My sustainable homestead is evolving—and the new addition to the ever-growing project involves using rain barrels to provide my chickens with drinking water, irrigate my garden, and keep my compost pile moist.

Luckily for me, my local municipality teamed up with our state college to offer residents classes and incentives to help grow our community’s conservation effort (you can check with your local government to see if they offer anything similar). Through the program, I was able to purchase a 55-gallon rain barrel for just $37—a deal so good I opted to purchase three barrels. The barrels were guaranteed to be food-grade, which meant I avoided the toxic residuals that might have been lurking in any old barrel. Instead, my barrel had been used exclusively to store juice, so it was actually designed to withstand both the pressure and weight of 55 gallons of liquid, which weighs roughly just under 500 pounds.

The sweet juice residuals meant I needed to clean the barrel out with a solution, though. You can use a solution of one ounce of bleach to five gallons of water or, as I did, opt for a vinegar and baking soda alternative. However you get the job done, you’ll want to make sure the barrel is fresh and clean before you start collecting water in it.

Here are a few things I’ve learned throughout the process:

  • You don’t need a water pump to get the water out if you use gravity to your advantage and place the barrel on a raised base.
  • You want your base to be level and balanced.
  • 55 gallons of water is very heavy.
  • You’ll need to use fine mesh as a barrier at every entry point you create; otherwise, debris can clog everything up, and bugs are attracted to the water.
  • It’s important to avoid placing your barrel in direct sunlight because algae will grow inside it. You can also paint your barrel to keep the light out.

The build itself is rather simple: Rain barrels have inlets into which you direct a water source—you can direct the water from your gutter system by modifying your downspout to pour directly into the inlet, for example. Add another hole toward the top of the barrel for overflow and plan to direct that water away from your foundation—or into another barrel.

Next, you’ll need to cut a hole toward the bottom of the barrel and install a spigot. From the spigot, you can use a garden hose to direct the water to wherever you want it to go. How high you place the barrel will determine how much pressure you are going to get.

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