What Is a Rain Chain? (2023 Guide)
Many homeowners are rethinking their traditional gutter systems. Those concerned with maintenance and longevity might install high-quality gutter guards, while those who hate the look of aluminum K-style gutters might upgrade to copper or hidden gutters. One increasingly popular option is to install rain chains instead of traditional downspouts.
Rain chains can be an effective and visually appealing addition to your gutter system. To help you decide if rain chains are a good idea for your home, the This Old House Reviews Team rounded up everything you need to know about this gutter downspout alternative. Below, we answer common questions about rain chains, including how they work, the types available, and how they compare to downspouts.
How Do Rain Chains Work?
Rain chains, also known as kusari-doi, have been used in Japan for centuries to perform a function similar to downspouts. In fact, you can connect them to your eaves or gutters instead of downspouts. As water collects in your gutters, it will drain toward the rain chains and, thanks to surface tension, slide down the chain to the ground. The rain chains, like downspouts, can help direct the water to a safe drainage area, such as a water feature or landscaped garden bed.
Unlike traditional downspouts, rain chains help slow the flow of water. This, in turn, can help reduce soil erosion. However, depending on the layout of your property, you may need to add other elements to ensure that water flows from your home’s foundation. For instance, you could install a rain barrel, French drain, or drip path to keep rainwater from oversaturating the ground near your home’s foundation.
Types of Rain Chains
Homeowners can choose from two main types of rain chains: links or cups. Both options come in several styles and materials.
Link-Style Rain Chains
Some rain chains simply provide a path for water to follow. The links can be as plain or ornate as you’d like, such as basic oval links, twist loops, rectangular links, or Fleur-De-Lis designs. The most common colors include silver, gold, copper, oil-rubbed bronze, black, white, and copper patina. Most are made from lightweight aluminum or stainless steel with a powder-coated or copper-plated finish.
Link rain chains can be a good choice if your area does not often experience heavy rainfall. Although they can be decorative, they tend to be less conspicuous than cup-style rain chains.
Cup-Style Rain Chains
Interspaced with their links, some rain chains feature small containers to collect rainwater. These rain chains can handle more water than their cupless counterparts and come in the same materials and finishes.
Cup rain chains also come in various designs. The cups can be round, square, conical, scalloped, or even triangular. Often, they are patterned after nature or architecture from East Asia. The cups might be reminiscent of honeysuckle, calla lilies, koi, or a Japanese pagoda. However, you can also find geometric designs and kitschy shapes, such as umbrellas or watering cans.
Rain Chains vs. Downspouts
Before installing rain chains, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons. Although rain chains can be a functional alternative to gutter downspouts, they do have their drawbacks and limitations. Here are a few things to consider as you compare these two options.
Rain chains will generally be more noticeable than downspouts—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most homeowners choose to paint their downspouts to match their home’s siding. Rain chains, however, typically have a black or metallic finish that will not blend in.
Of course, if your home features stone, brick, or wood-grain siding rather than the vinyl siding, traditional gutter downspouts will stick out anyway. In that case, rain chains might actually be less obtrusive.
In either case, you can use rain chains to increase the curb appeal of your home. Simply choose a design that complements the architectural style of your home and a finish that pairs well with your outdoor decor.
Rain chains also double as a water feature. Rather than water pouring through a downspout, you will hear the soothing sound of water gently dripping down the chains or into the cups. Some rain chains are even designed to chime as they guide rainwater to the ground.
Rain chains do not clog, so they are generally easier to maintain than gutter downspouts—especially if you invest in copper rain chains or an equally weatherproof material. If you attach them to your existing gutter system, you will still need to clean the gutters occasionally, but the rain chains themselves should require very little maintenance. While debris that makes its way into your rain gutters might eventually clog a downspout, rain chains should be unaffected.
However, you may need to keep an eye on rain chains during the winter. Ice can form along the rain chains and in the cups. Although the ice formations might look pretty, the weight of the ice could put stress on your eaves or gutters.
Rain chains can also be damaged or rendered ineffective by high winds. If you live in a windy area, install an anchoring dish to prevent your rain chains from blowing around. You can also connect your rain chains to a stake, heavy pot, or rain barrel.
As long as they remain unclogged, downspouts will almost always perform better than rain chains. They have a higher capacity, and they channel water away from your home rather than simply guiding it toward the ground. As a result, they are better at preventing soil erosion and foundation damage.
Rain chains can be an effective alternative, though. As long as your area does not experience heavy rainfall, you can use rain chains to preserve your landscaping. The water run-off from a gutter downspout could easily flood a garden bed, but rain chains slow the water flow considerably. If your area is prone to high precipitation, you can still use rain chains, but you may need to pair them with a French drain, rain barrel, or another drainage system.
How To Install a Rain Chain
To install a rain chain, start by reading the manufacturer’s instructions. The attachment method and tools required may vary depending on the product you choose.
Next, consider where the water will go. This step is especially important if you are replacing your downspouts with rain chains. Remember, rain chains will not direct water away from your home’s foundation the way downspouts do. As a result, you may need to set up a water collection or drainage system.
If you plan to use an anchoring dish, you should dig a hole where the dish will be. The hole should be a few inches wider than the dish and about 6 inches deep. Fill the hole with 3/4-inch drainage rock, and place a few river stones on top for aesthetics. Attach the top of the rain chain to your gutter and the bottom to the anchoring dish. Alternatively, you can place a rain barrel beneath the rain chain to collect water. Test the rain chain by spraying water onto your roof with a hose to simulate rain.
DIY vs. Professional Installation
Rain chain installation is a relatively simple DIY project. Most rain chains come with a gutter adapter or installation kit that makes it easy to connect them to your existing gutter system. However, if you also need new gutters, it may be best to hire a professional to handle the gutter installation and rain chain placement. This option will cost more, but you will benefit from their expertise.
If you decide on the DIY route, take the time to research and observe the best place to install your rain chains. This could be as simple as putting them wherever you currently have downspouts. You might also want to check the ground around your home for signs of gutter overflow, such as soil erosion, pooling water, or mulch displacement. Carefully placed rain chains could help alleviate these issues.
Rain chains can be an attractive alternative to traditional downspouts. However, you may need to pair them with other measures, such as a rain barrel or French drain, to prevent soil erosion and foundation damage.
This is where an expert opinion can be helpful. Although you can replace your downspouts with rain chains rather easily, that might not be enough to ensure proper drainage. A professional gutter company can help with placement, installation, and any other steps necessary to protect your home from water damage.
FAQs About Rain Chains
What is the purpose of a rain chain?
The purpose of a rain chain is to help direct water safely from your roof to a drainage area or water collection system on the ground. Rain chains may be paired with an anchoring dish and drainage rocks, a French drain, or a rain barrel. They can also direct water into landscaped beds or a water feature.
Do rain chains work for heavy rain?
Rain chains can work for heavy rain if they are paired with gutters and a water collection or drainage system, such as a rain barrel or French drain. Cup-style rain chains will work better for heavy rain than link-style rain chains.
Are rain chains better than downspouts?
Rain chains often look and sound better than downspouts, and they generally require less maintenance. However, downspouts can handle heavy rain better and are better at preventing soil erosion and foundation damage.
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