Rain barrels: I took the do-it-yourself challenge

Imagine putting rain to work for you

A rain barrel beneath gutter drain on side of house.
Rain barrels capture rainwater for use on your yard and garden. They allow you to divert the water to the parts of the yard that need it most, instead of it just pouring out of your downspout.

Preparing now makes sense

While your garden doesn’t need rain now, it is a good time to prepare for the next growing season.
Getting set up now will come in handy later, especially if our state experiences another drought.  When the weather turns warm, using free rainwater can reduce your monthly household watering bills.

The challenge

You can find rain barrels for sale at garden supply centers, hardware stores and building supply chains, or you can order them online, although some stores only offer them in the spring and summer.
A hand cuts a circle out of the top of a blue rain barrel.
I read that even someone with limited skills and basic tools can build a rain barrel for about half of full retail price or less so I decided to try it.
To get started, I searched “building rain barrels” online and found a number of helpful, short how-to videos, instructions and material lists. For step-by-step directions, you’ll want to research out the plans that most appeal to you.

Designs differ, but most rain barrels have these features:

  • A 55-gallon plastic drum that is either new or only contained food quality materials.
  • A large hole in top for the water to flow into, covered by a screen to keep out leaves and other debris. 
  • A faucet or ball valve toward the bottom, where you’ll attach the garden hose.
  • To keep the barrel from getting too full, some have an overflow hole, high up on one side. You can run a hose from that too, to direct excess water away from the house.
  • A stable, elevated base. This helps ensure that a full, heavy barrel won’t tip over.

Patience pays – literally

The total cost of the project will depend on what materials and tools you have on hand.
person sitting on a rain barrel laying on its side, measuring it.
Finding a suitable drum this time of year took some time. After visiting several stores, I finally found one at a garden supply center for about $40. If I had more time, I would have kept looking for alternatives – maybe a restaurant or car wash that was going to take a suitable drum to recycling.
I also needed to buy some basic supplies and equipment: two hole saws (that attach to your drill), a PVC adapter, a ball valve (or faucet), and some small fittings. I got those, and helpful advice, from my local hardware store.
My total investment was nearly $100.  But now that I’m set up – and if I can find a low-cost barrel to start with – I should be able to build a second one for far less. 

It wasn't that hard

The steps are pretty basic. 
For the inflow, I cut a large hole in the top of the barrel. Then I set a PVC adapter into the opening, covered it with a piece of fine wire mesh, and secured it in place with a hose clamp.
For the faucet, I cut a small hole a few inches from the bottom. Then I added a fitting, inserted the ball valve and connected the hose.
Mine has a removable lid, to make it easier to clean. Because I don’t have a table saw, I used a reciprocating saw to cut the lid off the barrel. For safety, I braced the barrel against something solid so it wouldn’t turn as I made the cuts.
Mine had a small overflow hole fitted with an adapter and a small hose, to keep any excess water away from the house.

Was it worth it?

Yes, yes and yes. That evening, the sound of rain brought a smile to my face.  I checked on my rain barrel the next morning and was surprised to find it was already several inches full.  Pretty satisfying to see that it all worked as it was supposed to.  Since we’re entering the winter season, I’ll empty it and store it away for now.  But when spring comes, watering with rain water will be a real pleasure.