Spring Showers: Are Rain Barrels for You? 

By Scott Ware 

For some years now the City of Chicago has been marketing rain barrels as an almost painless step we can take to contribute to the ecology while saving on our water bills. Many homes are still connected to over-loaded city storm sewers. Installing rain barrels can cut you off from the municipal system 

The barrel boosters are a little more enthusiastic than frank when it comes to the costs and benefits for homeowners. Barrels cannot be used in the winter and frequently run dry in summer. Above, they are too small. A simple half inch rainfall would fill 2.5 rain barrels from a typical garage. Think of how many barrels your entire house would need. 

My house was built in 1871, before a storm water system existed in Beverly/Morgan Park. A downspout near my back door drops into a large brick cistern buried underground. This was the traditional solution to runoff from a roof, and to obtaining irrigation water during dry spells. Modern versions of my cistern are available with pre-fabricated tanks and many accessories. One system includes a waterfall and a pump that will connect to a garden hose. But these systems are a pricey to install. 

A cheaper solution is to build a dry well or French drain near each downspout and several feet away from the house foundation. The average “well needto be at least 3.5 feet deep. Run a PVC drain pipe from your downspout to side of the holeFill the hole most of the way with cheap ½-inch gravelplace a piece of landscape cloth on top then fill the remaining 6 inches with top soil. In effect, this is an underground rain barrel and can plant on top of it. 

If you already use a rain barrel, I suggest investing in a small submersible pump (perhaps 500 gallons per hour) to put in the bottom of the barrelThis makes all the difference in getting water where you want it and in a reasonable amount of time. Some pumps are sold as part of kits that have fittings to use with rain barrels. 

You can decrease overflow problems by hooking up a second barrel to the first. And in the absence of a pump, raising the height of the barrels will help with the water flow a little. Getting a barrel on top of a platform about knee high is a good compromise between water flow and safety.  

I found one unique solution in the front of my house. The house has wide eaves that keep rain from reaching soil near the house. The rhododendron plants there as a result do not get enough water. I therefore ran a 25-foot soaker hose from my corner rain barrel past the four shrubs and left the valve open. The barrel is never full and my shrubs now get as much water as the rest of the yard. 

Scott Ware owns a Beverly based landscape design and build service. He can be reached at 773-445-8479 or by email at scottware@aya.yale.edu.