A Better Way to Harvest Rainwater

Capturing free rain from the sky is a simple and beautiful idea, but many rain barrel users aren’t making the most of this great resource. Learn how to create an inexpensive and more effective rainwater catchment setup.

| May 20, 2008

Rain Barrel Overflowing

Some rain barrel users aren’t making the most of their free rainwater resources. Try our rain barrel setup to make use of the water that would otherwise overflow in a heavy downpour.


Water shortages are cropping up everywhere these days — sometimes due to drought, and sometimes just because we draw too heavily on the water resources in many areas, especially with increased development and population growth. As a result, there’s lots of talk about putting rain barrels under downspouts to capture rainwater for watering lawns and gardens. But the truth is that a couple of 50-gallon barrels don’t hold much water. Think about how long it can take to irrigate your garden, compared to the few minutes it would take to use your hose to fill one or two 50-gallon barrels. During an inch of rainfall, more than 900 gallons flows off of a house with a 30-by-50 foot roof. Why not make use of all 900 gallons?

Here’s a low-cost way to move the rain from your roof to where it will do some good, instead of letting most of it overflow and “escape” as soon as the barrel fills up.

  1. First, add an extension to a downspout from your house or garage to direct the runoff into a barrel or stock tank. Or cut off a downspout so that you can fit a barrel under it.
  2. Now it’s time to make fast-flowing soaker hoses. Drill holes in some old garden hoses and use screw-on caps to plug the ends of the hoses that will not be connected to the barrel. (Note: This setup may not have enough water pressure to work with the kind of porous soaker hoses often sold in garden stores.)
  3. Next, head to your local hardware store. Take a sketch to show them what you want to do (see our illustration in the Image Gallery), and have them help you find everything you need: a bulkhead fitting (about 3 inches in diameter) to let water flow out of a hole you’ll drill into your barrel or tank, plus fittings and a manifold with multiple outlets for attaching hoses to the bulkhead.
  4. Now cut a hole the size of the bulkhead fitting into the side of your barrel. (If you have a commercially made rain barrel, it may already have a small hole drilled in it with a spigot. Just carve your new hole beside that.) Placing the hole near the bottom of the barrel will work best, so that as the barrel fills with water, the pressure will push the water out through the soaker hoses.
  5. Once your hole is carved, install the bulkhead fitting. Then connect it to the manifold. Finally, screw the open ends of your hoses onto the manifold.
  6. Place the hoses on whatever area of your garden or lawn you want to water next time it rains. If possible, rake a shallow depression into the surface of your garden rows or beds to help hold the rainwater from the hoses, as it’s flowing into your plants’ root zones.
  7. Wait for rain!


  • If you garden where too much rain is sometimes a problem, include shut-off valves on the hose outlets and a diverter on the downspout, so you can direct water from the downspout out into your yard when the garden would be harmed by excess water. 
  • Keep an eye on the barrel and hoses during the first few downpours. If you need the water to flow faster, drill more holes in the hoses. If the water is coming out too fast and causing erosion, tape some holes closed with duct tape.
  • If you try this approach, please write to us at letters@MotherEarthNews.com and let us know how it works out for you.
  • Learn more about rainwater harvesting in Harvest the Rain.


Water Storage by Art Ludwig
Focuses on the design of tanks for storing water, although one chapter concentrates on ponds. Includes detailed instructions for building a tank.

Create an Oasis with Greywater by Art Ludwig
Covers options for using recycled greywater (water that drains from washing machines, showers, bathtubs and sinks). Plumbing, regulations and common errors are explained.

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands (Volumes 1, 2 and 3) by Brad Lancaster
Volume 1 is an overview covering the basics of rainwater harvesting. Volume 2 covers the collection and storage of water in earthworks (swales, ponds and terraces), the use of mulch and greywater systems. Volume 3 (not yet published) will explore roof catchment and cistern systems in further detail.

8/5/2017 2:17:03 PM

We started gardening and we were gone wrong. We could not figure out why we were not getting the beautiful vegetables we were hoping for. People suggest to spray chemicals for vegetables and fruits but is poison and it is not organic vegetables. My lab professor referred a guide it helps me to grow my gardening as what we like, you can get the guide from here >> ( http://go2l.ink/plants ) <<. I have recommended this system to all of my friends and family. We got good organic natural vegetables and fruits in the next harvest, one of the beautiful products in the market.

6/3/2015 2:59:43 PM

Hi, here in the Salt Lake Valley i don't see where rain barrels would do us much good, we only rain a few times during the summer and when it rains it is for only a few minutes, just enough to make it hot and muggy. The state started selling rain barrels this year to help with our drout but they don't hold much and are expensive and they have to be registered, it's also against the law to catch any rain over a sertain amount, what the freak? Then why bother with any of it. I also have the same problem as one of the other persons that posted, the problem with the runoff from the shingles, you can see the oil sheen floating on top of the water. I have sandy soil, thus the name of the city i live in Sandy City and it takes a lot of water to grow a garden here, i use my ditch water and drip lines and rain barrels would do nothing for my lawn. I might be up in the night on this but i can see things getting bad enough that they would have to build water treatment plants and pump water from the ocean.

4/29/2015 11:59:47 AM

I live in an area with many food processing plants and as a result there are many 300 gallon food grade tanks available. These tanks are used to ship seasonings and cooking oil to the plants. I have purchased four of them and plumbed them together for watering my garden during dry spells. They come on a plastic or metal pallet and have a frame around them so you should be able to double stack them which I plan to try when finances permit. If one put a pre-filter on the system you should be able to use the water for household use with proper treatment.

4/29/2015 11:46:57 AM

Try elevating your barrels a couple of feet off the ground to get a better flow. I use gravity feed trickle irrigation in my off grid garden and berry orchard using 250 gallon recycled metal caged poly tanks I get for free at a local finger jointing mill. a very good idea and rainwater is the best for plants.

cj tucker
6/15/2011 1:24:38 PM

I don't think this is one of your better ideas. I agree with another poster's comment in that why would I need to divert rain water during a rain storm? I doubt that a hose with a few holes poked in it would allow extra water from the rain barrel to flow quickly enough through it. Eventually, the hose will be overwhelmed and spill-off will occur anyways. A better article might be the benefits of swales, berms and rain gardens for directing that extra rain water to the areas of the yard that need it the most without wasting any of it in the process. Just my 2 cents!

penny gustafson
2/20/2011 5:38:32 PM

I used to subscibe to you about 30 yrs. ago along with my husband. We have parted for 22 yrs. now and I am remarried and now living on a hobby farm. I found your mag. very useful in so many ways back then but you've slipped my mind since my ex took over the subscription. I am writting you to tell you that the 4 pm news on channel 11 here in my town has a live broadcast with a shoutbox so viewers can chat throughout the show. Last Friday they had a co. on the show that was pushing rain barrels for an out of sight amount of money. It was mentioned by the viewers and no one was to thrilled with the price so I mentioned they could always make thier own for alot less... I told them all to check out the Mother Earth News Magazine and they will know how to do this. I am going to mention it again on Monday at $ pm. In fact since the two anchors for the news are so "cosmopolitan" I am thinking of sending them an issue to check out. If you want to I think it would make an impact inviromentally and more sales for you. All in all you have the best read out there, I love it!! :) The news address is Kare 11 News/ Olson Memorial Highway / Golden Valley, MN. I am not sure of the zip code. The anchors for "Kare 11 @ 4 Live" are Diane and Pat. Keep up the great Earth News and Thank You, P. Gustafson

9/13/2009 9:25:14 PM

It is NO longer a crime in CO to have/use a rain barrel. The image shows the barrel overflowing. NOT good - use an appropriate sized overflow and safely redirect that water away from the foundation of your home! A great place for rain barrel kits and parts is: http://www.aquabarrel.com/index.php , http://www.aquabarrel.com/product_rain_barrel_plastic_parts.php

4/18/2009 9:54:15 PM

I love the idea of catching rain water for the garden/yard what have you. However, in Colorado and other upstream western states, it is illegal to catch and store the water that lands on your property. This water actually belongs to the guys downstream (California, Kansas ...)

2/2/2009 10:06:11 PM

You can find linking kits for 55 gallon barrels and lots of other rain barrel related stuff at Aquabarrel. They have all the parts you need to link barrels in series - When I needed extra help with sourcing parts for my rain barrel they were very helpful - ask for Barry - he's great at figuring out what you need to make your rain barrel system work...Aquabarrel comes up prety high in Google too so they must be pretty good at what they do

1/3/2009 7:24:38 PM

My website describes (incl. pictures) how to build a rain barrel, and hook them up in series. You can also read top expert's opinions about rooftop collected water safety and use our harvesting rainfall calculator. All at: http://home.comcast.net/~leavesdance/rainbarrels/construction.html

8/6/2008 10:44:38 AM

Think of the SOIL as part of your storage system, HeirloomCountry. So if you get a light rain of only 1/8 inch, this system would put maybe twice that amount onto your garden beds. If you have had lots of rain and the soil is soaked, then you might want to divert rainwater away from the garden, temporarily. But otherwise, every time it rains your garden will get extra water from the roof runoff--it can be "stored" in the subsoil until the plants need it. Speaking of roof runoff, I have not seen any research to indicate that there are chemicals in runoff from asphalt shingles that would be toxic to plants. I would not advise drinking such water, but I would think it would be OK for irrigation purposes.

8/6/2008 10:29:44 AM

Wait a minute though, I just finished reading this whole article, only to find out that I would then have the perfect set-up to water my garden- IN THE RAIN? (If it's raining, why do I need to WATER it?) I still have NOT increased the holding capcity of my barrel, only my ability to water with the still same amount that I had before. Now if an articles idea were to show one how to set up a multi-barrel containment system, say with an incorpoarted float valve on each, so that as one barrel "filled up" in the line, the water from the roof would then flow into the next barrel and so on down the line. Because yes, a 55 gallong barrel won't hold more than 55 gallons, no matter how many spigots or hoses you attach to it!

7/1/2008 8:20:00 AM

A word of caution! Many chemicals may be in the runoff water if you have an asphalt shingle roof. I like the idea of using rain runoff but not a good idea for the garden if there is a lot of chemicals leaching from the roof into the water. My roof is one of those that does leach chemicals. Very obviouse by the burning of tender plants along the drip edge of my roof. I hope to someday replace it with a metal roof but for now it will have to stay. I am currently trying to think of a way to direct the water to a small retention pond for collection and cleaning by aquatic vegetation.

6/26/2008 4:42:29 PM

Great idea. Some cities north of the border already are sponsoring residents with rain barrel and set up kits. Though they ahve a dry year, they are concern about water shortage. Over here in California, we have droughts for years, warning of water shortage and possible rationing, but nothing was done by government agencies, city government, county non state. This is indeed very sad. Why wait until the last minute and rush out to get barrels to store water. We have been looking for rain barrels, but they were very expansive, not to spead of the shipping charges. Local hardware store in the San Francisco/San Jose Bay area did not carry any of these rain harvester/rain barrel in their inventory. It will be nice if someone can point to some good sources for good quality and very affordable rain harvest products.

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