The Department of Buildings

Downspouts, Rain Barrels and Cisterns

Rain systems

Traditionally, roof runoff in Chicago has been routed via downspouts directly into the sewer system. However, the City of Chicago encourages the careful disconnection of downspouts so that roof runoff can flow directly into vegetated areas. There are several options for doing this:

1. Runoff can be sheeted across the lawn.

2. Runoff can be routed via a surface swale into a rain garden or onsite detention or retention facility (see separate discussions of these approaches).

3. Runoff can be temporarily stored in rain barrels or cisterns.

Rain barrels can effectively capture and store the runoff from small to moderate storms. The stored water then can be used to irrigate lawns and landscaped areas in between storm events.

Rain Barrell

The effectiveness of rain barrels (or cisterns) is a function of their storage volume in comparison to the size of the roof. In a simple residential example, a 1,200 square foot roof could utilize 55-gallon barrels to store runoff from downspouts at the four corners of the house. The resultant storage is equivalent to about 0.3 inches of runoff. While this volume will not substantially reduce flooding from large storms, it can considerably reduce direct runoff from smaller storms and divert water from the combined sewer system. The actual effectiveness of this approach will depend on the regular draining of rain barrels (such as for irrigation) between storm events. In that respect, rain barrels are most effective when used during the growing season.


Effective downspout disconnection requires that there be adequate landscaping or vegetation available to accept the water. Rain barrels are appropriate where vegetation is limited, provided that the collected water can overflow to open green space areas. Diversion and/or storage of roof runoff with rain barrels or cisterns is applicable to most residential, commercial and institutional properties in the City.

Maintenance Considerations

Occasional cleaning may be necessary to remove debris, such as leaves, coming off the rooftop. A mesh filter can be inserted at the top of a rain barrel. The barrel must be sealed during the warm months of the year to avoid mosquito breeding. To avoid freezing, the rain barrel should be drained prior to winter.

Cost Considerations

Typical costs for a ready-made rain barrel range from $20 to $150.Homeowners can reduce costs by making their own.

Local Examples

Much of the rain that falls on Chicago Center for Green Technology’s roof flows into four 3,000-gallon cisterns and is later used to water the landscape.