At the risk of stating the obvious, the first thing you’ll need to build a stainless steel rain barrel is a stainless steel barrel. These, I should say right off, are not so easy to come by — at least not at a price most would consider reasonable. This is one of those “packrat” projects that came about because I had some interesting materials on hand and was looking for something (hopefully) equally interesting to do with them. If you’ve already got a barrel and/or just want to read about how I built the thing, skip down to the numbered steps below. If you’re curious about how I came by the magic barrel, read on.

This is my barrel, this is my drum

When I was wrapping up organic chemistry grad school, I had a biochemist pal who had recently graduated and was doing pretty well on his own, running a small startup selling an exotic but promising nutritional supplement derived from buckwheat. He was really a repackager, buying the stuff from a bulk natural products house in New Zealand, then encapsulating, bottling, and marketing it in the US. Anyway, this guy wanted to experiment with direct extraction of his product from raw plant material, with an eye to someday becoming his own supplier, and offered to hire me to set up a small pilot plant.

That, I think, was when I first saved the eBay search for “stainless steel drum.”

That project fell by the wayside, in pretty short order, when I figured out the real hurdle wasn’t the extraction or any of the wet chemistry — it was going from a dilute solution of the stuff we wanted, in water, to a nice dry powder that you could put in capsules, and doing it in a way that was cost-effective and safe. The cost for the necessary drying equipment, even for a small plant, was just prohibitive.

So it goes. But I never canceled that eBay search, and so three or four times a week, for months afterward, I got an e-mail alert every time a used stainless steel drum came up for sale. I didn’t mind. I have a bunch of saved eBay searches running like this, and I look forward each morning to seeing what’s popped up overnight.

Well, you can guess how this story ends: eventually a deal came along that was too good to pass up. The seller was just 100 miles away, and started the listing at $0.99. I bid a dollar, and no one else bid. Even with shipping, the total came to less than $100, which is a heckuva deal. A new stainless barrel from U-LINE, for instance, will set you back more more than $700. This one had been used to contain Dr. Pepper syrup, in its former life, and while I sure wasn’t going to eat out of it, it wasn’t like it had been full of 2,4,5-trioxin.

CAUTION: If you buy a used drum, be darn sure that whatever was stored in it during its former life is nontoxic, biodegradable, environmentally friendly, and water soluble. You should be sure of this before you buy the thing, doubly sure before you cut into it, and triply sure before you wash it out onto the ground.

The seller took his time with shipping (and I don’t especially blame him considering how much labor he lost on the deal), so I had stopped looking out for the drum’s arrival by the time the UPS driver actually dropped it off on my front porch a few weeks later. There was a loud metallic clang, a string of muttered curses, and, finally, the sound of a delivery truck receding into the distance.

I opened the door, and there she was: dead, wrapped in plastic, with a shipping label slapped on one side. I wobbled it around the side of the house to the garage, tore off the wrapping, and examined my prize.

There were a couple of minor disappointments—a saucer-sized large dent that stood out among the smaller dings and scratches I’d seen in the photos and expected, and a side bung closure that turned out to be just a flimsy cap made of rusty sheet metal, for instance—plus one that I found more irritating: While the top, bottom, and walls of the drum—all the inside surfaces—were stainless, the rims were not. If I wanted to use the drum outside, I’d have to paint or otherwise protect them.

Magnet sticks to carbon steel drum rim, left, but not to stainless steel drum wall, right. Visible oxidation on rim, of course, is also a clue.

Still-in-all, I felt I’d gotten my money’s worth. Only one problem, now: what the heck was I going to do with it?

Enter Rain Man

My house is built on a fairly steep hill, and has a gutter and downspout on the uphill corner, with a buried corrugated drain pipe that carries runoff down the hill to the street. I was puttering in the yard, one morning, when it occurred to me that a rainwater reservoir on that corner would be elevated over most of the rest of the yard, and could be fit with a hose that would gravity-feed water almost anywhere I wanted to use it except the relatively small corner at the top of the hill.

Rain Barrel Location

Raising the reservoir on a platform, I reasoned, would only increase its usefulness. Several close friends and family members had installed commercial rain barrels, and though I always thought harvesting rainwater was cool, I was never very impressed with how the off-the-shelf barrels looked. I wanted something a touch classier than a green plastic barrel with fake wood grain on a stack of cinder blocks. My stainless barrel was sitting in the garage, waiting for a use, and after tilting my head at it for awhile I realized I could turn it “upside down,” use the top bung to mount a valve, and use the side bung for an overflow line. I had a stack of Dek-Blocks on hand, from an old project, that I could use as piers for an elevated platform, and I knew there had to be some cheap off-the-shelf 55 gallon drum cover that could be fit with a screen to keep leaves and bugs out. Interested now, I hopped into SketchUp to make a concept rendering.

My initial concept rendering, with former MAKE product development engineer Eric Weinhoffer for scale.
My initial concept rendering, with former MAKE product development engineer Eric Weinhoffer for scale.

This was starting to seem like fun. I wasn’t committed yet, but curious enough to go out to the garage and start poking through my junk piles parts inventory for stuff that I could maybe use to plumb the thing. And that’s when something happened that can only be described as…

A Minor Junkbox Miracle

Before the infamous TV show, I was known to describe myself as a “hoarder.” Now, having come to understand what that term really means, I’m happy to settle on “pack-rat.” I have always saved broken stuff and picked up random junk that looks like it might someday be useful. When I was younger, it just accumulated in messy heaps. What counts for maturity, in my case, has been the development of a limited discipline that allows me to sort and keep all this stuff in some semblance of order so that it’s actually possible to find what I need when I need it. But it has been an uphill battle.

Anyway. As much frustration as my pack rat tendencies have sometimes caused myself, my friends, and my family, it’s worthwhile to remember those moments when it has paid off. And it does pay off, all the time — I am literally surrounded by stuff I built or repaired using scavenged materials. I’ve saved a lot of money, and it’s brought me great personal satisfaction (for whatever weird reasons). The routine positive experience involves being able to find just the right screw, nut, bolt, washer, or other small fastener right there, on hand, right when you need it, instead of having to make a list and go to the hardware store, then go back for the stuff you forgot, then go back again to exchange for the right size, etc., etc.

But there have been a couple of absolutely epic, gloriously vindicating pack-rat moments in my life. One of these was when I discovered that the large diameter O-rings I’d had to buy in a 100-count bag to replace the single, worn-out ring in our pool pump filter housing were exactly the same part used as the drive belt in our Harbor Freight rock tumbler. Rock tumblers have to run for days and weeks at a time, and you can pretty much count on wearing out one of these belts every time you polish a load of rocks. Sure enough, my nephew broke a belt in the middle of a run, and I was frustratedly trying to run down a replacement online when I discovered that, thanks to a lucky coincidence and my inability to throw away parts, I actually had 99 of them sitting there on the shelf in a bag.

Another was when, while digging around for rain barrel parts in my “pipe fittings” bin, I came upon this thing:

I don't know exactly where this thing came from. My best guess is that it was among the bits of dumpster-bound junk in several large boxes of old parts we cleaned out of the mass spectrometry lab I worked in during grad school.
I don’t know exactly where this thing came from. My best guess is that it was among the bits of dumpster-bound junk in several large boxes of old parts we cleaned out of the mass spectrometry lab I worked in during grad school.

It’s 2″ diameter, 4-ft. industrial-grade rubber hose armored in stainless steel wire braiding. It matches my stainless steel barrel perfectly, and has a male NPT fitting on one end and a four-bolt flange fitting on the other. It was exactly the right length to reach between the side bung on a 55 gallon drum, if it were slightly elevated on a stand, and the opening of the existing underground corrugated drain line on the uphill corner of my house. It’s a 5″ flange. The drain line is 6″ diameter pipe.

I was almost relieved to discover that the male NPT fitting on this hose was slightly undersize for a standard 2″ NPT 55 gallon drum side bung, and that I was going to need an adapter bushing. If it had fit perfectly, right off the shelf, the serendipity here would’ve been downright spooky. In any case, the discovery of this object was clearly a sign from the junk-box gods: Project Rain Barrel was a go.