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How to install a rain barrel to save money and help save the planet

Trim your water bill and do a little good for the environment by catching rainwater and using it around your yard.

Approximately 30% of U.S. household water use goes toward outdoor purposes like irrigation or car washing. Cutting back on that usage from your local water system can cut down on local pollution and save a little money off your water bill. One way to get your water supply off the grid: Set up a rain barrel. It's easy and economical, and it won't take more than a few hours of work. 

There are a few ways to go about setting up a rain barrel, and you'll need to think about the specific circumstances in your yard, as well as how you intend to use the water. Here are a few important things to consider.

Read more: Go greener with these cool eco-friendly products in 2020

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A 55-gallon drum like this one will do the trick.

Chance Lane/CNET

Barrel of rain

Despite the image that might pop into your head when you hear the term "rain barrel," you don't technically have to use a wooden barrel to gather rainwater. A trash can, a drum or a bucket would work fine. The container can either be closed or open at the top, but if you go with an open container to catch rain directly as it falls, make sure to cover any openings with a mesh screen (1.2 mm or smaller) to avoid creating a mosquito breeding ground. If your container is transparent, paint it or wrap it with a covering to discourage algae growth. 

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Painting your barrel a dark color helps keep out algae-promoting sunlight.

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55-gallon drums are a popular choice for rain barrels, and you can purchase one new from Amazon for $85. If you want to save money, look for used ones locally. After pricing out my options, I ended up buying two 55-gallon drums for $7 each on Craigslist for someone local here in southern Indiana. 

Before you buy a used barrel, it's important to know what it was used for previously. Mine held glucoamylase, an enzyme used to promote alcohol creation in beer and liquor, most likely used by one of the nearby distilleries. I cleaned it out with a mixture of soap and bleach, but even after that I wouldn't use the water from this or any other rain barrel for drinking. Unless you're prepared to treat it in some fashion, rain barrel water is stagnant, and thus you should consider it nonpotable. 

Before we get into getting water into your barrel, again, the first thing you should do is make sure whatever you're using as a rain barrel is opaque. The plastic drums you'll find out there are often bright blue. That would stand out a little too much in most residential yards. I'd also feel better about keeping it sealed off from the sun if it was a darker color. I painted mine using exterior spray paint and primer. If you're using a container that has any transparency, you want to paint or wrap the drum with something to prevent organic growth inside. 

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Except for the barrel and a power drill, the EarthMinded DIY Rain Barrel converter kit comes with everything you need to connect your downspout to a rain barrel.

Chance Lane/CNET

Catch all this

A catchment area is a space that catches water. In this case, I decided that I wanted to connect to our gutter system, using a section of the roof as a catchment. This is a pretty common method, but not required. If you need to put your rain barrel in a remote area away from your house, you could create a catchment using a tarp. You could also go without an expanded catchment, and just leave a barrel out in an open area to capture the rainfall directly. Keep in mind, the larger the catchment, the more rain you'll catch.

If, like me, you want to connect your barrel to your gutter system, there are two ways to do this: an open connection or a closed connection. 

An open connection is easy enough: Put the opening of your container directly underneath the end of your downspout. Downspouts often run down the wall and terminate near the ground, so you may need to cut a section of the downspout away to achieve this. 

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If you're using a closed barrel, you'll need to connect it to a water source. The kit I used includes this piece of flexible tubing to go from downspout to barrel. 

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With an open connection, you have a few other things to consider. First, mosquitoes. As mentioned earlier, any opening will need to be covered with a screen to deter mosquitoes from laying eggs in the container. Attaching a screen isn't very difficult. Purchase a sheet or a roll of it at your local hardware store and staple it in place. A screen will also mean you need to worry about that screen getting clogged with debris. Just keep an eye on it and clear off as needed, especially if your rain barrel is situated near trees that drop leaves or other vegetative matter. 

If you go with a closed connection, it removes the need for a screen. The downspout is plumbed to the barrel with a watertight connection.

The other thing you'll need to consider is overflow. Once the container is full, incoming water has to go somewhere. In my case, it would overflow right onto my deck, causing damage. If you want, you can run an overflow line from the top of the container to safely channel the excess water elsewhere. Even a large barrel can fill up overnight after a strong downpour, so you'll want to take overflow seriously. 

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Your downspout is a great source of water for a rain barrel, but you'll most likely need to cut a hole in it.

Chance Lane/CNET

Come together

I initially wanted to design and build the barrel with an assortment of parts from the local home improvement store -- this seemed like it should have been easy enough. But after a few trips to the store, I couldn't figure out an elegant way to create the downspout connection I had imagined, and I ended up with a cart full of adapters and transitions. 

Instead I went with the EarthMinded DIY Rain Barrel Diverter and Parts Kit. I got mine for $35 on Walmart. The kit contains a neat fitting that connects your downspout to the barrel. When it rains, the fitting, called a FlexiFit Diverter directs only a portion of the water to the barrel. The nice part of this is that it removes the need for a separate overflow line. When the container is full, the incoming water will simply bypass the collector and continue running down the spout as normal.

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The EarthMinded kit includes this clever diverter that fits inside your downspout and directs water to your rain barrel. When the barrel is full, the water flows back through the downspout as normal. 

Chance Lane/CNET

Built to fill

The instructions provided with the EarthMinded barrel kit are surprisingly detailed. And the required tools and parts were all included. It's a great option if you want to connect your barrel directly to your downspout. 

With this particular kit, you set up the various connections to the barrel, then cut a hole into your downspout to install the diverter. With any installation, you'll want to seal up anywhere that allows mosquitoes access to the barrel, including any cuts in your downspout. A bead of silicone is usually sufficient.

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With the diverter installed in the downspout, the tubing bridges the connection between the spout and the barrel. 

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Once you get it all set up, you'll want some way to get the water out of your barrel in order to actually put it to use. A short piece of threaded plumbing pipe with a cap on one end will let you draw water into a watering can or bucket, although you won't be able to control the stream that way, and you'll likely get wet yourself when you take the cap off and put it back on. That will still give you a good way to drain the barrel quickly if you need to. 

Another solution is a spigot with an attachment for a short garden hose with a spray nozzle. That will give you more control turning the stream on and off, and if you connect a hose you can spray your a garden directly from the barrel itself if it's located nearby.

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The spigot lets me control the flow from the barrel easily. I can even hook up a hose to it. 

Chance Lane/CNET

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