When you think about Welcoming Wildlife to your outdoors space, managing rainwater might not be the first thing that pops into your mind, but creating intentional systems for collecting water is a great way to support the local ecosystem. We’ve been focusing a lot on what to plant or build to attract wildlife to your garden, but now let’s dive into the water we use to support our outdoor spaces. 

In our two part blog series, we’ll take a look at why catching rainwater is important and we’ll feature tips for installing two of the most common household stormwater mitigation systems: rain barrels and rain gardens. Our first article features tips for installing a rain barrel from Matt Trokan of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful. Stay tuned for part two which will feature advice from Owen Hunter-Linville of Groundwork Ohio River Valley who is an expert at installing rain gardens. 

Why is managing rainwater important? 

The importance of rainwater cannot be overstated. Rain not only helps keep plants alive, but it also replishes our soils and local waterways. When left to their own devices, ecosystems are able to regulate and utilize rainwater in a variety of ways. However, as cities have grown, more and more natural surfaces are being paved over. A hard surface like pavement is what is known as an impervious surface, which basically means water cannot pass through it. In a forest when rain falls, water is absorbed by the ground. If a storm is particularly strong then water may pool for a while, but eventually the ground will be able to absorb it. On the other hand, when rain falls on a parking lot, the water has nowhere to go. It will either pool in areas until it evaporates or it will run off to areas where it can be absorbed, like local waterways or sewers. When a strong storm comes, areas with large amounts of pavement are prone to flooding. Rain that falls on impervious surfaces picks up pollutants such as motor oil and carries those with it when it runs into the ground or local waterways. This runoff contaminates those local water sources, making it dangerous for local wildlife.

Stormwater Management at Home: Rain Barrels  

Rain barrels are containers that catch rainwater. They are typically connected to downspouts and collect the water that runs off roofs. To learn a little more about rain barrels, we talked to Matt Trokan, Development & Communications Manager at Keep Cincinnati Beautiful. Matt has installed many barrels during his years with the Sierra Club and has a system of linked barrels in his yard. Check out Matt’s advice in the tips below: 

Cincinnati’s Combined Sewers

Image source: River Network

In Cincinnati, stormwater management issues are even more widespread because of the design of our sewer systems. We have what is known as a Combined Sewer system meaning that our sewers carry both sewage and rainwater in the same pipe. When it rains and the sewers are inundated with water, they overflow, contaminating local waterways with sewage and polluted stormwater. Learn more about the issue of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) in this article from the EPA.

What are the benefits of rain barrels? 
    • Reduce Stormwater Runoff
      Rain barrels collect water that would otherwise be flowing over driveways and lawns, picking up pollutants and running into local waterways. 
    • Save Money
      According to the EPA, “the average American family uses 320 gallons of water per day, about 30 percent of which is devoted to outdoor uses.” By using a rain barrel rather than turning on a faucet and drawing water from a municipal water source you’ll save on your water bill and be helping to mitigate stormwater runoff. It’s a win win for your wallet and local waterways.  
    • Better for plants
      The rainwater collected in a rain barrel is better for plants, Matt says, because it doesn’t contain the same additives found in tap water like phosphates and fluoride. Those added compounds in tap water tend to “accumulate in the soil over time and potentially harm plant roots and microorganisms in the soil.” By using captured rainwater, you’ll clean up your soil and promote a healthy environment where plants can thrive. 
    • Can help you feel more connected to your outdoor space
      If you’re choosing to add a rain barrel to your space, you obviously are trying to work with the environment in mind. “You’re not going to use a rain barrel to water your lawn,” says Matt. When you have a rain barrel, you really start to understand how often water is taken for granted and you’ll see changes in your outdoor space as you begin using a different kind of water to sustain your garden.
Location + installation tips
  • Types of barrels + installation kits
    There are many different rain barrel designs, but Matt recommends making your own out of a repurposed 55 gallon plastic drum. You can keep an eye out for these on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, or you can buy one new at a local home improvement store. Once you get your drum, Matt recommends picking up EarthMinded’s DIY Rain Barrel Installation Kit. It includes all the pieces and instructions you’ll need to convert your drum into a rain barrel. If you’d prefer to buy an already assembled rain barrel, check out Hamilton County Recycling and Solid Waste District’s rain barrel sale (ends 5/3/21) or browse the inventory on Rain Brothers’ website. Keep in mind that most rain barrels have to be attached to a home’s gutter and downspout system so make sure to look into what modifications you will have to make to your downspout depending on the kit or rain barrel you choose.
    Note: Matt cautions people against using open top barrels because they tend to turn into mosquito breeding grounds.
  • Location
    Matt’s advice when it comes to location: “elevation is your friend.” The taller your barrel, the more water pressure there will be, making the flow of the water stronger. If you have a hilly yard, it is best to place your barrel in an area of higher elevation than your garden. You can then connect hoses to transport water from your barrel to your garden. If it’s not possible to get much elevation in your space, you can always get a pump to hook up to your barrel. 
  • Runoff
    Matt says that if you’re hoping a rain barrel will help with stormwater issues like sitting water or a leaking basement, you probably want to consider pairing it with a rain garden or swale (you can find more in-depth tips for installing a rain garden in part two of this blog series). Pairing rain barrels and gardens can be a great way to make a big impact on mitigating local stormwater issues. When there is less stormwater running into the sewers, you help to decrease the likelihood that your neighborhood’s roads or basements will flood during a storm. Rain barrels are addictive, he warns. Once you get one, you’re probably going to want to get another. Luckily, rain barrels are easy to link to one another, and, if you really commit, you can develop a whole rain barrel irrigation system for your outdoor space.
Ongoing Maintenance

  • Winter Care
    The main maintenance to keep in mind will come each winter. Matt says that rain barrels should be taken down or drained in the winter because the water in them can freeze, leading to cracks or other damage to your barrel.
  • Cleaning
    Most experts recommend cleaning your rain barrel at least once a year. Check out this guide for cleaning tips. 

Common Questions
  • Do rain barrels attract mosquitoes?
    Matt encourages people to use closed top barrels to avoid mosquitoes. As long as the top of your barrel remains closed then mosquitoes shouldn’t be able to get in. If you’re set on using an open top barrel, though, Matt says he’s found some success adding goldfish to those to eat the mosquito larvae. Keep in mind that adding a goldfish doesn’t come without risk though (outdoor cats, for one), learn more about goldfish and rain barrels in this article.
  • How much water will I collect?
    According to Matt, on average one inch of rain = about 500 gallons of water, but it all depends on the size of your roof. If you want a more accurate number, check out this Rainwater Harvesting Calculator.
  • Are rain barrels legal?
    If you live in the city of Cincinnati, rain barrels are legal, but for those who live outside the city or in a neighborhood with a homeowners association, it’s a good idea to check to make sure rain barrels are allowed. There tend to be more regulations around rain barrels in areas where the climate is drier. 
Local Resources 
  • Repurposed Drums
    If you want to make a rain barrel out of a repurposed drum, Matt recommends keeping your eye out on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. There are also people who sell already completed repurposed rain barrels.
  • Cincinnati State
    Matt recommends checking out Cincinnati State’s campus rain gardens and barrels. It’s a great place to see successful versions of rainwater harvesting in action and there is a good amount of interpretive signage to accompany them.
  • Keystone Flora
    The experts at Keystone Flora can help you figure out which native plants are best for your yard and rain garden. You can visit their website for more information. They are currently open by appointment only, to schedule an appointment or ask questions you can call (513) 961-2727 or email nativeplants@fuse.net.

More Welcoming Wildlife Resources

If you’ve installed a rain barrel in your outdoor space and have tips or ideas for others looking to do so, feel free to leave them in the comment section below. Keep your eyes out for part two of this blog that will feature advice for installing a rain garden with tips from Owen Hunter-Linville from Groundwork Ohio River Valley. For more Welcoming Wildlife resources visit imagoearth.org/welcoming-wildlife. Imago has also created a Green at Home Facebook group that was designed as a place for people to ask questions and share resources for making sustainable changes in their daily lives. Feel free to join the group and ask questions about rain barrels and gardens or anything else sustainability related. Big thanks to Matt for his great advice!