Roll Out the Rain Barrels?

Rain barrels are the de rigueur item for urban eco-hipsters these days. They’re sold in every garden catalog, subsidized or given away by water districts, and touted by virtually every garden expert in creation as a way to reduce garden water use and be more “green.” There are rain barrel community workshops, rain barrel seminars, Web sites devoted to the emerging rain barrel culture, rain barrel discussion groups, rain barrel tweets, and, for all I know, rain barrel users dating services. Progressive gardeners who haven’t yet bought their barrel are made to feel wasteful and negligent for failing to acquire the latest in an endless series of products designed to save the planet. Thanks to relentless marketing, rain barrels are enjoying a potent dose of moral buzz that is fast turning them into a 21st Century version of the Great Tulip Mania.

HOW RAIN BARRELS WORK. The rain barrel idea is simple: Stick a drum under your downspout to catch rainwater and store it for later use. This is supposed to help the environment, lower your water bill, and make your garden thrive in dry times. And to be sure, there’s no point in throwing away rainwater if you can make use of it. After all, once rainwater hits the street, thanks to the highly efficient drainage systems that landscapers put in, it causes urban flooding and washes all kinds of nasty pollutants into the storm drains and thence into our creeks and finally to the ocean. Using rain is smart; whisking it off the property is stupid. So there’s a good idea behind this, but how does it play out?

In the name of water harvesting, intrepid companies have developed a truly impressive array of rain barrels, some of them repurposed from previously-used containers, and most of them made new from fresh, modern plastic. They parade across the pages of garden catalogs and Web sites in a happy fashion show of forms: Spartan repurposed, faux Grecian Urn, faux wood, faux stone, faux ceramic, concealed plant stand, bogus whiskey barrel, real whiskey barrel, collapsible, roll-away, pop-up, knock-down, “mega” rain barrels, “eco” rain barrels, rain barrel “systems.” They come in various shades of green, earth tones, terracotta, robin’s egg blue (seriously), and basic black. alone delivers 897 listings for rain barrels and rain barrel-related items. By and large they’re a homely bunch: Fanciful shapes and ersatz wood grain concealing the humdrum function of holding 50 to 65 gallons of rainwater. But if they really would help save the Earth, then who cares what they look like? After all, we’re in dire straits and can’t be troubling ourselves over matters of aesthetics, right?

YES, BUT DO THEY MAKE SENSE? Rain barrel proponents claim that barrels conserve water, reduce urban runoff, and save money. But is it true? Suspecting that a small flagon of rain wouldn’t begin to meet the water needs of the garden, and wondering if there was even a net positive outcome when the environmental impacts of making and shipping the product are balanced against the value of the water saved, I set out to get to the bottom of the barrel business.

Let’s begin with how much water is needed to run a typical garden. It’s a number that shocks most people, even experienced gardeners. According to the Metropolitan Water District, the average Southern California family uses about 234,000 gallons of water each year. Sixty percent of that, over 140,000 gallons, is used to water the yard. Using commonly available data on evapotranspiration rates in coastal Southern California, the Green Gardens Group calculated that a typical 1,500 square foot front yard on the South Coast with a lawn and some foundation plantings requires around 43,000 gallons of water per year. Looking further into the matter they found that, thanks to poor water management practices, typical water use is 2 to 3 times what is needed, with actual applied water often clocking in at over 100,000 gallons for the same small front yard.

So here’s a question: Which is better, to save 60 gallons of rain water by installing a rain barrel or to save over 1,000 times that amount simply by dialing back the watering to a reasonable level? Keep in mind that changing watering behavior costs nothing and delivers immediate and long-lasting results. In this instance, the mid-tier price of water in Santa Barbara is $4.90 per hundred cubic feet (HCF, equal to 748 gallons), which means that saving 60,000 gallons of water will reduce the water bill by $393 per year. By comparison, that smidgeon of water in the rain barrel is worth just over 39 cents.

What about the practicalities of watering your garden with rain barrels? It’s easy to see that it would take a heck of a lot of barrels to meet the water needs of a typical garden. Going back to that 140,000 gallons of water used by the average suburban landscape, one barrel will supply .00043 of the annual water need, or as landscape professionals say, a drop in the bucket. It would take 2,333 60-gallon barrels of water to meet the annual needs for irrigation. Each barrel takes up about 12 cubic feet, so 2,333 barrels require 28,000 cubic feet of space. The interior space of a 2,000 square foot house with 8 foot ceilings measures around 16,000 cubic feet. If you were to stack your rain barrels to the ceiling, you would need a volume equal to 1.75 additional houses to store this much water.

If you were to place the barrels on the ground one layer deep, they would require 9,332 sq. ft. of land, which is just under a quarter of an acre. Since the average suburban lot size in our area is around .17 acre, you would need 1.47 more lots just to store the water. Oh-oh, it’s time to buy out the neighbors and tear down their houses so you can water your garden. This must be the reason that none of the respected experts on rain water harvesting advocate or even mention rain barrels in their books and publications.

BULLYRAGGING THE BARREL BARONS. Just for fun, I submitted the following good-natured inquiry to a couple of Internet rain barrel vendors:


I have a 7,500 square foot lot, and I use about 140,000 gallons of water per year for landscape irrigation. A single 60-gallon rain barrel will supply 0.00043 of my annual water needs, making it necessary for me to have 2,333 barrels to meet those needs. They will fill almost a quarter of an acre of land if placed side-by-side. My lot is only about .17 acres, and the house and garden take it all up. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you.

Rodger C. “Rod” Buck, Customer Care Variety Specialist at Hayneedle wrote back, “Unfortunately, we are strictly a retail on-line web site that does not get into anything as heavy-duty as you are describing. May I suggest that you check with a local company that specializes in wells and/or in rural cistern tanks?” I guess the point was kind of lost on Rod. The folks at Gardener’s Supply did a little better, and even played along with me: “Thank you for writing.  Our rain barrels are a great way to collect the free water from the sky, but as you have so eloquently pointed out, will not be a complete watering source for your garden. For small gardens, when rain is intermittent, they can be very helpful in aiding your watering needs.  They are intended to augment your watering, not take it over completely…we’d like to offer you a 10% discount. This is valid even if you want to order 2,333 barrels.” Sweet. I’ll keep that in mind if I ever take leave of my senses.

OTHER CONCERNS. Even if you had a one square-foot garden, which is what a barrel full of water will serve for the year, there are some additional issues that have to be looked at.

Suppose there isn’t enough rain to fill up the barrel? Just when you really need water most, your barrel is busy collecting dust and spiders. Not helpful. Not helpful at all.

If the barrel is located in the sun, you’ll be delivering potentially damaging hot water to your plants. Unless you like to cook your carrots while they’re still in the ground, this could very well be a problem.

How clean is the water? The first element in a real water harvesting system is what’s called a “first flush filter” that keeps contaminated water out of the system. You see, all sorts of guck collects on rooftops during our months-long dry season, and the first storm dissolves it all into a toxic soup that’s best sent down the drain. It’s not something you’d want to put on your plants. But the typical rain barrel, lacking a first flush filter, collects and stores the very most contaminated first part of the first flush. Please don’t invite me over for a taste of your rain barrel-irrigated spinach, OK?

Most barrels come with fine-mesh screens to keep mosquitoes from breeding in the water and prevent errant vermin from drowning in it. But of course the fragile screen will be the first part of the system to fail, and few owners will bother to replace it. How environmental is dead rat soup?

Is there a reasonable financial payback for the investment in a rain barrel? If the barrel fills 5 times a year, the annual value of the captured water is a little under two dollars. The cheapest available rain barrels cost around a hundred bucks, which means that the payback time for Santa Barbarans is at least half a century. It’s even longer where water rates are cheaper. In most cases, neither the barrel nor its owner can reasonably be expected to last long enough to see a return on the investment.

And what about the environmental impacts of making and disposing of the barrel itself? How much embodied energy is there in a rain barrel? Where do the materials come from? Is it recyclable at the end of its useful life? And how long could a barrel be expected to last anyway? Unfortunately, hard answers to these questions are not so easy to come by. Plastic is made from oil; we know that much. Although it’s often not spelled out, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) seems to be the material that most rain barrels are made from. HDPE is one of the least toxic plastics on the market, it will probably last at least ten years and possibly much longer, and it’s a #2 recyclable material. Beyond that, not much can be ascertained without fairly strenuous research beyond the capabilities of this poor writer.

GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL. Is it possible to do a full life-cycle analysis on a rain barrel, to determine in hard numbers whether it’s a net environmental good or bad thing? Not easily, given the difficulty of obtaining some of the key data such as embodied energy, lifespan, and the impacts of oil drilling, and then putting it all together in a definitive bottom-line formula. But it should be pretty obvious that whatever the other variables, rain barrels don’t solve the problem of water conservation.

All in all, rain barrels are a washout, another delusional, greenwashed, pernicious consumer scam. Maybe the next rain barrel group should be Rain Barrel Abusers Anonymous. “Hi, I’m Darlene and I have 2,333 rain barrels.” “Hi Darlene!”

REAL SOLUTIONS. What’s a better use of resources? How can you really save water? Well, rainwater harvesting, done properly, is an essential element in a sustainable landscape. And yes, the amount of water you can capture can be impressive. A typical roof will deliver 600 gallons per 1,000 square feet of surface area per inch of rain falling on it. In real-world terms that means that an average Santa Barbara rainfall year’s 18 inches of rain landing on a 2,000 square feet roof will generate 21,600 gallons of water, which (in case you were wondering) is worth $141.00. In a nutshell, there are two basic approaches to water harvesting, both involving the canny capture of roof water.

NON-STORAGE STRATEGIES. One is to let rainfall flow across and sink into the soil, deep watering plants as it goes. This can be accomplished by changing the contours of your land to create low spots, soak zones, dry streambeds, and other concavities that will allow the water to pool and seep into the soil. (IMPORTANT ADVICE: Don’t try this on hillsides or where there is any potential for landslides, flooding of structures, or other untoward outcomes. And keep the water at least five feet away from the house. In fact, check with a geologist, landscape architect, water harvesting professional or other qualified expert before changing the grade on your property.) Concave, water-slurping landscapes are now required in some progressive communities, and properly done they make a lot of sense. Water stays on the land where it belongs, and the larger environment doesn’t suffer from the effects of dumping excess quantities of rainfall into the street. Creating a concave landscape is relatively easy and inexpensive if done at the time the landscape is created, but even an established landscape can often accommodate a swale, dry streambed, rain garden, or other absorbent zone. These are also very attractive additions to the landscape.

STORAGE STRATEGIES. Of course just moving and slowing water only works during the rainy season. Summer is another matter, and the rain barrel idea is a stab at addressing the issue of how to get access to water during the dry months of the year. Storing water does work, but only if you have the space and capital to create a fully-fledged system of one or more cisterns, which are above-ground or buried tanks. Do keep in mind, though, that rainwater takes up just as much room in a big tank as it does in hundreds of small barrels, so one of the big questions is where do you put the stuff? Unlike dry streambeds, cisterns are usually ugly, and they’re expensive, running between fifty cents and two dollars per gallon of storage capacity. That means that storing even 10,000 gallons of rainwater, a small fraction of what your garden probably needs, could easily run you ten or twenty grand. You can buy a lot of water for that amount of money. Back to the question of where to put the cistern, well, you can tuck a lot of water under a deck, or put a tank out on the back forty (if you’re lucky enough to have a back forty), or dig a giant hole and bury the thing. Still, this is clearly not for everybody. But if you have the resources, a big slug of water on site is like money in the bank, keeping you soothed and safe. By the way, with the addition of a pump, a cistern can be used to fight wildfires too, which is never a bad idea in our flammable communities.

For more information on water harvesting, turn to the real experts. Brad Lancaster and our own local genius Art Ludwig both offer great, detailed advice on this surprisingly complex subject. Check out their Web sites for information, books, and other resources.

Oh, by the way, if you know of anyone who’s in the market for a couple thousand barrels, cheap, have them give me a call.


180 thoughts on “Roll Out the Rain Barrels?

  1. Good post. Rain barrels are generally used like a gateway drug, the idea being that if you excite someone about the potential of saving water, they’ll save it. At the cheap, starter end of run-off prevention, I’ve always preferred simply using plastic gutter extenders to direct downpipe water onto planting beds where possible for infiltration.

    I can see that a 55 gallon barrel would not go far in the face of total irrigation needs, but four of them could probably catch most of the water from a light rain event. Whether or not you want to manage that water, or mind that they’re butt-ugly is another question. Having a nice stash of rain water is handy for irrigating newly installed plants. But your post is important, because they simply don’t hold enough water. So, when aiming for zero run-off and/or to start water harvesting, they’re like training wheels on a kid’s bike, if that.

    I wonder if there is a more authoritative water budget source than the Green Gardens Group? I admire their business and work but would not consider them first-principles source material.

  2. Owen

    Thanks for taking this issue on. Obviously they do not contribute in any meaningful way. I think they should be used exclusively for washing ones hair! Rainwater is a beautiful thing.

    There are many methods available to harvest rainwater in quantity. Curb cuts that empty into swales is one method. The City of LA has recently allowed grey water harvesting so home owners are now poised to start collecting water in quantities that are truly useful to both garden and budget.

  3. Thanks for this article. This kind of number crunching is important to make common sense decisions. Where there is money to made (manufacturing and selling rain barrels) combined with the desire of many to do the right thing, we often end up doing worse than nothing. Regardless of the results of a complete analysis of the plastic production costs, life span, etc. it does not make sense. In my city of So Pasadena, we could save lots of water if people just stopped watering the sidewalk. Thank you!

  4. GREAT JOB of explaining why rain barrels make no sense in the typical garden! I know a few folks who grow orchids and use rainwater for their plants as much as possible, and for them it makes sense to save rain in barrels – tho many of them use tricked out trash barrels for a lot less money. Brad Lancaster gave a terrific talk last spring for the San Diego Horticultural Society, and he inspired me to do some contouring on our property and let the rain slowly sink into the soil. Want to save water? Get rid of your lawns, people! Plant succulents and low-water Mediterranean and California native plants!

  5. Excellent article. Brought up some great points. We harvest water from our roof into recycled kitty litter buckets and it actually goes a long way because we have a totally drought tolerant garden and don’t have a single blade of (welcomed)grass. I am the water police in my home and we even collect the water from the shower while waiting for the shower water to get hot. It is so good to know that there are others out there that think along these lines. Meanwhile, I confess that I am in the market for a couple of recycled/used water barrels. Since we do not use any outdoor irrigation, and need so little water, I believe we could benefit from a couple and the water would last us a reasonable amount of time. If anyone knows where I can get a used/recycled water barrel, let me know. Meanwhile, we get by with some old plastic trash bins. Thanks again for an interesting read!
    Judie (inspired in many ways by my cousin Susi Torre-Bueno)

  6. Thanks for confirming what I’ve long thought, Owen. Rainbarrels may make sense for regions where rainfall happens on a regular basis – to carry the garden through from one rainfall event to the next.

    But here, where rains are regular through the fall/winter (hopefully) but then we are dry for the 7 months from April through November, they just don’t make any sense. I’d use the 30 or 50 gallons in the barrel all at once, and then have empty rainbarrels from March or April through November. And when the rain is falling from November through March, the ground is already plenty saturated, I don’t need that water.

    I too have long wondered about the energetics (that includes water issues) of rainbarrel manufacture. I wonder who could shed light on that… anyone care to comment?

    Truth be told, I have several rainbarrels that manufacturers sent me to test out a couple of years ago. They made so little sense to me that they are still sitting, unused in my garden. I’m thinking of drilling drainage holes in the bottom and using them as giant planters. Hey, maybe they’d make good water gardens! Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony!

  7. It should seem obvious that you can’t physically store enough rain water to really be useful in the dry season of a Mediterranean Climate garden to begin to make a dent and make it pencil out financially. I like the idea of using rain water to recharge the ground water table in gardens, and this can also be done with a sort of reverse French Drain outfall for drain lines leading from the house to the street. I do this with all of mine, starting about 1o feet away from the house, and lose most of the water to the garden before the pipe continues out to the curb.

    For gardeners in California with no summer rainfall to speak of, it would make much more sense to recycle the gray water and use it in the garden, because the volume generated is year round, and available for use when you most need it, in the dry season!

    New residential and commercial developments in some towns are required to install a secondary plumbing system which captures gray water, treats it, and then is also reused for landscape irrigation and flushing toilets. The cost to retrofit older neighborhoods with additional piping would also be very expensive, but doing this on an individual house hold level should be a growth industry in California.

    Installing an old fashioned cistern with enough volume to really store sufficient water, is like Owen says, cost prohibitive in climates such as ours, especially if it is intended for landscape use. It makes more sense to use that winter rain water to recharge the ground water table, and use gray water in summer for irrigation.

  8. Owen,
    You’ve made excellent points in this article.

    Water needs are usually much greater than what can come from a rain barrel.

    I wonder, too, about rainwater harvesting in drier areas than mine (Southeastern U.S.). Might we actually be diverting water that is necessary to sustain local natural environments (if they still exist) nearby?

  9. Hello Owen,
    I have long taught in my permaculture design courses that rainwater barrels are very inefficient for irrigation storage. Thank you for the good data and well thought out article that is presented impeccably and with stellar humor as usual…

    I wish to put forward another consideration in favor of barrels or other water storage structures. As most of you may know, there is the looming water crisis in California as purported by the Association of California Water Agencies, the very people that steward the centralized water delivery system for California. They say directly in their public service announcements ( that there WILL be a failure of our system at some point. It truly is a crisis as most people do not store water at their homes other than what they have in their water heaters and refrigerators. The average human needs nearly a gallon of water a day to maintain health. That means that in a crisis and the tap is not working, a typical 30 gallon hot water heater can serve the drinking needs of an average home with 3 people, which is the state average for California, for about ten days. After that, the house would either have to be abandoned or another water supply found. Rain barrels or small storage tanks can serve as important drinking water storage in a crisis, especially if coupled with a good water filter. A few barrels could provide a valuable resource in a time of need…

    Thank you for your good work Owen….

    In growing peace,
    Warren Brush from Rusinga Island, Kenya, March 13, 2011

    1. Yes, we should all have an emergency water supply. I don’t think that roof water is a good way to obtain that water, as long as the infrastructure is working. But I agree that if every household had a barrel or two of potable water it would improve security considerably.

  10. Owen

    Great piece. I’ve been trying to get these exact ideas across to folks up here in Sacramento. Just redirect the water into swales and rain gardens will trap more water in your garden than you could ever hope to see from rain barrels. Check out Slow the Flow: As far as crisis such as Warren suggests, the recent tsunami adds credence to his points, but still has little effect on the landscape unless you live where summer monsoonal rain patterns can recharge you tanks.

    Dave Roberts
    Roberts Landscape

    1. The film is super, Dave. (Well, there were a couple of mentions of rain barrels, but no big deal.) I encourage everyone to watch this film because it really summarizes the big picture and shows how many positive changes are taking place.

  11. HI Owen,
    At Aqua-Flo, we definitely get requests for rain harvesting equipment. While we are carrying some of the equipment, we are not advocating the practice. When you go thru the math, it just does not make sense, in Southern California. There are so many things you can do that cost less, are less obtrusive and conserve a ton more water.

    We are promoting ET based Irrigation Controllers (properly programmed) and the new Toro Precision nozzles that easily replace the standard sprinkler nozzles and will save 1/3 of the water. They have a super efficient hydraulic design that puts the water where it belongs, so you can use less water to get the same effect.

    We are also promoting soil health, with natural and organic amendments, which also reduce the irrigation required.

    Thanks for putting things in perspective so well.
    Eileen Laber
    Aqua-Flo Supply

  12. I’m glad you wrote this. I agree with everything you say. In places like New Zealand where they get frequent rainfall, and then stretches of weeks without rain it works pretty well. I’ve seen set ups where all the water used in the house and greenhouse is furnished by rain and a cistern. When there are extended periods without rain, water is trucked in. It doesn’t work in a Mediterranean climate where such long (and large) storage is required. There is a school that was built in the LA School district about 5 years ago that had a 2 acre (?) cistern built below ground to capture runoff from roofs and playgrounds, but the cost was enormous but will probably pay off in the longggggggggg run where they pay Metropolitan Water prices. But yeah design a garden with a low water requirement, fix the irrigation system, and channel the rain water into the garden to be infiltered. I’ve passed the link on to others. Thanks ‘Ben

  13. I appreciate your article.
    In our permaculture trainings we advocate for rain barrels for certain scenarios. e.g.,
    – reuse of a barrel, when local, in abundance, free and with no other current use (many local breweries and other businesses have stacks of used barrels that we pick up for free)
    – where there is appropriate space for the barrel(s)
    – where rainwater would be useful for use in small scale compost tea brewing or mushroom production where only chloriminated (chloramines) water is available through city mains

  14. Great article, and I echo these are points we try to get across whenever we can. Graywater, at 100-400 gallons per day can provide a much better return on investment and we do use rainwater cisterns to make up the difference at times. But those are generally 10,000 gallons and up. If you can afford it, thanks for making the effort.

    I have found barrels can make sense in other climates as noted previously. Even New England, which gets about the same precipitation year round, can get a lot of utility from small scale storage. West of the rockies where we have long dry periods is the real issue.

    I might add that rain barrels often have first flush devices, filters, and other “headworks,” which can make it easy to add storage later to really make a difference.

    Lastly, even small tanks can greatly reduce winter water use for things like laundry, toilets, and dishwashers. I used to think it didn’t make much difference in the winter, when we have so much water, but was educated by a couple of water district employees who described how much it can affect reservoirs — especially in dry years when the reservoirs are underfull.

  15. I would give up my rain barrels over my dead body. Of course, I live in the Pacific NW, so my barrels are only dry for about 1 month out of the year. I use that rain water to water my houseplants, my trees, & my garden (I never water my lawn; that’s such a waste of water).

    I have seen a dip in my water bill during the summer, and I only have two 55 gallon barrels. (Mine are homemade, have the mesh screen AND a debris collector; and every summer when they DO go dry, they get cleaned thoroughly.) Even my 110 gallons of water (at a time) makes a difference in keeping rain out of the storm drains and every little bit of rain water I can use in the garden is better than the alternative.

  16. As other commenters have pointed out, your post explains why small rain barrels have little merit in climates without regular rain. A reader who grew up in the Midwest or Pacific Northwest, however, would be quite confused at the assertion that the barrel might only fill up a few times a year.

    I was sorry to see that your post took unquestioned the rates of water use in the average Southern California home. My wife and I live in Northern California and have a vegetable garden and use only a 10th as much water annually as you cite in your post (yes, 90% less, mostly by minimizing irrigation). I completely agree with you that the green newbie in San Diego shouldn’t be suckered by rain barrel ads. But a few minutes of thought on the conservation side would quickly lead one towards faucet aerators, a better showerhead, a toilet re-work, and possibly a new washing machine or dishwasher.

    And that’s just indoors. Outdoors, people do water much more than necessary, but the real issue is that we’re growing British lawns in a north African climate (or drier). Anyone who cares about energy or water efficiency (or their water bill) should be minimizing the amount of turf grass on their property, ideally replacing it with beautiful locally-appropriate native plants. For Californians, there are chapters of the California Native Plant Society all across the state: 🙂

    Thanks for the post, I look forward to sharing it with those who have asked me about rain barrels.

    1. Thanks, Soren. Yes, in wetter climes there is more opportunity for the barrels to fill up, and of course less need to irrigate. All conditions are local. Yet I think that even in areas more favorable to rain barrels, they still offer little value for the investment and there are better approaches, as you point out very well.

  17. Thank you. Very thorough analysis. Small steps at best to have/use rain barrels. They lull people into thinking we are actually solving the problem. I got two of them at a deep discount from the local watershed people. I get a buck or two off my water bill from the city for installing them. They back up with ice in the winter which is not good. 110 gallons is not much. I have one feed into the other and a hose that is always “on” that leads out to a border garden that would get watered by the rain anyway. This was supposed to help the health of the river by keeping water out of the storm sewer which drains as-is into the river. I also put in a rain garden. I believe the rain garden was a good idea. Since it wasn’t more than half the square footage of my roof+driveway+sidewalks+patio, the city doesn’t credit the $1.70 to my water bill. But I decided I didn’t want any more government in my backyard, so I’m fine with that.

    1. The problems you point out aren’t the fault of the barrels. It’s like blaming your car for not running if you don’t fill it with gas and change the oil.

      2 suggestions:
      Don’t leave your barrel filled with water or hooked up to the downspout in freezing weather.
      Don’t leave the spout always in the open position.

    1. Absolutely! Rain is distilled water, so it’s pretty pure, other than whatever pollution adheres to it on its journey to the ground. It also picks up nitrogen on the way down, making it a dose of free fertilizer. That’s why your plants look so happy after a rain. Rainwater should be conserved on your property. It’s just that a rain barrel or two isn’t the best way to do it. Swales, rain gardens, bioswales, percolation chambers, soak zones and other earth-based ways of moving and capturing rainwater work really well.

  18. Owen, great eye-opening article. One thing did catch my attention. The article mentioned a requirement of 2,333 rain barrels to satisfy the lawn/garden watering needs of the typical homeowner in the Southern California area who uses 140,000 gallons annaully for such use. I noticed this was written under the assumption that only one single wet/dry cycle takes place in the year. I am from Kentucky, but I realize this isn’t the case even for Southern California. I also realize taking account actual wet/dry cycling doesn’t even come close to reversing the argument back in favor of rain barrels, but with 5 cycles per year, you’ll only need to purchase 467 of them, about the same price as only two new Toyota Prius’ and take up only 1866 sq ft so you wouldn’t have to buy out your neighbor’s property after all. See they aren’t so bad 😉

      1. One more thought on the matter of how many barrels it would take to get one through the long dry season in a Mediterranean climate. Keith Dohn noted that with 5 fill-ups per year, only 467 barrels would be needed (2,333 divided by 5). On reflection, I find that analysis doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The reason is that our watering season runs from around March through November. There is effectively zero rainfall during that period. Therefore, one has to have a full supply of water at the end of the rainy season, because there won’t be anymore for a very long time. For that reason, all 2,333 barrels would indeed be required. So looks like it’s back to trying to get the neighbors to move.

        1. Oh, and there’s one other little catch. A typical house roof won’t deliver enough water in a normal year (or even in a very rainy year) to fill those 2,333 barrels. See the original article for calcs on how much water is available to the average homeowner. The moral to the story? Develop a landscape that is not so water-dependent or you’re simply not going to make it on rainfall, no matter how much capacity you have.

  19. you use the term garden to mean lawn several times in this article. it is a good article. but no one should water a lawn, period. if your climate wont support grass, or whatever shrubs you have in you lawn, it is incredibly wasteful to have it. having your lawn reflect the natural ecosystem goes a long way toward reducing water “needs.” A sump or dry well can be an excellent storage unit for rain water which can be used to water a (real) garden and deep water the soil as well – no plastic needed, just elbow grease. just the amount of water used per family in southern California is disgusting, especially when you consider the environmental cost of getting it there. also, the figures you use for the cost of water should not be confused with the value of water. water delivery is subsidized heavily in this country, which is why we waste so much of it (just like electricity and gasoline). great article to get people thinking about water use and resource management.

    1. Agree whole heartedly about not equating lawn with garden. The article does a disserve to water conserving efforts by assuming that everyone waters their yard. All of my neighbors let their lawns turn brown in dry weather (and they are not eco-hipsters). Let’s start by assuming that people don’t water their lawns, and include that assumption in our conversatons. When people say “but my yard will turn brown”, the answer has to be “deal with it or don’t have a lawn.”

      1. Americans put enough water on their 31 million acres of lawn to grow 81 million acres of food. In areas where rainfall irrigates the lawn, or where people (this is very rare indeed) allow their lawns to go brown, there is no water use. (There is still mowing and other impacts of course, but I’ll save that for a future post.) So let’s start by acknowledging that, your neighbors notwithstanding, lawn watering is THE huge negative impact of gardens in the U.S. Americans use 270 billion gallons of potable water on their lawns every week during the growing season. The facts are with me, not with your assertions.

  20. BINGO!
    It took a highly respected pro like you with some GRAVITAS to to put rain barrels in their place!

    I love the look of rain barrels, they are “nice” for small gardens, but in the long run, the math does not add up.

    Does this mean I won’t install a rain barrel for my clients in Los Angeles? Of course not, it makes a great water cooler for the birds!

    Love ya Owen,
    Shirley Bovshow
    Garden World Report Show

      1. Like most Northern Californians, I would be profoundly grateful if every Southern Californian would install and use 2 rain barrels. Consider the amount of water that could be left in northern rivers where it belongs instead of being shipped south over mountain ranges, if the southerners would even try to hold on to what they already have.
        But, of course, they won’t. They’ll even use this article as an excuse not to try.

        1. Since the average Southern California family uses around a quarter million gallons of water per year, and those two 60-gallon rain barrels will hold a maximum of 1,200 gallons per year assuming 5 fill-ups during the rainy season, or about 0.005 of the total water use, I’d recommend that you be only just a teeny bit grateful. If you really want to encourage Southern Californians to save water, focus on something that will deliver a meaningful reduction.

          1. I think your stand, Owen, is that good things only come from single big perfect steps. The problem with that is that the one big perfect step is not always easy to manage, understand or grasp and therefore is not politically workable until many people have shared understanding.

            Small imperfect steps take people on a path of figuring things out and coming to an understanding. Your response to this will involve some math calculating the amount of energy that goes into creating rain barrels and how the amount of water saved is insignificant. But it won’t include the larger picture – that people start to see other people taking steps to save water; that it gets them thinking about why, and should they themselves do something, and if so, what? They might install rain barrels, but they might also build a swale (as I first did before purchasing a barrel), or they might think about drought tolerant plants. Some will do the math and decide it’s not worth it; others will take the step that they are able to take, however small.

          2. My stand is that we should be doing things that actually prove to be environmentally positive. That is the issue, not the size of the action. Small, truly useful steps are great. Rain barrels are not useful; they are toys. That’s my stand. I’m a big-picture guy and I agree that the overall impact is what counts. What contributes to a positive impact and what detracts from it? That’s the question.

  21. Water is more critical to life than oil, second only to air for life. In some countries people pay up to 40% of their income for water. Yes, currently water is under valued here but your article does little to encourage conservation of this resource. We need to treat fresh water as the precious resource it is and while it is cheap now thinking that will continue is nothing but dangerous. Please reconsider and conserve wherever possible, rain barrels, swales, cisterns, plants and trees all hold water and we need to use as many tactics as possible to honor water and it’s life giving energy. To discourage conservation is a sin against nature.

    1. Your concern is laudable but I disagree with your analysis. The more energy, time and resources we squander on ineffectual pseudo-solutions like rain barrels, the farther we get from a truly sustainable life. I was careful to encourage people to conserve water in sensible ways. Just take the barrels out of your equation and we agree completely.

      1. Water catchment is effective way of conserving water. The more conservation the better, the principle of conservative and necessary use is a permaculture principle. Yes a 250,000 gallon pond is more effective than a 55 barrel. Both work. Some can only afford the money or space directing a downspout to a 55 gallon plastic barrel they found( you need to make sure it help only food) and that is better than not collecting any water at all. We should be educating people that the barrel is only a bulge or temporary stop in their personal hydrological cycle. The permaculture principle of unlimited harvest can even apply to a rain barrel. The water can be used in an infinite number of ways, only your imagination is the limit, even with only 55 gallons of water you can grow life, helping people, plants and animals. Another permaculture principle concerning water storage is that we should catch and store the water high as possible and use it at as many times as possible before it leaves our property. Even starting with a 55 gallon barrel.

  22. You just don’t get it, Owen. While I agree that plastic storage containers cannot be used to store enough rainwater to make irrigation practical in dry season-climates, the act of re-directing even a small barrel’s overflow into the landscape is no less than revolutionary!

    My insignificant 410 gallon tank overflows more than 8,800 gallons into a bio-swale INSTEAD of the sewer system. If a storm causes our sewage treatment plant to overflow into waterways it costs more than $2 to clean up every gallon of untreated spill. The toxic exposure to wildlife, sportsmen, and the environment aren’t included in that cost.

    Incidentally, my 410 gallons of storage provides plenty of chloramine-free water for brewing compost tea and filling my habitat-pollinator pool!

    The mindfulness that comes with managing the limited water in a rain barrel is also a valuable meditation.

    1. Comparing a 410 gallon tank to a 60 gallon barrel confuses the issue. And why do you need a tank to overflow into a bioswale? Wouldn’t same amount of water flow into the swale without the tank? Is there something I’m missing here? Nothing you say refutes my points, so what is it that I don’t get?

      1. For 70 years the downspout that now fills the tank went into the sewer system where it was treated like human waste (+/-10,000 gallons a year). Instead the tank now overflows to the swale. The size of the tank is irrelevant-it doesn’t matter if it’s 410 gallons or 60 gallons. It’s the act of diverting the tank’s overflow from the sewer system that does the most benefit for society and the environment. Relatively clean fresh water now returns to the watershed and the aquifer as it overflows the tank, instead of overflowing a sewage treatment plant into waterways. This CRITICAL in municipalities where storm water and sewage are combined.

        1. I totally agree. I just don’t understand why a tank is needed to divert roof water. We divert all roof water into the landscape as a matter of routine unless geologic or other considerations make it unwise to do so. There are no tanks involved.

  23. It seems you have made two flawed assumptions. First, you assume that your 55 gallon barrel will only be filled and emptied once per year. On a hypothetical 1200 square foot roof, it takes approximately 1/8 inch of rain to fill the 55 gallon barre. Here in Arkansas we get about 60 such rainfalls per year. So optimally we can harvest 3300 gallons from our 55 gallon barrel. Of course reality is less than optimum because many of the 1/8 inch storms occur on consecutive days. But under any scenario, there is much more than 55 gallons available. The other flawed assumption is that you are trying to water your entire yard out of the rain barrel. If you are only trying to water a small flower plot, or even potted plants on your deck, then the barrel is a very good alternative. It is true that cisterns, or rain gardens are more effective ways to harvest rainfall. The real value of a rain barrel is that for a relatively small investment, a link is re-established between an urban homeowner and the natural cycles of the environment. That lost link may be the single biggest threat to our environment in America.

    1. Our climate is very different from yours. Here we get zero summer rain, which means that nature doesn’t water at all during the growing season. That means that we have to either buy water all summer or stock up on it, because there will be no opportunity to fill rain barrels from April through November. For that reason, if we were to depend on harvested water we would indeed have only one opportunity to fill the barrels (or cisterns) and that is during our rainy season. In other words, we need a full complement of water before the dry season begins. So my assumptions are not flawed in our climate. (Except that there is no way to harvest enough water off a normal roof to carry a high water use garden through the summer (21,000 gallons off a 2,000 square foot roof with a normal rainfall year here in Santa Barbara vs. 140,000 gallons required for a conventional, non-sustainable typical suburban landscape)). That argues not for a huge water harvesting infrastructure but rather for more climate-appropriate landscaping.)

      The other assumption you challenge is that of trying to water the entire yard with a rain barrel. The point of my article is that there is no way to do that. I’m sorry you don’t understand that. The second point of the article is that using resources to water a flower pot or two is not justified. There is not a good life-cycle bottom line. I am OK with creating a negative environmental impact (in this case, the plastic used to make the barrel, the disposal impacts, etc.) as long as it produces offsetting benefits that exceed the negative impacts. But rain barrels don’t do that, as I prove.

      I wonder why you need to store water when you get 60 rain events per year? Do you really need it?

      As for the commonly-held idea that having rain barrels is a good consciousness-raising practice for ordinary homeowners, well, I think the opposite is true. Sooner or later, at least in dry climates, people realize that rain barrels do almost nothing to solve the watering problem. They come to resent having an ugly barrel in their garden, and decide that sustainable practices are a bunch of hooey. That’s very bad for our cause. Why not get people on board with something that’s beautiful, inexpensive, effective? Barrels ain’t it. I think all those who are of the “rain barrels help the cause of sustainability” camp should really rethink their position. It’s a very damaging one.

      1. I would argue that if you get 60 rain events a year, yes, you do need a rain barrel. Not because you don’t get enough rain but because you get too much and the rain barrel helps control erosion from the gutter, run-off of pollution into lakes, etc. Heck if you don’t have any plants that NEED water outside, you might be able to use the water for indoor plants, or you can use it to rinse off muddy shoes or dirty tools, or buckets, or whatever.

  24. Thanks Owen for your usual thoughtful and humorous comments. I like rain barrels, because it gives people a sense of the hydrologic cycle, and through that process, a better understanding and respect for precious water. Although most of the “Water Neutral Gardens” I design and build use graywater as the primary source, rain water harvesting is one of the ingredients. Catching water in a storage tank or rain barrel slows the storm water surges and the overflow piping gently distributes it around the garden, filling the micro pores to be used later by plants. At our demonstration garden we used 95% recycled materials for our barrels in series and have manual first flush diverters that keep the water clean. In the case of a serious emergency, I will be able to share this water with my neighbors.

  25. Owen,

    Your article is fantastic. This is the first time I have seen an honest appraisal of rain barrels.

    I will take it further. In Australia, during the 15+ year drought, and consequent severe rationing, 500 or 1,000 gallon tanks became the rage.

    People quickly found out (of course) the amount of water required to barely irrigate their garden was over 5,000 gallons per month. Essentially, for the garden, the tanks were a complete waste of money.

    Nowadays, the optimal solution for water conservation is installing a 500 or 1,000 gallon tank for supplying the toilet and laundry. Depending on climate, it will work for around 9 months of the year.

    Automated greywater irrigation takes care of the garden. Where possible the *overflow* from the raintank is fed into the greywater system to help refresh the soil, and also maximize soil moisture during the spring, in preparation for the hot & dry summer (a regulated downspout diverter is used to prevent overloading the greywater system during storm rainfall events).

    Getting back to rain barrels / cisterns, the most interesting issue I have found is the natural reluctance to actually use the water. If you are in a drought, but had some rain, and the cistern is now full, will you actually use it? You don’t know when the next rain might come, so you hang on to every last drop. Many people end up with near full tanks at the end of summer, afraid that they will run out of water.

    The West Coast fascination with rain barrels perplexes me. They can make sense in the North East (subject to local climate).

    If you really want to get me started on a rant 😉 we can talk about the West Coast’s fascination with Laundry to Landscape and Branched Drain greywater systems. The concept is sold as being easy (no), low cost (yes but lots of labor), and a way of saving water (sort of).

    Why Sacramento keeps pushing a method that is only 20-30% efficient, and beyond mainstream capability, is akin to San Francisco and San Diego water authorities running rain barrel programs.

    Ok rant over !

    Best Regards (I will wave as I drive past your place in about 14 days time)


  26. Excellent rant, I’ve been saying much the same things for a while. This is yet another of those ideas that kinda-sorta makes sense east of the 100th meridian but makes absolutely no sense at all in the West, particularly in California. A lot of the advice we read about gardening is based on assumptions that aren’t true here.

    Some of the comments to this article are based on another unquestioned assumption: that the solution to water problems is more water. In almost all cases, a better solution is less consumption. But that goes against our growth paradigm… oops, that starts another rant!

  27. Hi Owen —
    As the other comments have said — good rant. It’s perhaps a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (no pun intended).
    Some of the great garden traditions relied on rainwater storage — Mughal India, for instance, used central “tanks” (meaning square ponds) as major features in garden design. This made sense because they had a feast-and-famine climate, a very dry season alternating with monsoons that were the only source of water. Making the water a design feature wasn’t the most efficient storage, in terms of evaporation losses, but it achieved dual purposes — beauty and storage. Maybe even more, since ‘tanks’ could be maintained for wildlife and flora. Multi-purpose design is a key principle of sustainability, and ont that rainbarrels don’t meet. Plus, digging a tank just costs labor, which if you happen to be a Mughal prince you have lots of.

    I have neighbors who have serious rainwater roof-harvesting systems, a basement full of built-in tanks, solar pumping, filters, and the works. It makes some sense here in the New Mexico desert, for reasons similar to the above (we even call our July rains the monsoon). But it costs a big upfront investment, and that makes the water too valuable for ornamental irrigation — it’s used for household (with purification), bathing, toilets, and vegetable/orchard irrigation, more often than not. (My grandmother’s house in North Dakota had a huge basement cistern, fed from the roof.) Bottom line, we have to realize we can’t infinitely expand the area of land that we “transform” by irrigation, no matter how lovely or practical the result. It’s a variation on “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle” — reducing our use is the first commandment, not optional, which is still how it’s treated by many otherwise sincere thinkers about sustainability.

    Personally, I doubt the original concept was a deliberate “scam,” but like so much of what we have done to ourselves in the environmental sphere, is the emergent result of the Law of Unintended Consequences. We’ve backed ourselves into a lot of uncomfortable water-related corners, because consequences that our ancestors didn’t foresee are coming home today. One result is that people are desperate for “feel-good” solutions, ranging from rain barrels to bottled water.

    We who take time to do the homework and the lifecycle analysis must be careful to turn that feel-good longing into motivation to do better, rather than make people feel foolish for wanting to feel good. A rant is funny and satisfying, but I’m glad you also include the non-storage option as a guideline in this direction. We need to “grow” the population of serious conservation practitioners, and for that we have to encourage those “feel-good” impulses to mature rather than wither away.
    Keep up the good work.

    (Owen knows this, but for other readers, I’m the co-author of Sustainable Landscape Construction, 2nd edition 2007, Island Press).

    1. Thanks, Kim. All good thoughts, well expressed. And you’re right, barrels aren’t a scam. I will retract that. They’re just, as you point out, another example of good intentions gone bad.

      I’d like to put in a good word here for your excellent book, which you mention. I consider it the best book on the subject that has ever been written. When I first saw it, many years ago now, in a bookstore, I sat on the floor and nearly read the whole thing. I brought a copy home and it sits here on my desk, dog-eared and beaten up from much use. Thank you for bringing facts and rationality to the complex world of landscaping. I rely on your information all the time.

  28. Thanks for that, Owen!
    I was talking to a gardener friend this afternoon. His take on rain barrels is that they can make all the difference in some gardens if you know how to use them. For him, it’s not the quantity of the water but the qulaity: rainwater’s purity and pH. He literally ladles it out for plants that don’t do well on tap or groundwater, and also to flush some kinds of salts from soil. Even one barrel can make it possible to grow things that otherwise would be impossible. Like me, however, he thinks rainwater is way too valuable to waste on ordinary irrigation.

  29. Owen,

    There were many laugh-out-loud moments reading your post. (I will post it on the ELA Group on LinkedIn so we can get some comments from more folks). People here in Massachusetts are very enamored with rain barrels. While I agree with you 100% that it is much better to reduce our water consumption in general or create rain gardens, the average homeowner who wants to become more sustainable needs simple steps to get there. A rain barrel is such a step and while I agree it is not a great irrigation solution (although people do use them for raised veggie beds), it does set people into motion and isn’t that what we need to do? I often see the same issue with composting where people don’t really use their compost. Both of these actions have the effect of creating advocates for our team. After rain barrels and composters – lawn reduction and planting natives is usually next. Let’s face it – it’s a marketing world and rain barrels are helping build awareness for our cause. I do prefer the barrels that are being recycled (ie The Great American Rain Barrel is actually using barrels that had food in them) though.

    1. “here in Massachusetts” is the key phrase. You get almost equal amounts of precipitation every month, including almost an inch a week (average) through the summer. We Californians would regard that as a gift of Biblical proportions. Rain barrels would make a lot of sense where they get re-filled regularly, but in the region described in the article, they are all but useless. Where I live, for example (one of the wetter parts of the state), it is normal to get barely a drop of rain from June through September. Rain barrels are just clutter here.

  30. What I like about rain barrels (despite their inadequate size) is the subliminal message they convey to people that water is precious and should not be wasted, and clean rain water should not be treated like trash (e.g., immediately discharged into the nearest storm drain).

    1. The problem I have with this is that the real message they convey is that sustainable strategies are token, inadequate, and involve purchasing things. Let’s spend our energies showing people what really does work, so that they don’t buy a rain barrel, find out how utterly useless it is, and then decide that all sustainable measures are a waste of time and money.

  31. Your points are well-taken. Even though I’m the owner of four 75 gal. rain barrels, I agree the water they contribute is negligable. However, I still use them although I now have two 1100 gallon tanks that contribute far more.–Cost of installation of a low-tech system was $1,700.00. The rain barrels were a spring-board for more extensive water harvesting.

    I don’t speak for everyone, but my hope is overall, every little bit of conservation helps especially if these practices span a long period of time. My area averages 32″ of rain/year.

    In my case:

    I don’t water the lawn/grass (2/3rds acre.)
    I use my 4 rainbarrels specifically to water four roses.
    I use my bath water to flush the toilet.
    I’m constructing an outdoor shower to water my asparagus and black berries (Shower will be used 8 months out of the year),
    I use the laundry water to water specific plants
    I use the sink water for specific ornamental plants.
    I plant drought-tolerant ornamental plants.
    I mulch heavily to prevent evaporation.

    I’ll look into the water harvesting books you recommend. I’m sure there are things I can still learn.

    1. Thanks, Laura. Your efforts are impressive. It’s the kind of thing we should all be doing. Not so easy but it all adds up. Good job!

  32. Although your argument is sound on some levels, it is not a comprehensive examination of all of the practical reasons to use rain barrels. Other than inspiring people to be more conscious of their water usage, rain barrels do offer a method of conserving water for small gardens, containers, or simply getting through drought periods. I have four rain barrels that I use intensively in the summer. Instead of turning on the hose, I can use the water in my rain barrels. I know this has saved on my water usage. Am I saving water on a grand scale? No. However, if every homeowner used rain barrels, the water conservation numbers would increase exponentially. The point is not to expect rain barrels to water your entire garden, but to help you conserve water overall. Your argument attempts to have the same thrust as saying that if you stopped using paper towels it would not really make much of a difference in the landfill because it is such a small amount. The point is on a national and international scale it would. Rain barrels were never marketed or recommended as consummate alternatives to water usage. They are intended to assist the homeowner in conserving water, in reusing water that would otherwise be washed away. If your argument were sound, what would be the point in the homeowner conserving anything because it would be on such a small scale? I think every little bit helps. And to encourage everyone to add to that little bit makes a huge difference in the overall scheme of things.

    1. What your argument misses is the net environmental impact of the rain barrel, including the impacts of manufacture and disposal. I’m not equipped to do a full lifecycle analysis of this, but I do wish someone would so we could see how much rainwater it would take to offset the damage done by making the barrel in the first place and by the end-of-life impacts. Remember that plastic is made from oil and comes to us at a tremendous cost that is not reflected in the prices we pay for plastic products.

      As for tiny impacts adding up, the argument is specious because they are still tiny fractions of total water use and are therefore not significant regardless of scale. In other words, a small fraction of a percent still leaves the vast majority of the problem unsolved. When this happens on a grand scale it is actually worse than just a few people indulging in these toys.

      And of course the rain barrel gives people the false idea that they are doing something good for the environment. What we need is real, substantive solutions to our problems, and token gestures like rain barrels don’t offer those. They are merely a way for people to enjoy a seemingly guilt-free new form of consumerism rather than doing the hard things it will take to bring us back from the brink of self-destruction. If people turn their energies to something that actually works, we might stand a chance of not destroying ourselves and everything around us as we are now doing.

    2. I challenge the assertion that rain barrels are a form of conservation. To me they represent more of the same kind of thinking that has created the water crises in the first place: focusing on increasing the supply, instead of managing demand.

      What’s the essential difference between a rain barrel and a dam? They both do exactly the same thing – temporarily store runoff so we can put it to some use that seems good to us – just on a different scale.

  33. I love the ideas at the end of the article for large water storge. Keep ’em coming.

    However, to suggest the following is a real solution is a little ridiculous after you’ve just ripped on rain barrel owners for spending too much $ on something that requires large energy inputs:

    “This can be accomplished by changing the contours of your land to create low spots, soak zones, dry streambeds, and other concavities that will allow the water to pool and seep into the soil.”

    What about the inputs to change the contours? Where do the rocks for the dry beds come from, and do people carry them in or were they dug up and transported on 18 wheelers? Who has to haul off all the dirt that’s left after you’ve dug a low spot? How much can a homeowner do on their own before they resort to paying big $ to a contractor to do it? And when the contractor does it, are they using human power or are they using fossil-fuel-running bobcats? Also what about the practicalities of changing the contour – sure you can now let rainwater soak into the ground but now that the yard is all bumpy it’s no good for the kids to play soccer on. And never mind that building in such contours is really only an option for people with relatively large yards. And don’t forget that such contours also require mainenance. I’m always pulling leaves out of my swale – if I didn’t, the swale would fill up with composted leaf mulch.

    I’m actually looking at putting in a berm in my front yard to help slow down the water draining off my yard and the neighbor’s yard. I also have a rain barrel.

    Eco-snobbery is so annoying and so unhelpful. Bottom line is that rain barrels can be an affordable way to start to make a dent in our water needs and I think more importantly spreads the message to neighbors that rain water should be harvested from the sky just as we harvest vegetables from the garden.

    1. I think I can answer most of your questions. We do swales on virtually all of our projects, large and small. They are done by hand, so the only energy used is what the workers ate for breakfast. The soil is never taken away from the site, but is used in place. The rocks can come from on site, in our rocky environment. Or there can be no rocks at all, just the gently modified landform. The rocks, when used, are usually moved by hand, with equipment used only rarely when very large boulders are included. We try to do all our work by hand and minimize the use of power equipment. And we try to use what’s on the site. We never place swales where they would interfere with other activities, and if they are not appropriate for a particular situation we do something else. As for maintenance, it is much less than lawn care — just a little cleanup, again by hand, once in a while.

      As for your berm, I would have to ask the same questions you asked of me: Did you use heavy equipment to make it? Where did the soil come from? Doesn’t it interfere with your kids playing soccer? I mean really, come on. You’re trying to trash my suggestions with specious arguments that are really more than a little mean-spirited and seemingly hypocritical in light of your own activities. Oh, and a badly-placed berm sheds water rather than holding it, and is also subject to erosion.

      Eco-snobbery? No, just an attempt at getting the most sustainable landscape possible. Do I have all the answers? Certainly not. Rather than making rude and cutting comments, why not take the position that we are all here together trying to understand how best to make our land useful with a minimum of negative impacts. This is all new to everyone and we need to cooperate, not bicker and deliver salvos of unwarranted belligerence. Agreed?

      1. Not trashing – just shedding some light on other perspectives that were left out. Yes contours absorb water, but holy cow – not a small thing to do! Practically impossible for many. The things I bring up are real considerations for average people that make the options presented unusable. (And certainly my landscapers used a bobcat, unfortunately, but I don’t know if I could afford their rates for moving earth by hand!)

        If you’re concerned about snide comments, you might not suggest that people who purchase rain barrels have been deluded. It’s not the best way to engage water conservationists, many who have rain barrels and who are otherwise totally on your side.

        1. I think you’re grasping at straws. Contours are an accepted part of landscaping these days. Grading for water absorption is actually required in some communities now. Not a small thing to do? Well, it’s really not much more work than grading to shed water. Average people do it all the time. Is it a universal solution? No. Each site must be analyzed and solutions developed that are best for that site. For instance, creating swales or other soak zones is highly inadvisable on slopes or unstable ground because it can result in massive landslides. But swales are a very helpful strategy for many situations.

          You imply that using the bobcat was cheaper than hand grading would have been. Do you have evidence for that? We find that hand grading doesn’t cost any more in most typical residential situations, and can often be cheaper. If you want to allege otherwise, please give us the facts. If you have no facts, please don’t introduce straw-man arguments.

          As for my having suggested that people purchasing rain barrels were deluded, I’m afraid I don’t find that statement in the original article. I do say that rain barrels are delusional, which I imagine is what you’re referring to. Attacking rain barrels is different than attacking people, which is something I try to avoid. I’m not perfect but I do understand the distinction between criticizing a product or practice and making an ad hominem attack on an individual.

          Finally, the article was based on a principle I firmly believe in: telling the whole truth about landscaping practices, good and bad. If some people are offended by my position on rain barrels, they can move along. Anyone can disagree with me any time, and I especially welcome solid proof that rain barrels are good for the environment. I believe this is the 99th or 100th iteration of comments back and forth. Among those who disagree with my position, I don’t find one single fact that refutes mine. I’m not interested in “engaging” so-called water conservationists; I’m interested in getting to the truth, whatever the outcome. At no point in my article did I attack people, just products and practices. I think that’s a time-honored journalistic practice, one that we need a lot more of. In fact, I intend to come out with a whole series of articles on questionably sustainable landscaping approaches, so if you don’t like hard-hitting journalism or don’t want to chance seeing your sacred cows butchered in public, don’t say I didn’t warn you. This blog ain’t for sissies.

  34. “…once rainwater hits the street, thanks to the highly efficient drainage systems that landscapers put in…”

    What do landscapers get to put in? Don’t civil engineers and municipal agencies determine storm sewer placement and design?

    1. Every landscaped site has a drain system that shunts pretty much all rainwater to the street. These are put in by landscapers, while municipal stormwater systems are done by civil engineers. Fortunately the rules are changing, and conservation of rainwater on site is now the norm, and is in fact the law in many places. Long story.

  35. Ummm, how about less lawn? What about replacing lawn with buffalo grass or some other dry season grass? I water my garden once or twice deeply each year, if that. It’s 1500 square feet. I really don’t have to, since I PICK THE RIGHT PLANTS FOR THE RIGHT PLACES.

    Isn’t the REAL issue here our obsession with non native plants that die without being pampered and / or putting the wrong plant in the wrong place? And our obsession with lawns we hardly use, but fertilize as soon as Home Depot tells us too? Then the unfiltered exhaust. The insane noise pollution which made me blow up a neighbor’s lawnmower last year. Hey. Screw the rain barrels and get down to the heart of this!

  36. We have 2 rain barrels, and we are installing our 3rd and 4th one this year. We don’t water our lawn, only our vegetable and flower garden. Last year we collected 1,533 Gallons in 8 months, and could have been even more if we had more barrels to collect with. I live in an urban environment, and we pay a premium for city water. For my household, having rain barrels cuts our water bills by half. As for how clean the water is… I’ll take my chances on roof collected water, because the level of toxicity is probably lower than all the pesticides and other chemicals used to grow produce in the supermarket.

  37. If your rain barrels are removed from the wastestream (re-purposed corporate otherwise-trash), and you use some rainwater instead of city water, you are doing some conservation, however small. We are not all ecological heroes, but there is always a first step. For many, feeling good about a DIY rainbarrel project is a daily reminder that they are making a step forward–it can lead to further efforts. We cannot assume that everyone who buys a rainbarrel never thinks about conservation again. That argument is silly. Yes, our culture attempts to profit off of anything and everything that becomes popular. It is a shame, but it should not deter us from moving forward. We cannot allow ourselves to creep further toward extreme positions (i.e. waster and conservationist); this is totally wrong. Education is essential, but NEVER get on someone’s ass because their conservation efforts don’t meet a particular standard. We all need to move forward and help one another understand a more healthy way to live.

    1. I’m a conservationist, so I guess I’m an extremist, which I gather is something bad. I like to support things that really work and that solve problems, not dabble around managing symptoms. RADICAL! Wow. Kill me. Dang. Oh well, you know, we really all do need to be ecological heroes because we live in dire times calling for heroism. Let’s be part of the solution and not waste our energies bickering. Instead of finding ways to go on with our wasteful lifestyle, including watering plants that don’t belong in our particular environment (i.e. need more water than annual rainfall provides), why not develop resilient (and productive) landscapes that deliver lots of valuable services (food, habitat, climate control, carbon sequestration, etc.) with minimal input? Then we wouldn’t need rain barrels or any of the other consumer claptrap that we all love to buy. Oh god, kill me twice for saying that!

  38. Clearly this blog is aimed at very narrow audience (people living in places where it rains just once a year, where there is no possibility of reusing existing materials, where no one can undertake multiple actions simultaneously, and so forth).

    But in the rest of the world, rain barrels are a very logical consideration.

    Owen asks: “Rain barrel proponents claim that barrels conserve water, reduce urban runoff, and save money. But is it true?” Yes, it is.

    1. Gee, I so hate to be tedious, but we’re going over the same ground here. Rain barrels save water, but just a tiny bit of it. An inconsequential tiny bit that is more than offset by the costs. They save a tiny bit of money too, just a few pennies every time the rain barrel fills up. Doesn’t anybody read the other comments? Don’t facts mean anything? Criminey people, where are your brains? Look, rain barrels are a yuppie feel-good toy, fostering delusions of environmentalism. Rain barrels are stupid, wasteful nonsense. Look at my numbers. Use your heads. And quit sucking up to the people who so successfully sell you things and control what you buy and what you think. It’s creepy!

      1. Owen,

        Your numbers are premised on a ridiculous strawman (living in a place with a huge lawn, where it only rains once a year, and where there is no way of acquiring a rain barrel but to order it brand new through the mail).

        Now maybe those things are true where you live, I don’t know. They are not typical, however: the weather for most of the U.S. does not fit that model and the behavior of most people with rain barrels doesn’t fit that model either.

        In most of the U.S., the number of discrete rain events is measured in the dozens. Here in Maryland, for example, we get on average 40+ inches of rain a year spread out over 100+ days. As a result, an average sized home (with less than 2,000 square foot of roof) with four rain barrels (one per downspout) can capture a significant fraction of the rain that hits the roof.

        Your assertion that the capture is an “inconsequential tiny” amount is simply preposterous posturing.

        Is the rain barrel a complete solution? Rarely, but they are an important part of the complete solution. My rain barrels overflow into a properly sized rain garden, for example. I could have installed the garden without the barrels, but the combination is a superior solution.

        Not only do the barrels provide the incidental water needed for plants that are NOT in the rain garden (I don’t typically water my lawn, even in drought), but they also capture the surge that occurs at the beginning of storms. By the time they overflow, my rain garden is “primed” by which I mean the infiltration rate is higher when it is slightly damp than when it is bone dry.

        On the economics, each rain barrels saves me roughly $10 in water per year and the cost of a rain barrel here is about $65. That’s a long payback, but it’s not crazy long and is much better than many other “yuppie feel-good toy[s]” (e.g. hybrid cars).

        Your attack on rain barrels would be a lot more persuasive if your arguments made any sense.

        I CAN think of a handful of places where rain barrels are not cost-effective. I’m glad I don’t lie in one of those places, and I’m sorry if you do.

        1. OK, first of all, your hostile tone is not really welcome on my blog, but I’m going to approve your comments in spite of that.

          If you live in a high rainfall area with summer rains, then why do you even need rain barrels? Perhaps to get you through the dry spells. Fine. But can you really water your entire property with four barrels? That seems highly unlikely, considering the amount of water required per square foot that plantings require anywhere. I really don’t think you’ve refuted my numbers; you’ve just attacked them with belligerent personalized language that only discredits you.

          As for living in a place where rain barrels are not cost effective, I maintain that that place is anywhere. And if you mean living in a xeric climate such as ours, there’s really no need for pity. Dry places are beautiful and great to live in. We can grow more kinds of plants here in Santa Barbara than anywhere else on earth, and it’s a truly lovely place. There are many others.

          Please feel free to reply with facts and figures that hold water (pun intended), but also please observe the principles of courtesy and common decency. This is no place for attacks or Glenn Beck-style rage. Thanks.

          1. Owen,

            I have quantified both the costs and benefits of rain barrels. If you don’t think spending $65 on something that saves you $10 a year is worthwhile, I probably won’t change your mind with this comment. But those are the relevant numbers

            Who cares if I can water my entire property with a rain barrel or four? I sure don’t. That’s not why I use them, and not why I installed them.

            I generally care about two things in this context:

            1) when I spend money, do I get reasonable return on my investment?

            2) when I decide to do something, is the action well reasoned?

            In the case of rain barrels, the answers are “yes” and “yes”.

            Specious arguments about “living on one rain barrel” are totally irrelevant. The RELEVANT question is whether they pay for themselves, in dollars and/or net environmental gain? As I, and others before me, have pointed out: they clearly do in most places in the U.S.

          2. So I’m not clear on why you did install them. Can you clarify that?

            As for return on investment, I’m glad it works out for you. It doesn’t work out in dry climates because even with our very costly water, the value of a rain barrel’s worth is only 30 cents. What are the numbers you use to claim a $10 per year savings?”. And I don’t think it works out in most places, as you claim. Finally, can you prove that there is a net environmental gain? If so, great. Give us the facts and figures. I’d love to see them.

  39. There are some of us who live in areas where we depend on rain barrels and cisterns when the well runs dry. Nothing to do with being ‘yuppie’. In some places it is a matter of having enough water to cook and wash or having to run out to tanker trucks to get water by the gallon. The well running dry has nothing to do with waster, overuse or drought.

    1. Doesn’t change the facts, though. Can you live on one rain barrel? Of course not. So your argument doesn’t change anything. Rain barrels only hold a tiny bit of water. That is a fixed fact.

  40. Assuming your numbers are correct for where you live (each barrel holds $0.30 worth of water at a time), the next question you need to ask is how many cycles (fill, then empty) you get per year.

    If it rains once a year, you only get one cycle: savings = $0.30 annually.

    If it rains six times a year, you get six cycles: savings = $1.80 annually.

    If it rains 40 times a year, you get forty cycles: savings = $12.00 annually.

    And so on. You don’t actually get a cycle every time it rains (you have to empty the barrel first somehow). But you get the idea.

    1. I understand all that. I covered it in the original post. What I’m looking for is your numbers. What is the cost of water? How many times per year does the barrel actually fill up. And what is the bottom line value of the water saved? Given your $65 initial cost for the barrel, what is the payback time?

      1. Well, it was NOT covered in the original post. In fact, the omission of this nuance (that the barrels get filled more than once a year) is the key flaw in your original argument and the one that makes it hardest to really take your criticism seriously.

        I calculated that my barrels each cycle a bit over 1,200 gallons of water per year, and that works out to be valued at just shy of $10.00 at my current water rates. Payback is 6.5 years, and I think I mentioned all those numbers earlier.

        1. As I mentioned in one of the now many comments, we only get rain during one part of the year, so we have to have a full complement of stored water to get through the long, utterly dry summer. Remember that this article was written in Southern California for local readers. So for all intents and purposes, in our area and in any similar climate with seasonal rains, the opportunity to fill up the barrels comes but once per year. It sounds like you live in an area that gets summer rains and that you use the barrels to get you through short dry spells. We have one seriously long dry spell, which is very different.

          As to the value of your barreled water, what you are saying is that your water sells for around $6.25 per HCF (one HCF = 748 gallons). Is that correct? If so, it’s a stunningly high price to pay for water. I wonder where you live. But if that’s true and your payback is faster than ours and most peoples, well good for you. I don’t know why that discredits the points I made in my article, which is what you seem intent on doing.

          1. So to make this perfectly clear, we effectively get ONE cycle per year. I allowed for five in the article, but when you consider the particular circumstances of our local weather patterns it’s really only one. So yes, thirty cents a year, with a payback time (the average rain barrel with accessories goes for around $100) of 333 years. Or if you want to nitpick, 39 cents a year at the rate I quoted in the article.

  41. Hyperbole does not strengthen this argument. Sorry man, you just can’t rank all rainbarrels or their concept into the same “claptrap” as products like Tickle-Me-Elmo. I’m totally with you that it is addressing relatively small aspects, even symptoms. We can yell all we want, but there are more people buying rainbarrels than permaculture guides, and we don’t get to decide how every individual gets involved with conservation. Attempting to debunk this entry point is a bit offensive to your own position. We definitely have to qualify what is and what isn’t a good solution for harvesting rain, and we are on thin ice as it is. But rainwater collection is laudable and it should be encouraged to anyone who is interested in taking their first steps toward conservation. Don’t you think??

    1. Suppose I got you involved with investments using a strategy that lost you money. Would that encourage you to go on investing? Of course not. So why encourage people to invest in a rain barrel when it’s proven to be a poor approach to rainwater collection? It doesn’t make any sense, and frankly the only reason I can see that people are defending rain barrels so staunchly despite the proof I offer of their uselessness is that they must own one or more (many defenders admit to this) and just have a hard time admitting they were wrong.

      Is rainwater collection laudable? Well, not if it is a means to go on doing stupid things like watering lawns and ornamental plants that need more water than nature delivers. The only reason to collect rainwater should be to grow food. And frankly, even then I’m not convinced that it’s all its cracked up to be. Look, we’re living way beyond our means, and the mindset of our culture is to do anything, no matter how stupid it is in the long run, to prop up a disgraceful set of bad habits: overconsumption, environmental degradation, toxic products and practices, economic recklessness, to name a few. So ask yourself why you believe that collecting rainwater is a good thing. Is it so that you don’t have to take out your lawn and thirsty plantings? Well, isn’t that like hoarding gas so that you can continue to drive your Suburban?

      What is the purpose of your landscape, or mine, or anybody’s? What services do these landscapes deliver, and at what price? How well adapted are they to local conditions? Do they feed you, provide wildlife habitat, reduce energy use, sequester carbon, or provide other valuable services? Or are they just another element in a hopeless failed culture that is morally, environmentally, and economically bankrupt and on the verge of total collapse?

      Why do I mention all this? Because some things are problems and others are just symptoms. Saving rainwater needs to be looked at in this context. Does a rain barrel or a cistern really do anything that makes sense? Is it truly useful? Or is it just a delusional feel-good pseudo-green indulgence that will not matter one bit when things fall apart? We need to look this in the face and try to understand what we are supposed to be doing with our land that will help us to develop a stable, sustainable society to replace the one that has done so much to ruin the earth.

      So your question, whether I think rainwater collection is laudable, is one that needs to be answered on a whole other level. I don’t have all the answers at the moment, and I don’t have the resources to look deeply into it. But I know we can’t operate on erroneous assumptions and superficial analyses of second-tier problems, and that is why I’m concerned that this whole extended discussion of rain barrels and rainwater harvesting is potentially just a distraction from more important matters. I am convinced that rain barrels do not contribute to a stable garden or a stable society. Cisterns may be better, but under what circumstances I’m not sure at this point.

      I’d really like to take this matter to a deeper level. I think there has been enough said about these silly barrels. As Bob Dylan said so long ago, “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.” Suppose we shift this to discussing what we need to do to face a potential collapse of our way of life? Suppose we turn our discussion to how to develop a truly sustainable, resilient, and productive living landscape that will be something more than exterior decoration with a few token “green” measures, most of which are totally bogus crap foisted on us by companies trying to exploit the naivete of well-meaning but terribly confused people. Can we talk about that?

  42. Owen,

    How refreshing to read this. I agree with you wholeheartedly. We have looked into this every which way and it just doesn’t make sense to us. We live in New England where droughts are not the norm, and found quite a few other options that would better serve our needs.

    Rain barrels are ridiculously expensive, unsightly, and tax our natural resources just in the manufacturing stage.

    Thanks for posting this. Nicely done!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I think readers would love to hear about the other options you mention. Would you like to share with us?

  43. Supporting Owen again, my experience with thousands of clients is that neither rain barrels or rain cisterns are practical for sustainable gardening in an urban setting.

    If you are in a wet area virtually year round, the garden doesn’t need extra water (unless in drought, in which case the cistern is empty).

    If you are in a dry area for 6 – months of the year then the capacity required to sustain a wet garden is huge, and prohibitively expensive using many small cisterns / barrels to suit a small lot.

    You will save far more water (and long term, money) by simply installing a 500 gallon or so cistern that supplies the laundry and toilets, and not let a single drop go into the garden (unless it is overflow).

    Cisterns can make sense in rural areas – if there is plenty of space to sit large round cisterns. However generally if there that much space, the collection (roof) area is insufficient to support a garden across the entire property.

    If you want to save water for the garden, go greywater instead, the supply is guaranteed over the summer, and the garden becomes sustainable by learning to live on an allocation that stays the same every day. Of course this is subject to local codes.

    Beware of experiences in countries such as Australia, where people have spent upwards of $6,000 for multi cistern garden systems, based on theoretical harvesting calculations, only to find in practice that the cisterns either sat full for most of the summer (consumer is afraid oof running out), or sat empty due to the relatively small capacity (most cistern sellers focus on capacity rather than actual consumption).

    This severely burns the consumer, to the point they are sceptical about any green / re-use methods.

    Owen, looking forward to some more provoking topics such as green megaplexes 😉

    Best Regards


  44. The economics and effectiveness of rain barrels, or any other landscaping feature for that matter, are strongly dependent on climate. In the semiarid West, as the original post clearly spelled out, barrels make no sense at all. In the humid East, the hydrology is completely different, the water demands are completely different, and rain barrels may very well make sense and even pay back economically. That’s not the subject of the blog post, though, so I’m not quite sure why so many people want to claim that their experience proves Owen is wrong.

    It frustrates me no end to read reams of advice about gardening, landscaping, farming, etc. that is all predicated on the assumption that you live east of the 100th meridian, without ever explicitly stating so! Let’s all examine our assumptions and declare them, before we generalize our conclusions onto places they don’t apply.

  45. This is brilliant, or at least agrees completely with what I have always thought ;-). We live in Miami, with average annual rainfall of 56″, about 90% of which falls May-September, sometimes 2-4″ in an hour. Gutters can’t even catch it then. It’s too hot and humid to grow veggies in summer, so we grow those in the winter, when people have to water some other way. With our elevation of 7.5′ above sea level, the water table is a short reach for a well, but all these wells are lowering that and salt water intrusion becomes a real threat. An interesting note; in the FL Keys, the septic tanks are becoming cisterns as they are replaced by sewage pipes, and so people can use whatever rainwater they catch & keep to water their “landscape”. At least there’s a grain of sense there, perhaps, depending on the details of how they cleaned out that tank (!). But your assessment of the needed lifestyle change is dead on, imo.

  46. While in some ways I do find this post funny, it’s also a really sad reflection on the priorities of the average US homeowner.

    The 140,000 gallons of water used by the average family on their yard is more than double my water usage for all purposes in an entire year. I never water my lawn and only water my perennials when I’ve planted a new one (or transplanted one. As far as I can tell, I used on the order of 15,000 gallons of water outdoors last year and all of that on my 1,300 sq. ft. organic vegetable garden in which I grew 860 lbs of veggies that saved me $1,200-2,300 depending on whether you compare it to conventional or organic veggies bought at the supermarket.

    People really need to reprioritize, and even on my garden, a rain barrel wouldn’t have help much.

    1. Yes, the meta-question is why do we use so much precious water to grow unproductive ornamentals, in a time when resources are harder and harder to come by? I’ll save that for a future, and probably less amusing, post. But for the moment, we all need to think about the fact that the amount of water we Americans use on our 31 million acres of lawns would grow 81 million acres of food.

  47. Rain Barrels here in northern NJ are a feel good fad. Most homeowners like the idea but don’t use the water they collect, don’t clean the barrel and find it to much work to winterize. Everybody loves the idea but it’s really not very effective as a water collection device.

  48. Hi There,

    I like your article on rainbarrels however, not everyone lives in a warmer climate, such as myself. I live in Canada and do not need to water my yard or garden as much as someone in California. I use a rain barrel and have never used my tap to water my gardens for over 5 years. Yes the barrel holds 220L or 55 gallons however this gets emptied and filled many times over the summer so it is not a one time use. The barrel that I have would of been disposed of or recycled if the facilities are there however recycling is just another form of garbage, it takes lots of electricity and water to do. So I would like to argue that here in Canada at least a 220L barrel can do a lot of good and save lots of water.

  49. Hilarious article. Exactly why we are building rainwater storage right into the landscape via benches, tables, even built into the walls of a garden shed. Still not a stand alone watering solution, but it’ll keep your pansies alive during restrictions and hey, it’s multi-use! Great that you mentioned re-shaping the land, too- it’s more effective than we realize. Greywater should be used more also, to maximize use of the limited capacity.
    Side note: It would be interesting to do another payoff analysis based on current annual water rate hikes as well- heard San Fran is looking at 47%? Might want to hang onto a couple hundred or so of those barrels..

  50. Calling Owen from the Republic of Ireland. That’s a gem of a thought provoking and funny article. But I would still recommend a rain barrel.
    I have been gardening for over 35 years, one of my favourite memories of a garden visit was of a water lily in an open rain (half) barrel in a shady corner of a yard. The old house wall was brick and the splash back from the barrel had created the conditions up the wall for ferns to grow. It was one of the most beautiful gardening moments I had ever had. Shame about the dampness that had crept up the walls of the old house.
    In many parts of Ireland, we get so little sun shine and lots of summer rain, that two or three years out of every five years we don’t get to ripen Tomatoes outdoors. Usually rain water harvesting isn’t the issue. This year we are having fab’ spring weather, its been dry for months and my garden is very dry on the surface. I fully agree with you on the most appropriate ways to store water, esp’ in the soil and by mulching and using appropriate planting. Yet the handiness of a rain barrel for seedlings and transplants is unmeasurable. The solution may be build your houses from 2332 interconnecting rain barrels. 😉
    I own a horticulture business and we have a large barn, from the roof I take rainwater direct from gutters into 10 x 1000 gallon raised storage containers and then the over flow goes to a large unlined outdoor pond.(so the water seeps into the soil) I have two 120′ x 40 polytunnels which I save enough water for winter veggie crops.
    This year, I was renovating the barn and the rainwater harvesting system guttering was dismantled, typical!.
    I have stored water for years, had over supply, then we get our first major spring drought and I had disconnected the water supply to my garden. As is always the way, when you need something, its just not so easy to get.

    1. A house made of rain barrels. Ooh, I like that a lot. Super-insulated, architecturally interesting, fire resistant. And a drink of water wherever you are in the house. Out-of-the-box thinking for sure. I want one!


      1. With an impending move to Ohio, I will say I am looking forward to using some black water barrels in a backyard green house. Not to save water, but to act as a heat bank in fall / winter? / spring. I have to have my (fresh) winter vegetables !!!

  51. I think that most people who use rain barrels live in a very different climate than Santa Barbara. I agree that rain barrels don’t make a lot of sense where you live. For instance, your somewhat hilarious point that you would need 2,333 rain barrels assumes that it rains exactly one time a year enough to fill your rain barrel might actually be the case in Santa Barbara.

    Where I live, in Pennsylvania, it rains many times, perhaps 60 or 70 times a year, enough to fill up a rain barrel. I guess that probably when it rains it also usually waters the garden, and not just the roof, so we could maybe cut the total amount of water that we need in half to start out, and one barrel can get filled up 60 or 70 times, so we are down to only 18 rain barrels!

    I guess it doesn’t make much sense to buy a rain barrel in southern California, but it can make sense in other places.

    1. What I’m not clear on is what one uses a barrel full of water for in a climate that, unlike ours, provides ample, frequent rains during the growing season. Seems like a reasonably designed garden wouldn’t need that little dab of water. Can you clarify for this Westerner?

      1. A few things I used my rain barrel water for here in southern Wisconsin in the past couple weeks:

        -watering in transplants or re-plants (the only time my perennials get rain barrel or faucet water is when I move or divide them)
        -daily light waterings to keep seeds moist until germination (even though we get enough rain, it doesn’t dole itself out evenly and it’s not uncommon to go a couple weeks without any)
        -I just planted some parsnip seeds that will take 3 weeks to germinate, and once they do, they’ll require consistent moisture in their raised bed.
        -outdoor potted plants dry out crazy fast
        -muddy boots that need washing!
        -washing out seedling trays, etc
        -washing out garbage cans and recycling bins
        -watering the compost when it needs it

        1. Christy, and anyone else who is currently using rain barrels: Have you calculated the cost of the water? I don’t dispute the uses Christy lists – except to nitpick, the parsnips need to be kept uniformly moist until they germinate; this is the single biggest trick to growing them – but I question whether the rain barrel really makes sense compared to the other sources of water available. It might, if water quality is a concern; rainwater is much fresher than groundwater in most areas, so if you’re on a well, the barrel might provide an otherwise unavailable source of high-quality fresh water. In that case it might make sense to pay the premium for it.

          1. (huh, interesting nitpick. thanks.)

            I’ve been curious to do the calculations of cost of water saved, but I haven’t. It’d be hard to anyway, because what ends up happening is the barrel fills up, I’ll use up some portion of it, we get a little more rain, I’ll use more of it… I rarely get to just fill it, use it all up, then fill it again, use it all up. Maybe I’ll figure it out sometime, but probably not. I go to the effort of buying a separate bin for recycling paper and bottles but I don’t earn a penny from that effort, so why bother with the calculation for the rain barrel?

            Even if the $ calculation is a loss for me, I’m happy to be keeping a little more water on my property instead of sending it to the lake. Now that I think about it, if I didn’t have the barrel, I’d be sending more water to the lake and it’d pick up more pollutants and then we’d be spending more money in taxes to clean up the lakes. Plus I think it’s plain fun to use.

            And in all honesty, I must have some genetic disorder that makes me sequester water from the downspout. I drove my parents crazy with all the buckets of water my eight year old self would fill up during a rainstorm and store it in the garage. Imagine 10 sand box size pink and blue pails lined neatly in between the cars.

  52. Ithink the author misses the whole point – that even if it is a drop in the bucket (literally) conserving water is the story… Why use lawn that is so needy? Rain barrels work. Sure if you are in a desert they wont catch much water – but read those numbers on water use –CRAZY! If you choose to live in an arid climate- use drought tolerant, native plants to the region and you will not have to water nearly as much.
    To me its all about education – and discouraging people from trying is the wrong way about it… You need to do something and rain barrels are a start in the right direction!

    1. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it’s you who’s missing the point. A tiny dab of water does nothing to conserve. As you point out, what does work is reducing demand. Sixty gallons of water is inconsequential. Plus, the tiny savings of water will never offset the financial and environmental impacts of the system, so it ends up being a net negative for the environment and the pocketbook. As for education, teaching people that ineffectual and even damaging strategies are a way to help the environment is certainly not helpful. It is a form of treason to the cause of true sustainability, an offense to those who sincerely want to make a real difference, and a great disservice to those who are being mis-educated. There is a lack of clarity on the bottom line of green practices. Some of them produce a net improvement; others, like rainbarrels, do not. Failing, or refusing, to differentiate between solutions and pseudo-solutions is not good for our future. Rain barrels are NOT a “start in the right direction.” They are a step along the path to self-delusion.

  53. Yet again I feel the need to provide back up voice to Owen’s argument.

    Rain Barrels simply don’t make sense in any climate. The amount of storage is so small that in a dry climate it can’t provide enough water to justify use. In a wet climate water is plentiful and cheap therefore the cost can’t be justified.

    The danger is the public spends good money (or even worse a government subsidy is provided) to buy barrels. The public realises within a year or two that while it’s a feel good product, it doesn’t actually achieve anything, so becomes suspicious of ANY green related product / system.

    Yes as a manufacturer, we make a pump and hose kit for rain barrels. So you would think we would promote it heavily as such. I can’t morally justify it. We manufacture the kit so it is greywater compatible, and allow the consumer to decide whether they will use it for rain and/or greywater. Marketing it as a rain system enables sales in areas where greywater is not legally approved. Because greywater is guaranteed, greywater re-use makes sense where water is expensive or in short supply.

    Frankly, in 10 years in Australia and the US I have yet to see any situation where rain barrels are justifiable.

    1. I’m not sure that’s a real danger, or at least not a broad one. In my experience rain barrels are expensive enough that only those “serious” enough would go for it. It’s not like a $1 bottle of water that says “nature” on it that almost anyone could buy and get a false sense of greenness from. There’s some commitment and thought with a barrel – heck, you have to cut into your downspout to install it! So, what I’m saying is that the people who put $100 down on a barrel are more likely to find a way to make it work, and if they decide it doesn’t work, few will suddenly decide that all “green” products are a waste.

  54. true, one rain barrel does not amount to much when one uses astronomical amounts to water an unsustainable landscape. Having many rain barrels, as you hilariously pointed out, does not make sense as aesthetic and placement limitations.

    Then again, they add up when considering the effect of everybody doing a little. Much like one compact florescent light bulb or high efficiency toilet. They also serve as an educational jumping-off point to enlighten people just how much water we are wasting every day, such as watering our lawn or flushing our toilets with drinking water.

    With any product labeled as ‘green’, shipping it across the country is counterproductive. The appeal of the rain barrel, I think, is when you find a local source that has used it and would otherwise throw it away, such as a dairy farm or cheese factory or brewery, which all happen to be fairly abundant here in wisconsin…

    When calculating cost, you should also think about indirect costs other than just saving $1.25 on your quarterly water bill. Arid climates may not have flooding issues, but for those who do, any amount of rainwater that can be diverted from the storm sewer is good.

    One barrel? Nope. But with over 1,000 gallons of rainwater storage built into the seating, tables, planters and walls around our house.

    1. There’s an old joke about the businessman that sells his product at a loss but makes it up on volume. I see rain barrels in that way. If each one is a waste of money and resources, then a lot of them are a big waste of money and resources. That doesn’t send a very good message to the world which awaits our leadership in sustainable landscaping. (By the way, my personal experience with compact fluorescent bulbs is similar: they’re complex, expensive, loaded with mercury, and they don’t last very long. I’d like to see a real lifecycle analysis on them. I bet it would prove that they’re actually worse for the environment than incandescents. But I don’t know that for a fact. Just a hunch.)

  55. Well, maybe it isn’t much and perhaps we are just doing it to feel good, but I can tell you that just the content in your blog, article and comments will do wonders in educating people who were just thinking about getting a rain barrel, whether for the eco-status or to do something ‘green’.

    If rain barrels help open the door to a larger awareness and conservation ethic, then they might be doing a little more than just holding 55 gallons of rain…

  56. Well said! I live in the Pacific North West (PNW) where we have the same monsoon and arid seasons. I have 20 rain barrels and a 1000-sq ft, 2-story house. I cry every winter because the barrels are usually overflowing by mid-December with 3-4 more months of rain to go. And i cry every August when i run out of water somewhere between the 15th and 20th. I dream of putting cisterns under my future deck and planned patio. Or maybe i should tear down the garage and rebuild it over a huge cistern. For the past 5 summers, i’ve enjoyed my rain-watered vegetables and am working on a plan to automatically water the raised beds from the rain barrels.

  57. Well lets face reality. All assumptions are cool, but they are just assumptions.

    The real scenario is that people wont lower water consumption.

    Fact number two is that the barrel is a one time purchase and will last for long.

    Said that i think their good, hate me or love me 🙂

    1. Sorry, but people DO lower their water consumption. I could cite all kinds of statistics in all kinds of places. As for the barrels, they won’t last long enough to recover the financial and environmental costs; I proved that in the article. I like facts, not unsupported assertions.

  58. Wow. You have raised some very interesting and very educational points however, I have to agree with Scott. I believe that as long as people feel good about harvesting their rain water that’s a good start. It’s a trickle effect. By harvesting rain water you’re already in the mind set that water is important and should not be taken for granted. Being in that mind set makes you think about other ways of conserving water on a day to day basis rather than wasting it. Isn’t that worth something?

    1. Yes, well, I’m all for consciousness raising. But my position is that when you encourage people to do things that are patently not environmentally sound, economically justified, or even truly useful, you are leading them down the exact path that they should be avoiding. Why not cut to the chase and teach them about things that do work? I just don’t get the philosophy of using a failed practice or technology to get people on board. Doesn’t make any sense to me. So tell me, what truly helpful technology or behavior would you suggest we substitute for encouraging folks to put in these rain barrels? Surely we can do better.

  59. Thanks for your response Owen. I do understand what you are saying and what you state makes perfect sense however, I am just going to say one more thing in my defense. Out of curiosity I checked our water consumption last year. We used 12,000 gallons, mind you we don’t have kids have a small home with a small yard but if we did had kids and tripled that amount it’s no where near the consumption of the average person in California is using. I use the water from the barrel for all of my potted plants. Just the act of going outside and filling my canister with water that I collected and watering my plants with it makes me “think” about water and makes me want to conserve it. This little act towards conservation works, at least in our home.

  60. Great question, Owen. I was asking myself that same question a few years ago when homeowners kept asking for rain barrels as part of their landscape design. We started designing rainwater storage right into outdoor spaces like patios, walls, pillars, benches, outdoor kitchen counters– anything that would otherwise be just big blocks of concrete, stone, or empty space.
    We are still working on it, but if we all can get the same or more capacity of rain(or grey-) water storage in our landscapes without sacrificing cost, energy or design aesthetic, that would be a decent substitute, wouldn’t it?
    The suggestions your article makes (swales, plant selection, lower usage…) are certainly necessary and even more effective steps. And since people who want or like rain barrels probably found your article for that reason (possibly searching for barrels?), you just helped them learn about a whole lot more.
    Then again, you may have started a new trend in rain barrel home building…

  61. While I generally agree that you can’t use rain barrels for all your needs ALWAYS, your math has a serious flaw. You are assuming that each rain barrel only supplies 60 gallons of water a year, when in fact it can hold 60 gallons at any one time, and can refill many times during the year. It takes one rain to fill the barrel up, on average for me in my climate, and the barrel provides a good soaking when rain has not done its job to the area that it is in. If I had to guess, in the average year, it has the ability to fill up approximately 60-80 times where I live, so it indeed generally is able to do its job. Oh, and with just the one barrel. I suspect in my (East Coast) climate if I wanted to do everything I needed to water I’d need about 4, but the original reason was because it was extremely difficult to get water out to the area in question.

    And btw, the rain barrel didn’t cost that much at all ($60 bucks), and it paid for itself very quickly… in about 2 months I’d say. It might not work in Santa Fe or Santa Barbara, but it does work in many other places in the country, where rainfall can be plentiful, but not consistent, excessive heat during summer can require daily watering, becoming a money saver even if it rains every other day, and City water is quiet expensive.

    1. Hi Jess.

      This was covered in the comments a while back, but it has gotten lost in the flurry of discussion.

      Actually, we really do get to use only 60 gallons of water per year. Here’s why: We have a ±7 to 9 month drought, and there’s only 60 gallons of water at the beginning of the dry season, so that’s literally all there is. In other words, there is virtually zero rainfall from April through October and often little or none in March and November as well. There’s just one chance to fill that barrel up at the end of winter. That’s why rain barrels are useless in any area where rainfall is both scant and highly seasonal. So there’s no flaw in the math; it’s just a matter of where you live.

      As for your climate, if the barrel refills so often, and rainfall is so regular, I have to ask why you even need supplemental irrigation? We would kill for a rainfall pattern like that, and our plants would love it.

      In any and all cases, 60 gallons of water is useless to irrigate anything more than a few houseplants. My figures prove the case for our climate. Yours may differ, but 60 gallons of water is still just a little dab compared to what any landscape in any climate needs unless it has been designed to thrive on natural rainfall only (which is pretty east to do in any region, using a native and climate-adapted plant palette).

      Make sense?

  62. When you consider the bigger picture of simple re-use of natural resources, I guess I’m of the mindset that every little bit helps. No it may not be a solution by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a step in the right direction. Rain barrels are merely an entry level point for most people in our area. They start there and down the road, they have us install a larger underground system that we can incorporate into their landscape plan. Also, while we in the Midwest definitely have a decent amount of rain, we also have a steady drought season mid summer. Essentially, around our neck of the woods, the water gets used and replenished fairly steadily. The other side to the coin is that even in areas of excess rainfall, the water collected can serve other purposes aside from irrigation. A properly installed system provides sufficient filtration so that harvested water, while not considered “potable” can be used for not potable purposes such as toilets and washing machines reducing the need to use potable water resources.
    Again though, I would mention that similar to the “new” green roof concepts, it’s not necessarily always about what your going to get in return but what your giving back. Any reduction in use of natural resources in my opinion is good. Yes rain barrels and other such materials utilize natural resources when produced, but consider that their is the potential for recycling the rain barrels while the more we contaminate rain water with pollutants as it crosses our over fertilized lawns to reach our oil and garbage covered streets to make its way through our sewers to our estuaries to eventually arrive in our oceans….well, that’s something we haven’t discovered how to take back as far as I’m aware. Yes their are issues, but I still don’t feel that the “costs” outweigh the “returns”. Ultimately, I guess, consumers need to do their homework and educate themselves in the pro’s and con’s of any purchase they consider.

  63. We have a spot in our two bedroom apartment for a rainwater collection system and to our amazing satisfaction we have been able to recharge the water under by about four tankfuls in our 6x4x4 foot water tank. We do our best to reuse all of the water we get. 🙂

  64. You don’t actually have a working brain, do you, Owen? 140,000 gallons to water a .17 acre yard? The average California family uses a quarter million gallons per year? Are they living in frigging rice paddies?

    I have a 1/8 acre lot and my total water bill — that includes yard and household and washing my car — has never exceeded 220 gallons per month.

    1. Hey Macossay,

      When you’re on my blog, don’t be an asshole, OK? If you can’t deal with your anger management problem and behave in a civil manner then go away. And if you want to say “fucking” instead of the silly euphemism “frigging” then I want you to know that you are free to do so here. As for the 140,000 number, it came from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, so I consider it legitimate. It is also borne out by other statistics. You may not want to believe it, but it’s true. And just because you don’t believe it doesn’t give you permission to behave like a boor. Oh, and congratulations on your amazingly low water use. It’s hard to believe it’s true!

  65. Pingback: Texas
  66. Thanks for this article. I was thinking about buying a rain barrel, but now I think it doesn’t make sense for my climate when the financial savings is put into perspective (I’m in Florida, where it rains nearly every afternoon in the summer).

  67. I get that you’d like everyone to be on board with hiring a designer, but using flawed logic isn’t fair.

    Your figures assume the rain barrel is filled only once per year, when in fact they fill, are drained during usage, and fill again, many times a year if one lives in a sufficiently rainy climate.

    Your figures for water needed also assume wasteful usage habits, and high-water need plants. Those factors can be mitigated. The number of rain barrels that could help supply garden watering needs is dependent on climate, location, and the gardeners habits. We find our half a dozen barrels very useful, and the premise that one needs thousands for them to be effective laughable.

    1. Your assumption about my motives is both unwarranted and extremely rude. As for the rest of your remarks, I have answered these over and over again in the many comments that accompany this post. I am not going to waste my time reiterating them. If you are too lazy to read what others have written, then I have no use for you. And when you fail to mind your manners, you are just lucky that I didn’t trash your remarks.

  68. I think you are a passionate writer, your facts are slightly skewed but all-in-all a very good read. I would have a different opinion, my company sells re-purposed food grade barrels as DIY Rain Barrel Kits but it’s not a scam as you explained. We keep our prices low ($60-$70) and bring them to events and workshops. You wrote your article with lots of attention to detail, even sending emails to venders trying to stump them with elaborate water usage equations. I assume this is why most on the comment board are rude in their remarks. Just want you to know that we all aren’t rude, and everyone is entitled to their opinion. I think Rain Barrels a great solution for many but based on your climate and water usage may not be the right choice. Cheers to many more articles! Check out our blog and maybe you’ll leave with a different idea about rain barrels. (btw we don’t use mosquito screen for the reason you pointed out)

    1. Thanks, Josh, for your comments (and your civility). I understand that the usefulness of rain barrels is greater in rainy climates where they will refill periodically. But of course the need is much less in places where it rains regularly. In a climate such as ours with prolonged drought during the growing season, barrels make no sense, as you point out.

      What facts do you see as skewed?


  69. We get plenty of rain in SE Ga. However, the goal for me was diversion of the rain that is collected. Basically I wanted to stop the soaking of ground near my foundation and put the water to use away from the same. Sure, I could have achieved this with other diversion methods and perhaps french drains, but that was far more expensive. Further, it is far easier to deal with hoses for the reroute when concrete and walk ways already exist.

    I have two barrels that only collects where I have a water surplus shed due to the roof angles. The hoses divert that water to a few fruit trees that my irrigation misses. My barrels take maybe a 30 minute rain to fill completely, and it takes about 12 hours for them to empty with the trickle hose (not soaker) hose I use around the trees.

    I’m not as “green” as I am lazy. This just made sense and it works great. No need to waste it if you collect it, and I do think some collection systems should be entertain as they were in the past. I have not done the engineering, but I do wonder why cisterns are not mandatory in Atlanta with their famous problem. Perhaps I am missing something.

  70. Yes, rain barrels=another greenwashing project. Kinda like saving kitchen scraps in plastic gizmo composters instead of sheet-composting these tiny amounts, or even just running a small midden heap in the back yard under a tree somewhere.

    In short, the gizmos (whether for composting or rain water collecting) accomplish very little garden-oriented, since their capacity is completely at odds with the requirements for their product. Yet their delivery does keep the UPS man employed, so that’s something, I guess.

    Sad that so many people who genuinely want to do good are the target of so much marketing of such utterly useless plastic-ated stuff.

  71. I think you may be missing something. Of course changing water usage and watering more smartly will save more than harvesting a little from every rainfall. But everyone I know what has a rain barrel is more conscious of water usage, even if they weren’t before. We just came through a drought with water restrictions and are expecting more. The rain water and gray water collected saved our fruit trees while we weren’t watering. Good management saved our pasture and most of our lawn and even some of our garden, but the fruit trees needed to be watered and we weren’t allowed to. Yet they got an extra five gallons a week each because of what we were able to save or reclaim.

  72. All the rain barrels that I’ve worked with have been made from reused materials, such as; 55 gal. plastic (food grade) drums from soda manufacturers. I don’t think I know anyone who actually owns one of those store bought ones that you mentioned.

    I agree that a rain gardens or even a bioswales are a better solution then a rain barrel. Although you should keep in mind, not all people have those options; depending on the size of the property, contour of the land and cost of these project.

    I think one of the main benefits of having rain barrels is to slow down stormwater and reduce runoff. If people feel better about installing one because they feel they are saving money on their water bill then so be it. I live on the Chesapeake Bay and runoff is a major problem; reducing the speed at which water sheets off our buildings and flows into our rivers is a necessity. Why are you so against it?

    When you work in an environmental field, as you do; you are responsible for educating people on how to be good stewards of the land. Please take this into consideration before you discourage the well intended.

    1. “Why are you so against it?” I am against delusional, feel-good pseudo-solutions to very real problems. Let’s educate people about effective strategies and encourage them to put them in place. Rain barrels are not good stewardship, as I have shown, so they need to be denounced. We don’t have time to fool around.

  73. Let’s start with the massive hole in your argument first.

    No one expects to store an entire years water supply on their property. They intend to store some rainfall, use the water, then store some more rainfall many times during the course of a year. You claim that anyone would “need” more than 2,000 barrels is not even wrong.

    This is such a staggering failure to grasp the basic concept that a casual reader is left not wondering if you’re engaging in intentional deceit but why.

    Depending on the local rainfall patterns, that 60 gallon barrel might well store and dispense 600 gallons or more during the course of a year or more, leaving you off by at least a factor of 10.

    Now that we’ve dealt with that – you’re right on cost. Most rainwater collection projects will not pay for themselves within the average lifetime.

    But that’s no measurement of whether or not it’s good resource management. It’s purely a question of immediate economic self interest. Not everyone is as comfortable as you are with externalizing all of their costs.

    There is no part of placing rain barrels that makes it somehow impossible to stop running the automatic sprinklers in the rain like most idiots. It doesn’t stop you from no longer hosing down the driveway, or prevent you from landscaping with native plants that need little water.

    When it comes to landscaping needs, the typical Southern California home can cut their usage to less than 40,000 gallons a year without even altering their landscaping. With a few wiser choices, they can easily get that down to 20,000 or less.

    Suddenly, half a dozen barrels storing 60 gallons each, turning over ten times a year, represent a small but significant part of the total.

    1. I’ve responded to these same arguments quite a few times already, but briefly, 1.) I used the total water requirements to illustrate how little the rain barrel will go towards meeting them, 2.) in a truly sustainable system we would capture as much of the total rainfall as possible and rainbarrels would not work for this, and 3.) the refill frequency of 10x is unlikely to happen in a dry climate and even if it did you would not need to use the water in the wet season, so it is only that last refill that would really count towards the summertime water needs. Hope that clarifies.

    2. Owen,

      good to see you are still sticking by this article. To Bjorn and others who have commented recently, Owen’s numbers are correct for those living in a mediterranean climate. Fewer rain barrels can work in a wetter climate, but still don’t make sense as their is usually a plentiful and cheap water supply anyway.

      What can make rain barrels even less effective is human psychology, and I don’t think Owen has raised this consideration.

      Imagine you have been in a drought for over 3 years. Very little rainfall, but you did just get a spring rain, enough to fill your 2,000 gallon cistern. You know this is enough water to irrigate your garden for 1 month. So you decide to hold onto the water. You decide to wait until the middle of summer when it is really hot. You have city water rationing so you can only irrigate once every week or even worse once every two weeks.

      What would you do with your 2,000 gallons of water? It’s not enough to keep the garden going, probably only enough to promote weed growth.

      Rainwater Harvesting by itself (especially rain barrels) IS a deceptively feel good measure.

      A properly planned harvesting system looks to replace potable water consumption as soon as possible. i.e. use the captured rainfall as son as possible before the next rain event occurs. In most residential cases it still does not make economic sense.

      Are there people out there who make it work? Absolutely. I have met many people at trade shows who are proud of the fact that they can live year round in Australia / US with a total water use of 20 gallons per person per day. These people are extreme, and congratulations to them if that is their choice. Rain barrels can make sense for them, but the barrels will never practically succeed in the mainstream population.

  74. The benefits of rainwater as a plant tonic are known..

    Why? because the fruits and vegetables taste better, the flowers are more colorful. So looking at the micro level the benefits of rain barrels and the tonic it holds are incalculable…

  75. You are a mean man. Why do you want to ruin everyone’s fun? And why do you want to take away the jobs of the plastic barrel makers and the truckers who bring the barrels and the petroleum engineers and field guys who bring up the oil that fuels the trucks and the air pollution control engineers who keep an eye on the refineries and the truck exhaust and the doctors who help the nice truck drivers and refinery workers and plastics factory employees with their mysterious cancers and disgusting coughs. You hate progress and freedom. Go back to Berkeley or Moscow or wherever you came from.

  76. Really interesting points you bring up! And I enjoyed your humor with the information requests on where to store your thousands of barrels.
    In my opinion, I feel like there needs to be a balance. The first step should always be reducing our demand!

    Glad I stumbled across your website.

  77. the 2333 barrels is only neccesary if you want to store the entire years water needs at one time. assuming it rains once a week lets take that number and divide by 52 and you need 44 barrels. Also by your own numbers you are severly overwatering. However, i think the real constraint to the number of barrels would be how many you can fill (which wouldn’t be enough). I think water barrels only make sense when you use them purely to water a garden and use native vegetation for your yard (which shouldn’t require additional water unless there is a drought).

    1. Thank you for your comment. I have responded to these points so many times that I am not inclined to do so again. Please see the comments section for details.

  78. I use rain barrels to collect water for indoor gardening and the new plants I add to my landscape from time to time. I don’t water my established landscape under normal conditions. The water from my tap is very hard and would require even more expensive equipment to remedy than the recycled plastic drums I can purchase and modify for about $30 each. And further, it is cheaper to invest in the barrels than to hire a plumber to add a faucet to my water main so that I don’t have to carry 5 gallon buckets of water from the main level to feed my veggies. I also like the idea of having some water stored just in case there’s an outage. I hate not being able to flush waste when the water main is being repaired.

    But the thing I like most about the reappearance of rain barrels is that it is alerting us all to the ever increasing importance of conserving a very precious resource. In time the cost of the rain barrel won’t seem so high relative to the cost of fresh water.

  79. hello

    I am interested in using the photo you have with this blog on an informational pamphlet I am doing for the city of Everett, WA. The photo with the blue barrels connected to the downspout. The caption says: Photo by Eric Schmuttenmaer. Used by permission.

    Is there a way to get in touch with Eric to see if we could do that, especially if we mention his name with the photo?

    1. Thank you for your inquiry. Looking through my records, I don’t find the contact information for Eric Schmuttenmaer. You might be able to Google him. I’m sorry I can’t be of help.


  80. I am writing a paper on these barrels and find your viewpoint interesting. I think a water barrel would be great for watering flowers or grass.

  81. Hello,
    I too love the idea of the rain barrel, but I think the reason they are promoted in San Francisco is to reduce overloading our combined sewer system (Storm drains and sewers are combined, so when it rains the sewer system has to store a lot of storm water mixed with sewage. Reducing the peak inflows would help the sewer system keep the ocean clean!

    1. An inch of rain falling on a 1,000 square foot roof will generate 600 gallons of water. A 55 gallon rain barrel sequesters less than 10 percent of that water, and none at all if it is already full from previous rains. Why solve only 10 percent of the problem and call it a day?

      1. Not to be a pain, but an average house has 4-6 downspouts. They would ALL have rain barrels for 250 gallons (averaged at 5 downspouts). Avg US house is 2300 SF, average storm volume is well under an inch. (.37) meaning that roof would produce 616 gallons and the barrels would catch 250 or 40%. I agree with your skepticism actually, just not with your math. However, I hesitate condemning the hipsters, their hearts are in the right place.

        1. The number of rain barrels you postulate still doesn’t come close to supplying the water needs of the landscape, so your point makes no real sense. As for patronizing sarcasm, you definitely have the edge in that department.

  82. Hi Owen,

    I am a gardener in Ontario, and I am seriously interested in organic and earth friendly methods of gardening and yard maintenance. For example, among other things, we are converting our suburban yard into a certified wildlife habitat, and in the winter (we live in the snow belt) we take great care to ensure that snow removed from our driveway is placed in such a way as to ensure the melting water from the snow banks will stay on the greenscape to filter into the soil, not run off into the street.

    Despite being all the RAGE, and heavily promoted by the municipality, I have been very leery of rain barrels, for so many reasons. People who know me are ALWAYS chiding me about not having rain barrels on my property, acting smug as if they have trapped me in some kind of environmentally hypocritical lie – “You call yourself an environmentalist but you DON’T have rain barrel..?”

    I don’t bother to explain that rain barrels don’t hold that much, are filled with contaminated, stagnant water, etc. etc., or that we have carefully directed our downspouts to keep water sequestered IN our yard and not running into the street. I just can’t waste my breath trying to explain why I have always felt rain barrels are a sham.

    Thank you for articulating exactly what I’ve been thinking, and MORE!

    Bonnie from Ontario

    1. Thanks for the comments and the good story. Telling the truth is never a waste of breath. People need to know. Thanks for being sensible and doing the right thing!

  83. Good stuff. I remember setting up a 250 gallon plastic tank (free) to capture roof rain. In a moderate rain in Portland Oregon, it took about 55 min to fill up. (30′ x 25′) roof. That in itself sort of discouraged me. After seeing your ideas – I am once again encouraged to explore this. It would go well with my 5,000 watts of PV.

    Thank you

  84. Thanks for sharing. Off grid water collection is something that we MUST do, for sustainability. I have NO room on the side of my house, so it must got in the back yard. I would like to pipe the water into the collection drums in the basement. At least that’s the plan now.

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