If you seek to grow your own food, you likely oscillate between having too much rain or not enough. Regardless of where you live, the reality is that plants need the right amount of water at the right time. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for the backyard gardener to control the weather just yet. If there were only a way to store water when we get excess, to use when we need it. That’s where our easy DIY rain barrel solution comes into play!
Online Rain Barrels
We always wanted to do a rain barrel system to water our garden but the price was too high. If you go online and look, you’ll find them ranging in prices but they start at about $100 and go way up from there. When you think about how many barrels you might need to water a typical garden, this quickly becomes cost prohibitive for most of us.
One of the other things that always made us a bit leery about harvesting rainwater was the fear of regulations. The good news is virtually every US state allows a version of rainwater harvesting for personal (non-potable) garden use. Many states outright encourage it, even offering rebates for those who install systems. If you’re interested, here’s a great summary of state guidelines that you can quickly reference. As always… you should validate for your country, state, and local laws.
The third issue we had with the online rain barrels is that they aren’t designed to be expandable. We have a larger garden, and we need more than a few gallons of water to use at a time. Some of the largest you’ll find are typically 30-40 gallons. Given that the average garden hose delivers about 17 gallons per minute, you can see how quickly that would empty a single barrel. Even with being frugal with watering, many of us simply need a larger system.
We also budget our watering needs by growing things like our potatoes via the Ruth Stout method. This dramatically reduces how frequently we water them. Check out that approach here if you’re interested.
DIY Rain Barrels
We don’t live in the city, but we do have county water where we live and after getting a ridiculous bill on a particularly dry month… we decided to do a DIY rain barrel system. We’ve been using it for a few years now and it solves all the issues we struggled with and didn’t break the bank.
Why Use Trash Cans As Rain Barrels?
Admittedly, it seems counter intuitive to start with. Why use something designed to store trash as a water storage? There are actually several compelling reasons to consider trashcans as a great base DIY Rain Barrel system. Specifically, we recommend the Rubbermaid trash cans in the 44 gallon size.
#1 They are Tough Enough to be Rain Barrels
Some of our Brute trashcans have been outside for years now and look almost as good as the day we bought them. They have a UV inhibitor in the plastic, so they are very resistant to fading or cracking. These also never rust out as some metal containers are prone to do over time.
We’ve accidentally forgotten to drain our barrels over our Midwest winters a couple of times over the years. Because of their nearly indestructible nature, they have survived being frozen solid for months. This past winter (yes, we forgot again), they actually expanded at the bottom to the point that they became wobbly. I was worried they would split, but once the spring thaw occurred, they bounced right back into shape with no leaks.
#2 They are Considered Food Grade
Believe it or not, the Rubbermaid Brute cans are considered food grade safe. The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF as it’s more commonly known today) has a listing of food safe storage containers, and you can find the Brute cans listed here as NSF/ANSI 2 certified.
When you see people reuse other barrels, you’re never quite sure what may have been put in them previously. It may have been chemicals or pharmaceuticals… you just don’t know. At least with a clean new Brute barrel, you know more or less what you’re getting.
Additionally, because the cans and lids are completely opaque, algae doesn’t grow in them, even during the summer. While we don’t recommend using rainwater for drinking (it’s actually illegal in some places), having an algae free water catch is a nice back-up plan for worst case scenarios. It could be filtered and/or chemically treated in an emergency.
#3 They are Cheaper than Commercial Rain Barrels
At the time of this writing, you could pick up these trash cans for about $54 USD at any home improvement store. That’s about half as much as the cheapest rain barrel for purchase online or in the stores. If you decide to put more than one in, the cost adds up considerably. The fact that these are readily available also means that you’re not scouring the landscape to find someone who “has a connection” on getting other types of barrels. It saves money to do the DIY rain barrel solution.
#4 You can Connect them for Larger Systems
In our case, we started with a single can, but quickly figured out that we needed more. We ended up expanding our system to three cans for a total of 132 gallons of rainwater. We try to be very frugal in our usage, so we’ve never fully emptied them during the growing season. However if you live in a more arid climate than we do, then having the ability to easily add more barrels at a later date could be crucial. We suggest starting with what you think you might need while leaving some room for growth.
Final thoughts on Rain Barrels
Buying pre-made rain barrels is a good choice if you have plenty of money and want a simple turn-key operation. However, if you want something that you can tailor to your needs, expand when needed, and that won’t cost you an arm and a leg, then we suggest doing a DIY rain barrel version.
While it’s not required to have your barrels on a raised platform, we highly recommend it for gravity fed pressure. This allows you to get as much water out of them as possible. For every foot you raise the water off the ground you add 0.433 psi. So in our case the top of the water is about 6 feet off the ground or about 2.6psi (6 x .433). That may not sound like much (and it isn’t) but it makes a huge difference in the rate it fills up your watering can.
Stay tuned for our next update when we add solar and a DC pressure pump to allow us to water our greenhouse that’s uphill!
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