Should You Empty The Rain Barrel In Winter?

Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 08:58 pm

You want to know if your rain barrel has to be emptied in winter?

To prevent possible damage to the rain barrel, you will find everything you need to know on this topic here:

Should You Empty The Rain Barrel In Winter?

How exactly can frost and ice damage your rain barrel?
What type of rain barrel needs to be emptied?
Other methods to winterize rain barrels

Muss man eine Regentonne im Winter leeren

To winterize rain barrels, they should be emptied depending on the material. Especially plastic rain barrels made of polypropylene (PP) should be emptied completely and placed under frost-proof conditions. Polyethylene (PE), on the other hand, which is also used for IBC tanks, is frost-resistant. Nevertheless, both plastic rain barrels made of PE and metal should be emptied at least halfway in winter, so that the freezing water can spread. Rain barrels made of wood, such as old wine barrels, should ideally be emptied completely, as wood is less resistant as an organic material.

Why can a rain barrel be damaged in winter?
Most rain barrels are placed outdoors in places that are often not covered or only partially covered.

This means that both in summer and in winter rain barrels are exposed to various weather conditions such as sun, rain, snow and frost.

Especially in the cold season, different forces – especially sub-zero temperatures, which can make the rain barrel brittle and cause the water to freeze and expand – act on rain barrels which, depending on the material, also has different effects on the service life of the barrels.

Sub-zero temperatures make rain barrels brittle in winter
In general, it can be said that low temperatures can have a negative impact on rain barrels and can damage them to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the material of the rain barrel.

Basically, especially rain barrels made of polypropylene (a certain type of plastic) cannot withstand sub-zero temperatures and become brittle or, in the worst case, form cracks.

All other common materials such as metal, polyethylene or wood withstand sub-zero temperatures better.

In the table below I have listed the temperature application range and the effect of sub-zero temperatures on different materials or types of rain barrels:

MaterialRain barrel exampleTemperature application rangeEffect of subzero temperatures
Polypropylene (PP)e.g. green rain barrel Garantia from Hornbach0 to +100°CPolypropylene becomes brittle at sub-zero temperatures
High Density Polyethylene (PE-HD)e.g. a classic blue rain barrel like this one on Amazon-50°C to +80°CHigh density polyethylene withstands sub-zero temperatures and remains just as resistant and pliable as in plus temperatures
Metale.g. an old oil tank or an old oil drumDepending on the species high minus and plus degreesMetal can withstand very high minus as well as plus degrees depending on composition
Most species remain resistant even at sub-zero temperatures
Woode.g. old wine barrels used as rain barrels (like this one)Minus degrees up to +400Water or moisture in the wood freezes from approx. -5°.
The wood becomes stiff and firm
At plus degrees, the wood thaws and becomes flexible again and less firm

So, when buying a new plastic rain barrel, you should pay attention to the material and, if possible, do not buy a rain barrel made of polypropylene.

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Frost causes water to freeze in rain barrels and expands them
In addition to the sub-zero temperatures, the water that turns to ice at permanently low temperatures can also damage the rain barrel in winter.

Because not for nothing 0 ° degrees are also called freezing point. Thus, from zero degrees the water in the barrel in the further starts to freeze.

Unlike other substances, water expands in the frozen state (i.e. in the form of ice) and has a volume about 9% larger than in the liquid state.

This means, for example, that 100 liters of water in the rain barrel will become 109 liters of ice and will require correspondingly more space.

As rainwater expands when frozen, it seeks more space upward or to the sides.

If your rain barrel is not completely full, the ice can initially expand upwards. However, it becomes problematic if your rain barrel was still full of water in winter or if a second layer of fresh rainwater or snow forms on the actual ice layer of the water from the barrel.

Then the freezing water in the barrel can no longer escape upwards, but instead seeks its way to the side and, in the worst case, can cause the rain barrel to burst.

Remedy can be only partially filled rain barrel and regular breaking of the newly added ice.

Emptying the rain barrel in winter – for what type of barrel is it necessary?

Now that you know what two main hazards your rain barrel is exposed to in winter, we come to the question of whether it is necessary to empty the rain barrel at all based on this.

As already mentioned, it depends mainly on the material of the rain barrel whether and to what extent a rain barrel needs to be emptied in winter.

Is it necessary to empty a plastic rain barrel in winter?

The vast majority of rain barrels are made of plastic, although not all plastics have the same properties.

A difference in material is clearly noticeable at different or strongly fluctuating temperatures.

Most rain barrels are either made of polypropylene (PP) or high density polyethylene (PE-HD).

Since PE-HD is a much more robust and resistant material that is also made for use in sub-zero temperatures, I recommend buying a rain barrel made of PE-HD and not PP. Because PP is not made for use in sub-zero temperatures and becomes brittle.

Therefore, the procedure of the two types of rain barrels in winter is also slightly different:

Rain barrels made of plastic polypropylene (PP) in winter.
Since polypropylene does not withstand temperatures below freezing, you should winterize a rain barrel made of this material in a frost-proof place.

First of all, you should empty the rain barrel completely and clean it if it is very dirty. Here you can find out why cleaning can be useful and how to go about it.

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Then you should bring the rain barrel made of PP to a place where even in winter the temperatures do not fall below zero degrees, such as a garden shed, the garage or the basement.

Rain barrels made of polyethylene plastic (PE-HD) in winter
A rain barrel made of high density polyethylene is resistant to -50 °, so it can be left outside in winter without any problems without the material becoming brittle.

Nevertheless, there is a risk that the freezing water will spread inside the rain barrel and, in the worst case, cause the walls or seams to burst.

Therefore, you should empty a polyethylene rain barrel at least halfway (ideally completely, of course), so that the ice can spread upwards first.

You should also make sure that no additional ice layer of snow forms on the freezing water.

If this is the case, I recommend that you regularly destroy this layer of ice, so that the freezing rainwater underneath can spread further upwards.

Do I have to empty an IBC tank in winter?

Nowadays all IBC* (Intermediate Bulk Container) tanks are made of High Density Polyethylene (PE-HD) which means that they can withstand sub-zero temperatures and do not become brittle in winter.

Thus, an IBC tank can be left outdoors even in the cold season without any problems.

However, similar to a rain barrel made of PE-HD, the water should be drained at least halfway so that the freezing water can expand sufficiently.

Since IBC containers usually have a lid or a screw cap, no additional layer of ice should form next to the freezing rainwater, for example due to snow.

Should water be drained from a metal rain barrel in winter?

As an alternative to plastic rain barrels, metal ones are often used, for example in the form of old oil barrels or oil tanks.

If you want to learn more about cheap alternative rain barrels then check here.

Most metals are very resistant even at sub-zero temperatures in winter and retain their shape, stability and robustness, which is why they can be left outside in winter without any problems.

However, if water were to remain in a metal rain barrel during the winter, its volume will naturally expand when frozen.

Therefore, even with metal rain barrels in winter, the principle is to empty them at least halfway, so that the freezing water can spread upwards.

In addition, even with metal rain barrels, care should be taken to ensure that no second layer of ice forms over the freezing rainwater, taking space away from the ice underneath.

Therefore, always make sure that such a second layer of ice does not form, or if it does, it should be destroyed regularly.

Does a wine barrel used as a rain barrel have to be emptied in winter?
In general, wood is a frost-proof material, which is why you can theoretically leave an old wine barrel as a rain barrel outside in winter.

However, you should empty the wine barrel completely to reduce the likelihood that the wooden barrel will be damaged by frost. First of all, the wood or the water molecules contained in the wood freeze at sub-zero temperatures, making the wood stiff and immobile.

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If rainwater, which also freezes in winter, is also present in the barrel and expands, this can cause cracks in the stiff wood in the worst case.

So although you can leave an empty wine barrel outside in the winter, I would recommend that you put it in a frost-proof place, such as the garage or cellar. This is because wood, unlike plastic or metal, is an organic material and therefore much more exposed to harsh winter weather conditions.

How to get your rain barrel ready for winter

In addition to emptying rain barrels in winter, there are other methods or additional precautions that can be taken to winterize and frost-proof a rain barrel.

Place the rain barrel in a frost-proof location in winter

To be absolutely sure that your rain barrel will not be damaged by the low temperatures and frost in winter, you can always move it to a frost-proof location, such as the basement, garage or a garden shed.

To do this, of course, you should first completely empty the rain barrel and, ideally, clean it.

However, this solution is not suitable for every rain barrel, because an IBC container, a metal rain barrel or, depending on the size, even an old wine barrel could be too heavy to overwinter in a warmer place.

So if you have the space in the basement or garage and can move your rain barrel without problems, you can winterize it in this frost-proof place.

Get a lid against additional ice in the rain barrel in winter

The second and also very simple solution to protect your rain barrel in winter is to put a lid on it.

You can find the classic green, round lids here*, for example.

A lid mainly helps to avoid the formation of an additional layer of ice, for example due to frost or snow, on the already frozen rainwater in the barrel. This second layer of ice would in fact “trap” the frozen rainwater underneath, and if the volume were to increase further, the rain barrel could in the worst case crack or burst open at the seams.

A float made of styrofoam on the remaining water in the rain barrel in winter.

Similar to the lid, this method is also designed to give the freezing rainwater in the barrel room to spread further.

To do this, you just need to put a piece of Styrofoam as large as possible on the remaining rainwater in the barrel as long as the water is not yet frozen.

At the point where the Styrofoam floats on the water, the water surface cannot freeze at first, but on the contrary, there the Styrofoam absorbs the additional pressure due to the increase in volume of the frozen water.

In addition, the Styrofoam saves you from hammering in or destroying a possible second layer of ice. Because, as I said, the Styrofoam absorbs the pressure of the water even if it expands strongly or if another layer of ice is added.


  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts. Jones James

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