Photo: Young girl filling a watering can from a rain barrel

While rainwater may not always be safe to drink, it can be used for a variety of other applications—from watering your lawn and flower beds to washing cars or driveways.

Photograph by Paul Thompson/Photolibrary

By Maureen Kochan

for National Geographic

Shopping Tips

While rainwater may not always be safe to drink, it can be used for a variety of other applications—from watering your lawn and flower beds to washing cars or driveways. And depending on your state and local laws, you may be able to use rainwater for some household graywater uses, like toilets and showers.

A rain barrel is essentially a large tank with a spigot that sits under your home’s gutter downspout to harvest rainwater from your roof. You can make one for just a few dollars, or you can purchase a basic model for around $50 to $100. A more decorative model will cost upwards of $300.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Safety: Rain barrels hold 50-plus gallons of water, so be sure the tank is both child- and animal-proof.

  • Handling overflow: Look for rain barrels with an overflow valve that kicks in when the barrel reaches capacity.

  • Clean water: A rain barrel topped with a fine-mesh screen will keep out insects and debris.

  • Materials: Rain barrels come in all sorts of materials, from durable stainless steel to fiberglass and recycled plastic, so let personal preference be your guide. Some retailers even sell rain barrels made from old whiskey or wine barrels, probably a more sustainable choice, saving materials from ending up in a landfill.

  • Expanding capacity: An average rainstorm can fill one 60-gallon rain barrel within an hour. You can link several barrels to harvest even more rainwater. Look for barrels with an outlet for attaching a linking hose.

  • Rebates: Check with your local water agency to learn about any rain barrel subsidies or rebates in your area. Some environmental groups sell rain barrels at a discount, saving you even more.

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