The Rain Barrel Myth

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Go to any of the dozens of websites dealing with rain barrels and you’ll find the same claims. Rain barrels are a great way to get free water for watering plants, to hedge against droughts, and to help protect the environment by reducing stormwater. The claims are made by universities and state and private conservation agencies alike. These 55 – gallon containers are simply set beneath a downspout to capture rain water off your roof. They can be set up in an array to maximize the capture. Most home improvement and gardening stores sell them (usually for over $100 each). Certainly they are a great way to capture free water for your plants, but what about the claim that you are helping the environment by reducing stormwater in your watershed? It turns out that if you do the math, rain barrels do virtually nothing to reduce stormwater.

Let’s take a look at a watershed in the town of Sewanee on the Cumberland Plateau. Here the upper Abbo’s Alley watershed (70 acres) goes into flood stage between 15 and 25 times per year. During these floods stormwater erodes stream banks and causes loss of soil from the watershed. It is known (see previous post – link at bottom) that during storms, about 40% of the rain that falls on this watershed enters the stream directly across the ground surface to become stormwater. Now imagine a 2 inch storm event.

2 inches = 0.167 feet and the 70 acres of the watershed = 3,049,300 square feet

To get the volume of water that falls on the watershed during a 2 inch event, multiply the rain amount by the surface area of the watershed:

(0.167 ft.) X (3,049,300 square ft.) = 509,216 cubic ft., which is the same as 3,809,200 gallons.

40% of 3,809,200 gallons turns into stormwater. This is 1,523,680 gallons.

If there were 60 rain barrels on the watershed (about 2 per house), then (if they were empty at the start of the rain) we could capture 3,300 gallons (60 X 55) of roof water, preventing it from going into the stream.

3,300 gallons divided by 1,523,680 gallons = 0.216%

So, all those rain barrels would only reduce storm flow by 0.216% and the barrels become even less effective for larger rain events.

The main problem with this misconception is that it gives people the false impression that they are reducing stormwater in some significant way and they may therefore be less inclined to support more aggressive stormwater control measures. Why support the construction of a big, ugly detention basin in the watershed when rain barrels can do the job? So sure, use rain barrels for watering plants – they are great for this. But understand that really being able to control and reduce stormwater on the Cumberland Plateau demands a more aggressive approach involving rain gardens, bioswales and detention basins.

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