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We recently bought an old house in Toronto and while cleaning up the house, we discovered that one of the big rain barrels on the property cracked from freezing.

I haven't had rain barrels on a property before, and find the idea of winterizing them a bit strange. If we empty and drain the rain barrels, then it means that the downspouts will drain.... onto the sidewalks around the house? So for the late fall and early spring, rather than having ice in the barrel, we'll have ice all over the sidewalks?

When I search for freeze-resistant rain barrels, I get nothing other than people talking about installing pumps or heaters. This is a bit ridiculous for -20C February temperatures, and we certainly can't time de-winterizing the rain barrels for the thaw; temperatures usually go up and down around that time with a few false starts to spring and re-freezings.

What do people in cold temperature cities do? -20C isn't even that bad. Historically, Toronto houses had their downspouts connected to the waste sewers, but this caused sewers to overflow in rainstorms and raw sewage to be released into the lake... so they had a mandatory diversion program, which meant everyone diverted to storm sewers on the street or got rain barrels.

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  • That’s why storm sewers - aka storm drains exist : so water that does not need full sewage treatment does not go there or overflow the waste sewers.
    – Solar Mike
    Jun 19, 2021 at 12:12
  • Builders were hooking up downspouts in housing developments to the waste sewage until at least the 1950s. There's no storm sewer connection on the property. Water has to run out to the street to reach the storm sewers. These are urban houses, so it is difficult to fix this after-the-fact. Hence rain barrels.
    – mgjk
    Jun 19, 2021 at 12:24
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    I am in a region that can get to lower than -20C in the winter, I installed a heating cable in the gutters and through the downspout to the bottom of the sewer drain. Plug it into an outdoor electrical outlet before and throughout the winter to maintain free-draining the entire season. I suggest replacing the basket with a plastic one, that will last much longer.
    – r13
    Jun 19, 2021 at 13:17
  • Some countries showed better planning ( common sense..) and have black water sewers and storm drains.
    – Solar Mike
    Jun 19, 2021 at 13:41
  • Where does the water go WHEN it overflows the rain barrels? Rain barrels can hold only a tiny fraction of total roof runoff in any kind of decent rain. They are just there to hold back some rain water for gardening and raising mosquitos. Jun 19, 2021 at 14:57

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I live in Ottawa which gets colder than Toronto and part of the preparing for winter to-do list is emptying the rain barrels and putting them upside down with a few rocks on top.

The downspout gets connected to a perforated four inch drain with sleeve that I have buried under the lawn.

My rain barrels are the terracotta used olive barrels and they will crack if water is left in them and they are kept above ground.

I also use an identical olive barrel as a reservoir for a water feature. It is buried underground so the top of the barrel is level with the water feature. I don't drain that and it's been fine over many years.

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  • Did Ottawa have the same issues with downspouts connecting to sewage?
    – mgjk
    Jun 19, 2021 at 18:57
  • @mgjk Sure, less so in the newer areas. The city had to spend $232 million creating underground catchment tanks to prevent stormwater and sewage from going directly into the river ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/… This was caused by $562,000 fine for dumping raw sewage into the river during a heavy rain storm in 2006
    – kevinskio
    Jun 20, 2021 at 11:48

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