Waterwise: Rainfall as a Resource

This article is based on “Rainfall as a Resource: a Resident’s Guide to Rain Barrels in Connecticut,” published in 2009 by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Land development brings with it more paved surfaces and buildings (known as impervious cover) and a changed water cycle. Less rainfall and snowmelt sinks into the ground and more water flows rapidly into lakes, rivers, and streams.

Stormwater runoff can lead to increased flooding, erosion and pollution, and decreased groundwater recharge during dry periods.

Graphic: Federal Interagency Stream Restoration Working Group

As impervious surfaces increase, the problems associated with stormwater quality also increase. Stormwater can contain pollutants that threaten aquatic health and contribute to the loss of recreational water. Nationally, unmanaged stormwater is recognized as the leading cause of water pollution.

Conventional drainage methods collect and convey stormwater efficiently into a series of drains and pipes that flow directly into the closest waterbody, but with little or no water quality treatment.

What can a person do?

One of the easiest and most cost effective methods for conserving water and improving water quality is to install a rain barrel.

Rain barrels collect and store water from rooftops. Water that would otherwise be lost to storm drains can be returned to the landscape, conserving tap water and energy. It can be used to fulfill a variety of needs.

Rain barrels are specially designed containers that hold about 40–75 gallons of water. They come in a variety of different styles, colors, and materials ranging from wooden barrels to recycled plastics. Designs include a screen or closed top for keeping debris and mosquitoes out of your rain barrel.

Why use a rain barrel?

In addition to reducing the amount of stormwater runoff that is eventually discharged into nearby rivers, collecting rooftop runoff and using it for other purposes can help to:

  • Control local flooding, especially when used by many people
  • Recharge local groundwater resources
  • Protect rivers and streams from erosion
  • Keep pollutants on paved areas from entering waterways

How a rain barrel works

A rain barrel captures water from the downspout of a rooftop gutter. A spigot at the bottom attaches to a garden hose and an overflow device to route excess water away from the foundation.

The barrel's water pressure is greater when it is full. With an assist from gravity, elevating the barrel helps water drain more easily.

Rain barrels can weigh up to 500 pounds when full, so it is important to place the barrel on a firm, level surface such as cement blocks or pavers.

A little makes a lot: Just one-quarter inch of rainfall can yield up to 150 gallons of water from a 1,000-foot rooftop, enough to fill three rain barrels.


Do rain barrels attract mosquitoes?

Most rain barrels are fully enclosed or have a screen and caulking around the downspout to prevent mosquitoes and other debris from entering the barrel. If the rain barrel is properly installed and maintained, mosquitoes do not have the opportunity to breed.

What about maintenance?

To keep a rain barrel in good condition, use the collected water frequently. That way, storage is available for the next rain.

Before the winter months, drain the barrel, clean it with a non‐toxic cleaning solution, and check the connections. Until you are ready to use it again in the spring, store the empty barrel upside down to keep it from freezing.

If properly maintained, the average lifespan of a rain barrel is 20 years.

How is the water used?

A basic rain barrel is not used for drinking water. That requires larger systems called cisterns, which can be used as a potable water source if the water is properly treated.

Water from the basic barrel can be used to irrigate your lawn, water indoor and outdoor plants, fill outdoor fountains, wash your car, or clean household windows. Depending on your property, the water may not be suitable for vegetable gardens.

Other articles in this series:

Waterwise: The Perspective

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