Fifty years ago, most homes in Canada and the United States had rain barrels and cisterns. But as sprinkling systems became cheaper, home owners replaced rain water with municipal drinking water. These days, rain barrels are experiencing a renaissance thanks to the help of municipal rebate programs and subsidies.

How do you take advantage of free water falling from the sky? Collecting rainwater can start with the simple step of placing a rain barrel at the downspout of your eves trough. The rain barrel has a tap where you can place a bucket or watering can.

Rain barrels come in a range of colours, shapes, sizes and finishes. Most include an opening to collect water from a downspout, a lid, and a hose bibb or spigot.

For centuries, rainwater collected from roofs or gutters has been used throughout the world. In Asia, rainwater collection dates back almost 2000 years in Thailand. In the Roman empire, the world’s largest rainwater tank was built between 527 and 565 AD in Turkey.

Currently, more and more municipalities are encouraging residents to use rain barrels. In Ottawa, rain barrel rebates were provided to more than 10,000 residents last year. Rainwater harvesting has also become an integral part of designing buildings—like the Richmond Olympic Oval—that meet LEED and other green building certification requirements.

City of Vancouver residents can purchase a subsidized recycled plastic rain barrel for $75. This can hold up to 341 litres of water; it’s a half-cylinder design that can be placed against a wall. Features include two faucets, an overflow pipe, and a screen to filter debris. There is also a shorter rain barrel for small outdoor spaces available at $50 plus tax. This rain barrel can hold up to 170 litres. To take a look at a rain barrel, you can visit the City of Vancouver’s demonstration garden at 2150 Maple Street.

Do-it-yourselfers can build their own barrels or customize a large garbage can or plastic drum. Before you buy or build, here are some tips:

  • Avoid clear containers to prevent algae growth.
  • To prevent contamination, make sure to have a cover lid and a screen to catch debris.
  • Cover the top and all other openings to keep your barrel free of mosquitoes.

There are a range of more complex systems that use cisterns that feed water back into your home.

Another way to divert water from roofing gutters is to create depressions to catch runoff so it can seep into the ground and feed nearby plants in a rain garden. To keep water from seeping into your foundation, dig out a channel into your garden or develop a river-like trench.

Whatever method you use, rainwater harvested from your gutter can go a long way toward providing the water for your lawn or vegetable garden over the summer months.