09.13.11Alan Harris


My Big Water ButtMy Ugly Water Butt

What we in the US know as Rain Barrels, are known in England as Water Butts. Regardless of what they are called, they are a growing component on a residential level for harvesting rainwater, but may not be legal in the state in which you live. (No, I am not talking about your state of sanity). In parts of Arizona rainwater harvesting is required for new commercial developments while in Colorado rain harvesting was just made legal in 2009. In Utah limited rainwater harvesting was just made legal in 2010 while Atlanta is in the process of holding hearings to determine if rain water can be used for potable purposes. Like they say necessity is the mother of all inventions.

Personal Experience

For those who don’t have a water butt, please indulge me as I share some of my personal experiences. I was an early convert, so my water butt is high on the DBU scale (Dog Butt Ugly). In a previous life my Butt was used to transport olive oil, but was nicely converted with a screen added to keep debris and mosquitoes out. Like most, mine holds the standard 55 gallons so when full it weighs about 460 pounds which means if the soil under it is not perfectly level AND compacted the Butt may lean and eventually fall over. I know; I have seen it happen twice.

I was smart enough to place it on the highest end of the house, but since my back yard slopes upward it can’t be used to water the pots on the patio or the roses on the top terrace, but I can use it to water the plants in the front yard which is about 10 ft. lower in elevation. By the time I open the spigot and walk to the front yard the water is almost there. The pressure gain is mostly negated from the friction loss of 75′ of garden hose so at the flow rate at the other end is about 1/2 gallon per minute…so much for using it for watering plants ever so slowly in the front yard.

But I do have 8 pots which have to be hand watered and I have an old fashioned water can that holds about 1-1/2 gallons. Since the can does not fit under the spigot at the bottom of the Butt (pun intended) I take the lid off and dip my can into the water. (No pun intended) Each can of water takes care of 3 pots, so after toting 37 lbs of water, the thirst of the potted plants is adequately quenched for a few days. Thankfully I enjoy spending time in the yard, because this process is neither quick nor efficient nor cost effective. My $129 investment will ROI after I use 6000 gallons, but hey the water is free.

My 55 gallon Butt will water my 8 pots for about 3 weeks without any rainfall to replenish the Butt. For those of you who are good at math you have already calculated that it should last longer, but when math meets reality you will discover my arms are not long enough to reach the bottom of the barrel and even if they were the can needs about 18 inches of water to be filled.

Please share your Water Butt experiences in the comment section for other water enthusiasts to enjoy.


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Alan Harris

Alan Harris is a water management pioneer. With roots in landscape architecture, Alan has worked with irrigation throughout his career experimenting with hydrozones and a variety of high efficiency irrigation systems. Now, over thirty years in the landscape industry, Alan continues to stay apprised of the latest technology even in a sales leadership capacity as our National Sales Operations Support Manager and Regional Sales Leader for our landscape maintenance division.



  1. Wednesday, 9:39 Richard Restuccia

    Interesting article thanks for sharing your experiences with us. Is this something most homeowners should be doing?

  2. Wednesday, 7:13 Alan Harris

    @ Richard – I like my Water Butt and enjoy hand watering my pots with the water. This was my last downspout to be disconnected from the drain pipes so less water flowed down the street and more flowed into the ground water. I highly recommend and prefer rainwater harvesting over piping downspouts to the street.

  3. Monday, 11:37 Stuart Smith

    We moved in 2010 and had the opportunity to install a low-end rain barrel system, removing the previous owner’s connection of downspouts to the storm drains. Using just half the roof, there has been more than enough. I have a reserve 55-gal barrel (formerly held glacial acetic acid), hoses, and a handy flat bottomed sump pump that I use to transfer water where needed. This also is enough for watering 2-3 weeks without rain. Part of the garage run off goes into a big pan that keeps the birds and chipmunks in fresh water. The rest goes into subsurface drainage aimed at the garden. Watching for mosquito wigglers is a must. I need to get cracking and install the screen on the primary “butt”. If legal where you are, I think anyone in this group could be catching some rain water and cutting down on storm water pressure on the drainage infrastructure. We had to wise up and not use our dehumidifier water for plant watering. Although low TDS, apparently there was enough metal in it to poison our potted 26-year-old Norfolk pine.

  4. Monday, 4:51 Alan Harris

    @Stuart Sorry to hear about your Norfolk Pine. Was it in the landscape or in a pot?
    I fully support the removal of downspout drains. Ground water recharge is a great unseen problem.

  5. Monday, 5:32 Stuart Smith

    @ Alan: The Norfolk pine is in a pot. We haul it outside in mild weather and back inside during cold weather. It’s had it’s share of challenges over the years. This time it does not look like it will recover.

  6. [...] or when you have more than 8 pots to water, a cistern may be in order. A cistern is a really BIG Water Butt and provides a little more flexibility than just being able to water pots. However, cisterns bring [...]

  7. Tuesday, 5:33 Damien Dawson

    @ Stuart, I have recently come up with a new filtration system which would take your high level of metals out of the water, thus not poisoning your Norfolk pine or anything else. It also takes out all Nitrates in the water etc and brings Rainwater to a potable standard.

  8. Tuesday, 6:17 Alan Harris

    @Damien, I am interested in your filtration system. Please send a link. Thx.

  9. Tuesday, 6:30 Stuart Smith

    @ Damien: It would be interesting to have a pour-through metals-retaining filter for dehumidifier water as it generates 6-8 L/d in our basement during the non-heating season, so. Other plants did not seem to suffer from this water (in combination with rain barrel water). I suspect it is Ni or Cr off the relatively new condenser coil poisoning microflora that conifers depend on as root aids. You folks have inspired me to take the system up a notch next season.

  10. [...] during the winter) can intercept 500–700 gallons of water per year, which equates to over 3 Water Butts every week. Mature evergreen trees (i.e. magnolias or pines, retain their leaves year round) can [...]

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