigots at the bottom?

    We’re going to be moving into our first house later this year. I would like to setup a 3 barrel staired daisy chain system for use in the veggie garden next year. It seems like it could be tricky to water the garden if the pressure is really low.

    Has anyone tried setting these kind of barrels up into a drip irrigation system? rather than spraying?

  44. 44
    Gwen Says:

    “They’re assembled and ready to go… I just need to connect them to my downspouts.” THAT is the part I’d like to be able to read more about. When I’ve researched rain barrels, the whole interface-with-the-downspout part is always glossed over. I need step-by-steps!

  45. 45
    Carlos Says:

    I got my rain barrel from these guys:
    http://www.farmtek.com

  46. 46
    Elearning Says:

    @jeremy
    this is very strange, i have never heard such things before. How can one get fine for saving water !!!

  47. 47
    Eric Says:

    I love the idea of a rain barrel but lets be honest you are not doing this to save money. i want you to think about how many gallons of water you could buy for a $40, or more, barrel. Water is dirt cheap, actually cheaper than dirt.
    So don’t delude your self conserving is a great thing and using rain barrels are a great thing but you are not doing it to save money. In my area I could buy 5000 gallons of water for $40.

  48. 48
    Andrea Says:

    I grew up out West, and I can tell you that water rights are a serious business. Nobody should ever buy land without checking to see how the water rights are allocated! If you get your water from a city municipality then it may never have affected you … but in more rural areas of drier states, it is a big issue. I remember timers for showers to make sure that everyone could wash and still not run out of water for other things; I remember alternating one day with a shower and two days with a sponge bath. Clothes that were “doubtful” were not dirty when I was a kid; you could wear them a second day and save the wash water. Letting the faucet run while doing dishes or doing dishes in more than an inch of water in the sink were both big no-nos. Even in cities, you could tell the newcomers from the natives. We would let our grass grow longer, and let it go brown in July and August, whereas the newcomers would water, water, water, and then beef when water restrictions were implemented because the aquifer was too low. Now that I live in Georgia, I am amazed by the profligate use of water. we just ended a drought, and I could not *believe* how long it took the city to implement water restrictions, or how green plant life still was any way. Georgia’s drought looked like spring verdancy where I grew up!

    All of this is a long winded way of saying that the laws against rainwater harvesting in some areas of the West are not stupid, but created out of the necessity of allocating a scarce resource. That said, I definitely use water barrels here where there is plentiful rain.

    @Eric Water is NOT cheap in many area of the country. Here in the east it is incredibly cheap, but natural gas is sky-high. Where I grew up in Texas and Colorado, natural gas was cheap (and regulated, thankfully,) but the minimum water bill, before any gallons of usage were added, was $40-70 per month.

  49. 49
    Eric Says:

    @ Andrea
    You are right I live in the east. So just for fun I went to Scaramento’s Water department website. http://www.cityofsacramento.or.....0Rates.htm
    The proposed water rate for 2010 is $0.6735 per 100 cubic feet of water, this is metered water. That is about 748 gallons. At that rate a 55 gallon drum of water would cost you about 5 cents. Say it cost you $40 for the drum, which if you look at the cost of most rain barrels is very cheap. You would have to fill and use that rain barrel 800 times to recoup just what you spent and that is not counting the interest that you could have earned on the $40 sitting in the bank.

    Again I am not saying rain barrels are bad or trolling to cause a fight, just saying that water in the quantities that we are talking about being able to utilize from a rain barrel is very CHEAP. So again if you are thinking about doing this to save money I would pull out the calculator and do some math.

  50. 50
    Matt Jabs Says:

    The barrels will easily pay for themselves within 1-2 months. Here’s how:

    I paid $96 for the two of them. I have city water/sewer & do not have a second water meter for my outside spigots, so all spigot water use is also counted against my sewer bill. Normally when watering my landscaping, garden, & occasionally my yard, my water/sewer bill would jump from $50/month to $175/month.

    Hence, in my situation the barrels will pay for themselves 2 – 3 times over this summer.

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