Rain Chains: What They Are + Why You Need One + How to Make Your Own

If you’re looking for an alternative to ugly downspouts, you might want to think about installing rain chains. Rain chains guide rainwater away from your house while also beautifying its exterior.  

Although they are a relatively recent trend in American housing design, Japanese architects have used rain chains since the late 1500s. Known in Japanese as kusari-doi, rain chains first appeared on Sukiya-style tea houses.

They gained popularity in the United States thanks to broadcasts of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. 

Whether you want to revamp your house’s exterior design or improve its functionality, read on to learn why rain chains will make a great addition to your home gutter system. 

Purpose & Promise 

Rain chains provide an attractive and functional alternative to gutter downspouts. Although you can certainly use rain chains in addition to using downspouts, rain chains typically replace downspouts, hanging vertically down to a water catch. 

When it rains, water flows off the roof into your gutter system. It travels through the gutters toward the hole where the downspout used to be. The rain chain directs water away from the roof. Then, the water travels down the chain into a water catch or redirector. 

Design plus functionality sounds like a winning combination. But do rain chains actually work? 

Yes, rain chains work!

The design of rain chains relies on surface tension to guide water from the gutter to the ground. Rainwater flows down the roof and into the roof’s gutter system; the gutter funnels the water to a hole through which a rain chain hangs. Once the water begins to drain through this hole, it follows the path of least resistance (in other words, along the chain) down to the ground. 

Rain chains even work in areas that experience heavy rainfall. (Keep reading to learn which type of rain chain works best in wet regions.) 

Why Rain Chains?

bird on a rain chain

If you’re wondering why you would want to replace downspouts with rain chains, the simple answer is visual appeal. 

Downspouts are at best invisible and at worst an eyesore. Rain chains take the functionality of downspouts and add decorative flair. 

Unlike downspouts, which hide rushing water, rain chains transform cascading water into a kind of kinetic work of art. Available in many different designs, rain chains give you the ability to match a necessary architectural structure to the aesthetic of your house.

In addition to their visual appeal, rain chains provide aural ambiance on rainy days. When water travels down the rain chains, it produces a delicate tinkling sound similar to a bell or wind chime. This tinkling is a marked improvement over the irritating drip drip drip of downspouts. 

Rain chains also offer several practical advantages. When combined with rain barrels or similar vessels, rain chains can play a vital role in rainwater harvesting and water conservation. Additionally, rain chains help control drainage and reduce erosion.

Best of all, rain chains eliminate much of the upkeep associated with downspouts. Leaves and twigs that once would have clogged your downspout will pass your rain chain. In addition, standing water once hidden inside the curve of your downspout now drains appropriately. 

Types of Rain Chains

There are two types of rain chains: link-style and cup-style. Which kind you use depends on aesthetic preference and the amount of rainfall you typically receive. 

Link-Style

link style rain chain on frank lloyd wright cottage
Frank Lloyd Wright hated downspouts. This rain chain is installed on Seth Peterson’s cottage.

Traditional rain chains are a literal link of chains that hang vertically from your gutter. The individual links can take a variety of attractive shapes, from standard ovals and circles to rectangles, diamonds, and teardrops.

Cup-Style

Japanese cup-style rain chain design

Cup-style rain chains work on the same design principle as link-style rain chains with the addition of small cups. Spaced at intervals down the chain, these cups help slow water flow as it travels to the bottom of the chain. 

The ‘cups’ can take various forms: open-mouthed bass, suns, spirals, lotus petals, umbrellas, and more — any attractive shape that will slow the cascade of water. As a variation on this theme, you can also find rain chains adorned with cascading leaves that slow the water as it travels to the ground. 

If you live in an area that experiences heavy rainfall or is prone to soil erosion, use cup-style rain chains rather than link-style. 

Materials

Rain chains are traditionally made of copper. If untreated, copper will oxidize and form a rustic green patina. (Copper alloys, brass, and bronze will also patinate over time.) 

If you prefer to avoid patination, purchase a rain chain made of rust-resistant metal such as aluminum or stainless steel. And if you prefer something colorful rather than metallic, you can purchase powder-coated rain chains. 

Heads Up: Avoid using lightweight metals such as aluminum when installing rain chains in windy areas. Instead, use a heavier material such as galvanized steel. 

At the Bottom of the Rain Chain

rain chain on a brick building

The primary purpose of a rain chain is to move water away from the foundation of your house. This means you need to think about where rainwater goes once it has traveled down the rain chain. 

At the bottom of the chain, you will need to position some type of rain catch to either collect or drain the rainwater.

Fortunately, you have many different options when it comes to catching rainwater. Read on to learn about the best options for water conservation.

Basin

A rain chain basin is a large cement or metal bowl that collects the water after traveling down the chain. You can also use a movable pot to use the collected rainwater to water your garden efficiently. 

When using basins, be sure you can easily drain or remove the collected water. (Standing water can attract mosquitoes. Overflowing water can contribute to soil erosion.) 

French Drain

A French drain is a large basin that catches rainwater and then drains it away from the house underground.

If your home gutter system already includes an underground drainpipe, you can leave this system in place; simply replace the downspout with a rain chain, and position the bottom of the rain chain at the top of the French drain. 

Rain Barrels 

rain barrels can be used with rain chains

Rain Barrels are your best option for water conservation. As the name suggests, rain barrels are barrels that collect rain. They typically contain a faucet or hose attachment. 

This allows you to use the (non-potable) water you’ve collected to wash your car, water your garden, or accomplish other outside chores. 

Plus, you can buy decorative rain barrels, so it’s quite possible to merge functionality with aesthetics once again! 

Dry Creek Bed

Dry creek beds are an excellent way to drain water away from your house in style! When there is good water flow you will have an amazing-looking stream. 

And when the weather is dry, the creek bed will add a more natural look to your yard. 

Pro Tip: Use some good-sized boulders and quality river rock. And, “less is more” with boulders.

Water Features

If you want to accentuate the rain chain’s visual appeal, consider placing a water feature at the bottom of your rain chain. 

Whether you prefer spinning mills or mini waterfalls, you can harness the power of the cascading water to create an aquatic spectacle. (Just ensure the water feature can be easily drained or emptied.) 

Installation

https://youtu.be/5aw9sxlgajw

Prefabricated rain chains typically come with an installation kit that includes all the materials needed. 

Whether installing a chain you purchased or made, keep reading to learn how to install rain chains. 

1.) Identify a Location 

Choose a location for your rain chain. Typically, rain chains replace downspouts. However, you can also place rain chains where the gutter system already leaks. 

If your house does not have a gutter system, watch your roofline the next time it rains. Identify where water naturally concentrates – usually an area where roof lines come together. 

You can also inspect the ground immediately below the roof edge to spot areas of soil loss. Placing a rain chain above these areas can help reduce rainfall energy and thus reduce erosion. 

2.) Prepare the Hole

If you are replacing your downspouts with rain chains, disconnect the downspout from where it’s attached to the roof’s gutter system. 

This step should be pretty straightforward unless the screw heads have rusted.

If you want to install rain chains in addition to downspouts, you can clip a hole in your gutters to hang your rain chains through.

3.) Attach the Rain Chain Bracket

If you purchase a rain chain, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installing the bracket, as attachment systems vary. 

In most cases, rain chains come with a V-shaped bracket. Set this bracket in the hole previously occupied by the downspout. 

The V should point down, with the tails catching on either side of the hole to keep it from falling through. 

After you have positioned the bracket, hook the first link of the chain around the dip in the V. 

4.) Install a Water Catch System

Select your water catch system: basin, rain barrel, French drain, or water feature. Place your water catcher at the bottom of your rain chain. 

If you’re using a rain barrel, make sure the rain chain rests just above the top of the barrel. 

Typically, their proximity to the house protects rain chains from the wind. However, if you live in an area that experiences high winds, anchor the rain chain to the ground or water catch. 

Consider surrounding the water catch system with ¾ inch drainage rocks. Rocks with rough edges will help prevent water from pooling if your water catch overflows.  

5.) Test the Rain Chain

After installing your rain chain:

  1. Test that the system works by spraying a hose on the roof of your house.
  2. Observe how water travels through the gutter system and down your rain chain.
  3. Make any adjustments to ensure water is draining away from the foundation of your house and not causing erosion. 

How to Make Your Own Rain Chain

making your own rain chains with standard chain

Making your rain chain allows you to customize the length and design of your newest home feature. For a low-effort rain chain, simply add a standard steel chain to the bracket described in Step 4. But if the industrial look doesn’t match your aesthetic, keep reading. 

1.) Create the Chain Links

You will need ¼ inch flexible copper tubing. A 5-foot chain requires 20 feet of tubing. 

Form the copper tubing into the chain links by wrapping it around a broom handle (or any slender round object measuring at least 1 ½ inches in diameter). Wrap the tubing as tightly as possible around the broom handle. 

Once you’ve coiled the entire length of tubing, remove the copper from the pole. 

2.) Cut the Links

Place the wound copper into a bench vice. Close the vice tight enough to hold the copper in place but not so tight that you distort the shape. 

Then, use a reciprocating saw to cut through the copper. (Make sure to use a blade specifically designed for cutting thin metal.) For increased stability, rest the saw’s bottom on the top of the vice. 

Pause sawing as needed to feed the uncut copper through the vice. Be careful not to cut through the bottom of the link. 

3.) Assemble the Chain 

If you have successfully cut the links, you should have a pile of small, individual copper rings with one slit cutting through each ring. These will form the links of your chain.

Select one of the copper rings. Then, use pliers to open the ring wide enough to fit another ring through the slit. 

Next, find a link whose ends are already well-aligned. Close the gap using groove joint pliers. Add this closed ring to your open ring. Close the open ring, again using groove joint pliers. This will form the beginning of your chain link. 

Select and open another copper ring. Add this ring to either end of your chain link. Repeat this process until you’ve reached your desired chain length. 

4.) Install the Chain

Prepare the hole in your gutter system where you will install your rain chain. 

Cut a 15-inch length of copper tubing. Bend the tubing into a V shape with serif-like ends. 

Pull the end of the chain through the gutter hole. Feed the V through the top link in the chain, then rest the chain in the hole so that the point of the V (which should be holding the chain) hangs through the hole. The ends of the V will hold it in place. 

Position your rain catch at the bottom of the rain chain, and wait for the rain to come!

If you want to create a cup-style rain chain, create decorative embellishments using copper sheet metal. Attach the embellishments to your rain chain using copper wire. 

These additions will help slow the water as it travels to the ground.  

Maintenance

Rain chains generally require less maintenance than downspouts. However, you will still need to check periodically that your rain chains are functioning correctly. 

Depending on the material of your rain chain, rain chains (plus rainwater) can add more weight to your house’s gutters than a downspout would. 

Check your roof structure and gutters for signs of stress, adding reinforcement where necessary. You can make this check twice a year when cleaning your gutters.

Examine the ground surrounding the chain for signs of standing water or erosion. You want to make sure that the water is draining correctly. 

If you see signs of erosion, add more drainage rocks or install a larger basin. If you see standing water, you will need to adjust to direct the water away from your house. 

At the end of autumn, remove rain chains before temperatures drop below freezing. The cold will not hurt the metal links, but any precipitation on the chain could turn to ice. 

Although interesting to look at, this ice will increase the chain’s weight – potentially straining your house’s gutter system. 

rain chain in winter

Conclusion 

Rain chains are a functional and attractive alternative to downspouts. Want an eye-catching solution to water drainage? Consider using this centuries-old design to accent the architecture of your house. 

Purchase rain chains at most garden centers and nurseries. Many online retailers also specialize in rain chains. 

In terms of price, rain chains can range from $50 to $1000+. But really, can you put a price on the increased looks and never have to unclog a downspout?

Frequently Asked Questions

Does a rain chain work in heavy rain?

Yes, rain chains can work with heavy rain (design of chain factors into this as well). Although, the rain will bypass some of the chain and flow directly onto the ground. This should not be an issue if you have a proper design, such as a French drain that carries the water away from your foundation.

Does a rain chain need to be attached to a gutter?

Sure, you could use a rain chain without a gutter. It just needs a solid mounting point that can handle the load. 

Do rain chains cause flooding?

No, they do not cause flooding. In fact, they help slow down water. Which helps rainwater soak into the ground instead of the sewer systems. 

Is a rain chain better than gutters?

Every situation is different, and you need to design water management properly. But, a rain chain helps slow down water and look better than downspouts. 

Can you hang a rain chain from a tree?

You could install a rain chain on a tree or anywhere that can securely handle the load.

How much rain can a rain chain handle?

It’s not so much the chain but rather the basin that matters. Ensure the ground system can handle the amount of rain from your roof. And adequately drain water away from the foundation. While limiting splashing.

What do you do with rain chains in the winter?

You can leave rain chains installed in winter or take them down. The main concern will be added weight from freezing ice. This applies to the chain itself and the mounting material. 

Can you use a rain chain and downspout?

Yes, you could combine the two if you would like. Just ensure water drains properly.

Do rain chains need to be anchored at the bottom?

They are not required to be anchored, but it’s better. Bad storms usually bring high winds and could cause the chain to swing around. Potentially hitting your house or causing water to flow where it shouldn’t. 

Can I use regular chain for rain chain?

Sure, you can use a regular chain. Just know that different materials and designs will work differently. A cup-style chain will slow more water than a regular chain.

 

This article originally was published at natureofhome.com and syndicated by healing-water.org.

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