This rain barrel is a little bit fancier and a little bit more decorative; you can see the spigot where the water comes out at the bottom.

Photo courtesy of RonTech2000/istockphoto.com

Using a Rain Barrel

­Now that you have a free source of extra water, what do you do with it? Even though rainwater is natural, it isn't safe for drinking unless it's been filtered and treated. All that rainwater washing off your roof is carrying pollution with it. This includes particulates from car exhaust and manufacturing smoke stacks, not to mention bird droppings and parts of dead bugs. It's still great water, though; plants love it. You can water the lawn and flowerbeds with it, clean off your siding and hose down the driveway. It's great for washing the car, too.

You can also use it to water your thirsty vegetables, but not in the same way as you would with tap water. When watering your veggies with rainwater, keep the water flow at ground level, away from the stuff you'll actually be eating, and don't use rainwater within a couple of days of harvesting your crop. After harvesting, always wash your vegetables thoroughly with tap water.

There are some good habits you should adopt when using a rain barrel. Keep the top firmly in place. Exposing rainwater to sunlight and open air will encourage algae growth. Make sure the screen is secure to keep out water-loving bugs, like mosquitoes. Clean the filter regularly according to the manufacturer's directions, and inspect your rain barrel every once in a while for leaks. Keep your roof gutters clean, and make sure that water is flowing freely to and through the downspout when it rains.

If you live in­ an area with freezing winters, don't forget to move your rain barrel to a safe location so it doesn't freeze and crack over the winter. It may be necessary to replace part or all of the downspout to adapt it for use without the rain barrel attached. Remember, it's important to be sure that the downspout is working properly at all times to ensure that water isn't pooling too close to your home's foundation.

Next, we'll show you how to make a very simple rain barrel.