Rain barrels!

April 17, 2009

We finally have some! Or rather, we have three wine barrels sitting in the garage waiting to be made into rain barrels. This is a project I’ve been procrastinating on for a while, mostly because I couldn’t find any rain barrels I liked and D. wanted to try making them ourselves from recycled wine barrels. Took a while to find the right barrels at the right price, but suddenly, up popped a great deal on Craigslist—a guy from the North Bay who was selling wine barrels for $40 a pop and would deliver them to Oakland for free. (Yes, technically you can get them for free from the vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, but it’s a pain to try to find and then move them, and well worth the $40 to not have to rent a truck….plus, everyone else selling them nearby wanted more like $75 or $100 each. The guy we bought ours from was terrific, though, so if you’re in the market for them, let me know and I can send along his contact info.)

So anyway. Rain barrels. We already had some ideas on how to do the conversion, and as an added bonus, the guy we bought them from sent along some instructions and recommendations after I mentioned that we planned to use them for that. Here’s what we plan to do—I’m posting this beforehand partly to see if anyone has any good suggestions on things to change in our plan. Once we actually do it, I’ll follow up with pictures (and, I imagine, lots of lessons learned….)

If we’re lucky, our barrels will turn out looking something like this one, created by some DIYers in Penticton, BC, or the one below, made by Used Wine Barrels up in Sacramento County.

This is not as pretty as the Penticton version, but for some reason WordPress does not want to let you see it.

This is not as pretty as the Penticton version, but for some reason WordPress doesn't want to let you see that one...

You can either make a rain barrel a closed system (just the barrel and the gutter) or an open system (with an overflow tube that allows water to flow off). We’re mixing and matching a bit. The barrels connected directly to the gutters will be closed systems with special gutter attachments that automatically redirect the overflow back into the gutter. This is mostly because our drainage system is underground and paved over, so it’s non-trivial to direct an overflow tube into the drain. (D. thinks we could just let it flow down the garden path, but that doesn’t seem wise when there’s an easy solution.) I also want one rain barrel over near the veggie bed, though, so it won’t be connected to a gutter—instead, it will just be a plain old rain-from-the-sky collection device, and it will need an overflow tube. (There’s not really room for it against the house where the gutter comes down, sadly, though I might try to find a skinny one someday to squish in there.) I haven’t decided whether to put one in the front yard yet; the gutter there also comes down in an awkward spot, so I’ll see how the system in back goes first.

Oh, and also unique about the backyard barrels: we will have two barrels connected to one another with a hose in order to allow water to flow between the two, and will eventually be connecting the second barrel to the drain from the washing machine, which is on the other side of the garage wall. Right now I think the wisest way to do this is to connect the barrels at the bottom and set them on a slight grade so that water flows down into the second barrel by default, but I may change my mind about that as the project progresses. There’s still some finagling to do with this (namely, removing the shingles and drilling through the garage wall, which is a little scary!) but eventually, we will have a wannabe-graywater system set up. We will also be switching to Oasis laundry detergent so that we can use the water on the plants without worry (not that our current Trader Joe’s natural detergent is all that brutal, but still playing it safe!) I’ll probably still stick to using this water for non-edibles for now, though.

Tentative list of tools and supplies:

  • Concrete blocks for barrels to sit on
  • 3/4″ hose bib brass spigot (or another spigot of your choosing) that will clear the width of the barrel
  • 3/4″ overflow valve with appropriate ends to connect to a hose or other outward-bound device [this may need to be bigger if it’s your primary overflow device and you have a large roof surface!]
  • Rubber washers and locknuts if you plan to connect the spigot and valve from the inside
  • 15/16″ spade drill bit (or appropriate size for the spigot you plan to use)
  • Mesh to cover openings
  • Silicone caulking
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Drill

Tentative instructions:

  1. Use the drill bit to drill a hole near the base of each barrel, and attach a spigot. The tentative plan is to screw this in with caulking to avoid having to take the top off the barrel; the backup (and more likely!) plan is to take the top off, place a rubber washer on the back, and screw a locknut on from the other side to hold the spigot.
  2. Caulk the spigot (and in this case, also the corks in the side holes that attached to the wine paraphernalia).
  3. For barrels with overflow hoses or attachments, drill a hole near the top of the barrel’s side and attach an overflow hose, directing it into a drainage system or rain garden. Repeat steps above to attach the overflow valve.
  4. Attach the gutter system, either by drilling a hole into the top of the barrel and inserting a diverter hose from the gutter, or by drilling a large hole and setting a gutter extension on top of it. In either case, the hole needs to be screened to prevent gunk from flowing into the barrel.

Does this sound like it will work? Is hoping that I won’t have to take the top of the barrel off just a pipe dream? We’ll see….I’ll post some photos as we move forward with this project, as well as some tried-and-true instructions if (when!) the project succeeds.

More Rain Barrel Links
Not the DIY type? TerraCycle sells converted oak barrels that are apparently made in Stockton (or so says the Chron)
Step-by-Step: Converting Wine Barrels to Rain Barrels
(Life is Good in Penticton)
Harvesting the Water with Rain Barrels
(This Old House)
Rain Barrel Capacity and Design
(James City County, VA)



  1. This looks great! I’d love to have the contact info of the wine barrel supplier…we’re interested in doing the same thing at my house.

    ALSO- we have loads of concrete blocks for FREE. Any one anyone anyone is welcome to them. Just write.

  2. Regarding connecting the two tanks: if they are connected, water will flow from the first tank into the second as long as water in the first tank reaches the connector, and until the water in both tanks equalizes. So if your tanks are connected at the bottom, water will flow immediately into the second tank until the water level in both tanks is the same distance above sea level. If the second tank is a little lower, it will fill up faster, and the first tank will only fill up as far as the second one maxes out. That is, if your second tank is 6″ lower than the grade of the first, the first will only fill up to 6″ below the top. Perhaps this is what you are looking for, but if you have an overflow line (which you are planning on), you can have the barrels level and have more holding capacity. As long as your inflow from your washer is also at the highest point and has a backflow preventer valve, you should not have any issues with backflow (as long as your overflow line can carry more water than the inputs. See below).
    If your intent was to have the barrels filled sequentially, put the connector at the top. Again, for maximum capacity you want both barrels at grade. Otherwise your second container’s overflow line will release water before the higher barrel fills.

    Two more things: make sure any filters/screens are easily reachable so they can be cleaned with no fuss. It’s mostly debris that’s an issue, as sludge can just go into your garden.


    Number two is to make sure your overflow outlet has more carrying capacity as your inflow, or during max flow water will back up. Looking at your wine barrel link, I’d say there’s a good chance their tiny overflow wouldn’t keep up with their roof gutter in a downpour. I know they want to connect a hose, but having their gutter back up is not going to divert water away from the foundation. 😉 You point out the possible need for this in your list, but I just want to reiterate it. It’s especially important if you are draining your clothes washer in a storm. 🙂 If the overflow can’t keep up, your washer won’t drain.

    Good luck! I like your spiffy wine barrels a lot better than the usual plastic containers.

  3. Any idea how I can get some used wine barrels delivered to the Chicago area cheaply? I am looking to do something similar with multiple barrels, and the lowest one would be the overflow barrel at the alley (off the garage).

    Also, Chicago gets COLD in winter! I’d like to set up a diverter on my downspouts so I can essentially divert the water to the barrels in the summer, and back to the normal flow in the winter (so the barrels don’t freeze). Do you know if such a diverter exists for downspouts?

  4. Hi Jim—no clue on wine barrels to Chicago, unfortunately! You might try looking to see if there are any small vineyards out in the surrounds? (I know there are a few here and there in parts of the country that don’t usually come to mind as wine hot spots.)

    As far as the freezing goes, I know there are diverters that allow you to turn the diversion on and off to the barrels by hand (basically it works like a faucet), which is probably what you need. Can’t remember which specifically, but they definitely exist—I’ll see if I can dig up the info!

  5. since my well drilling was a flop, and greywater replumbing wb a major pita for various reasons, i’m considering rerouting downspouts to some kind of storage. but i don’t understand how one could store enough water in barrels on a normal sized city lot to water a garden and several fruit trees thru a long dry summer. maybe bringing in a backhoe and digging a large underground storage container with a pump would be enough, but heck one modest shaker and it starts to leak. not to mention i’m tired of paying to get rid of dirt.

    -len raphael

  6. This is definitely a challenge in a climate like ours. You can’t, really. It makes a dent—once our barrels are finally set up, they’ll store around 150 gallons (I think?)—but that won’t last through the dry season. Still, it’s not chump change, and it will help a lot during the spring and the fall when the rain is a little more regular (like, say, if we had actually gotten them set up before last week’s storm!) We’re toying with eventually equipping one with a mini-greywater system off of our washer, but that adds another layer of complexity because you need to use greywater fairly rapidly—it can’t just sit in the barrel till it’s needed. So we’ll tackle that later….

  7. Would love contact info for the wine barrel guy. We are desperate for wine barrels for gardening just now!

  8. it’s finally dawning on me, that tankless water heaters are a dumb idea in the bay area. sort of the prius of the home green arena. (same gas, use more lead and energy to produce the lead batteries)

    even with fairly short distances between the water heater and the sink or shower, i have to run the water for about 10 to 25 seconds for it to reach a warm temp. what you save in energy you lose in water unless you have a grey water setup. (read something about a recirculating pump, but that seems like it might use more electricity and keep the tankless running instead of saving gas. ?)


  9. plus the darn things are complicated little buggers. with control panels, error codes, etc.

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