Go with the Flow: DIY Rain Barrel

Build a rain barrel that cleverly uses gravity to send water uphill.

The installed rain barrel, painted brown and fitted with a brass spigot for feeding the garden hose. Putting scrap lattice on its sides isn’t necessary, but does makes the setup look more attractive.
Photo by Frank Hyman

I frequently refer to the adage “What goes up, must come down,” along with other rudimentary principles of physics to make my life easier on our little homestead. Gravity is always in play, so there’s no sense in fighting it. I go with gravitational flow whenever I can.

One of the heaviest things we deal with when gardening or farming is water. At roughly 8 pounds per gallon, it adds up. So, when it rains in summer, I like to store the water in a rain barrel and then let it drain out through my vegetable beds during dry spells, to keep me from needing to haul water around. But what do you do when your garden beds are slightly higher than the outlet on your rain barrel? You use gravity to send it uphill, of course!

Tools & Materials

  • Stake
  • Twine
  • Line level
  • 4-foot level
  • Pallets
  • Blocks of 6x6 pressure-treated wood, cinder blocks, or bricks
  • Chicken wire
  • Rubber pond liner, metal roofing, or rolled roofing
  • IBC tote
  • Exterior-grade paint for plastic
  • Brass spigot
  • Spade bit that matches inside diameter of threads of brass spigot
  • Exterior-grade caulk
  • Downspout diverter with watertight connections

Everyday Physics

This IBC rain barrel is attached to a water-resistant plastic pallet that can be stacked atop the wood-pallet base.
Photo by Frank Hyman

You can’t fool Mother Nature, but you can sometimes play tricks on a hose full of water. To get water from a rain barrel to go uphill, you just need to make the water in the garden hose “think” it’s running downhill in order to make it, in fact, run uphill. But how do you do that?

I do it by starting with a stack of free pallets saved from an undignified demise in a landfill. There, the wood would turn into gases that amplify climate disruption. By using sturdy, free pallets as a base on which to raise a rain barrel up a few feet, you, too, can “fool” water into pushing uphill to feed soaker hoses in your garden beds. Here’s how.

Freshwater Facts

  • 1 gallon of water = 8 pounds
  • 1 cubic foot = 7.5 gallons of water = 60 pounds
  • 300-gallon container x 8 pounds = 2,400 pounds
  • A vegetable garden in summer needs roughly 1 gallon water per square foot per week.

Choose a Proper Rain Barrel

Vegetable beds in summer need roughly 1 gallon of water per square foot per week. For example, a 4-by-12-foot bed equals 48 square feet, and in dry conditions, it needs about 48 gallons of water each week. That means a 50-gallon barrel can water one bed for one week, until the next rain refills it. You could set up a whole series of barrels, but that would multiply the cost of connections and the time to install them.

I recommend International Beverage Containers (IBCs) that have held nontoxic liquids. I call them “super rain barrels.” You can find IBCs advertised on Craigslist for about $75 to $150 apiece. They’re worth it. I figure, if it holds more gallons than it costs in dollars, you’re getting a good deal. And IBCs hold about 300 gallons — six barrels’ worth, but with a smaller footprint and less connection hardware required. IBCs are nearly a cube (48 by 48 by 40 inches) of food-grade plastic stiffened by an aluminum cage screwed to a pallet. On top is an 8-inch-wide screw-on lid. At the bottom is a 2-inch plastic spigot. The ones I’ve bought still had the faint scent of the almond oil they originally contained. The plastic is translucent, so to keep algae from growing inside, I slap on a couple of coats of dark-brown paint that’s made for plastic.

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