Rain Barrels

Rain barrels are containers for collecting rainwater from rooftops. They allow you to save your stormwater runoff so that you can use it for things like keeping your lawns, gardens, plants, shrubs and trees healthy, especially during times of drought.

Using rain barrels helps reduce the amount of potable water needed for watering plants. It also adds capacity to city storm sewer systems by capturing part of the first flush of a rain event, and reduce the amount of stormwater that runs off into the storm drain system, which carries pollutants into our waters.

We’ve put together a quick guide (and how-to video) on tips and considerations when installing and using a rain barrel.

Types of Rain Barrels

Rain barrels come in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit your needs. The most common types are pre-made, manufactured rain barrels, and DIY rain barrels.

Pre-Made Manufactured Rain Barrels

If you prefer the polished look of a manufactured rain barrel, countless options are available for purchase online or at your local home and garden center.

DIY Rain Barrels and Rain Barrel Kits

You can buy an inexpensive, do-it-yourself conversion kit to turn a recycled plastic drum or other containers into a rain barrel. These kits typically include the parts you need to connect the rain barrel to your gutter downspout.

When reusing an old container as a rain barrel, options include old recycling bins or trash cans, old plastic, metal and wooden barrels, and anything that can hold water effectively.

You can also connect rain barrels in a series to increase storage capacity. Ideally, rain barrels should be emptied between rain events so that they are able to capture runoff from the next storm.

Did You Know?

Cisterns are similar to rain barrels, but are typically much larger, and can be either above-ground or underground. Cisterns are the oldest form of rainwater collection and can be built to a variety of scales. For example, the MWMO has a 4,000-gallon cistern in front of our Stormwater Park and Learning Center, while Thomas Edison High School’s underground cistern can hold up to 110,000 gallons for irrigating its athletic field.

Man pointing at rain barrels.
Rain barrels can even be chained together for extra storage. (Image: Clean Water Minnesota)

How to Install a Rain Barrel: Diverting Water

The first thing to identify is how you’ll direct rainwater into your barrel. Some methods can be achieved with a simple hacksaw or other cutting tool, while others require power tools and some careful planning.

As rain falls on your roof, it adheres to the physical surface it’s touching — starting with the roof, then likely into the gutters, and into the downspout and toward the ground. If you have gutters and downspouts, you can choose to either:

  • Cut your downspout so it pours directly into your barrel (about 6 inches above the top of the barrel); or
  • Install a diversion piece that redirects water to the barrel while keeping your downspout in place. (There are several types of diverters on the market. They can often be found at local hardware stores).
Close-up of a rain barrel screen beneath a gutter downspout.
Rain barrels often feature a screen to keep out mosquitoes and other insects.

No-Gutter Rain Barrel Options

If you don’t have gutters, you can still direct water into your barrel. One method is to place your barrel along the roof/drip line, though this is very inefficient. This method works best when you have two sections of a roof that converge, funneling runoff downward into a single stream. Another option is to use a rain chain, strings or chains that hang from your roof line and into your barrel — something that lets water adhere to its surface as gravity pulls it downward.

Using Your Captured Rainwater

Your rain barrel can be used for many different things, and some uses are better suited to different methods for getting the water out. If you plan on using the water on very particular plants, scooping it out with a watering can or bucket can work well. If you plan on using it mostly for one area or for the lawn, having a hose or soaker-hose attached works best.

Attaching a hose can be done in a few ways. If you do not have a manufactured rain barrel with a premade connection, you can install one yourself. The best option is to install a hose or spigot connection around 4-6 inches above the base of the barrel. Installing a spigot or hose will require some additional tools like a drill with hole-saw bit, a threaded pipe connection to attach a spigot or hose, and a rubber gasket or something else to seal the threaded component with the barrel.

As for how you use the water, that is up to you! Your lawn may need water during times of drought, when the turfgrass is not getting the roughly 1 inch of water it needs per week. Watering for trees and shrubs is another option, as they tend to be under-watered in general. Other plants in your yard or garden work too, though we caution against using the water on leafy-greens you plan to eat, since they tend to readily take in pollutants.

A rain barrel and rain chain near a native plant garden.
Placing a rain barrel near a garden provides a convenient water source.

Additional Rain Barrel Considerations

Rain Barrel Placement

Another key thing to consider is where you will place your rain barrel. You will most likely want to place it near or directly underneath a downspout; however, you should also consider proximity to the plants you’ll be watering.

Lifting for Water Pressure

If you want a barrel that is attached to a hose or spigot, you can lift your barrel up to let gravity create pressure. Approximately 2 feet of height equals 1 pound of water pressure, and getting even 4-6 inches of lift of the barrel can help. Making sure that the barrel is on a solid base is very important, as a full rain barrel can weigh hundreds of pounds. Bricks, cinder blocks, or 4″×4″s work well.


One very important thing to consider is where the overflow water goes when your barrel fills up. One great option is to have another hose attached near the top of your barrel on the side. Similar to attaching a hose for using water, this will require a few extra tools. Installing a hose around 3-4 inches from the top of the barrel and diverting the hose towards plants or yard will do the trick.

Winter Maintenance

When fall comes and frosts occur at night, it’s crucial to disconnect your rain barrel. If you have a full rainbarrel when the temperature gets below freezing for a long time, your barrel may crack when the water freezes. It’s also a good idea to reconnect any parts of your downspout that you may have cut off to make sure the late season waters flow away from the base of your house.

Learn More

Rain Barrels — lakesuperiorstreams.org
Rain Barrels — Minnesota Landscape Arboretum