What Is a Rain Chain? A Guide to the Downspout Alternative

If you’ve spotted this outdoor feature, you might have mistaken it for a windchime or decorative accent. But rain chains offer more than just curb appeal.

Detail of rain chain garden with papyrus, coleus, verbena, copper bowl
Photo: Brie Passano

Water is one of your home’s biggest threats; that’s why gutters and drains along the roof are so vital to home care maintenance. It's essential to have a mechanism to guide water down to the ground and prevent it from damaging your home's roof, attic, or interior. Most U.S. homes use a metal downspout, but an ornate feature that has roots in Asia is becoming more popular. A rain chain is a downspout alternative that is both attractive and effective. 

What is a rain chain?

Originally called kusari-doi, rain chains started in Japan, where they are still used to keep water runoff away from roofs and foundations of homes. Beautiful and highly functional, rain chains attach to gutters and guide rainwater down to the ground or to a water-harvesting receptacle. In Japan, they are used on homes, garden pagodas, temples, and other iconic settings. 

The popularity of rain chains has soared in the United States in recent years and it’s no wonder why. Rain chains can be fun DIY projects that the entire family can enjoy. Even when store-bought, rain chains add unique charm that downspouts simply don’t offer. They also come in multiple colors and styles, though most are made of copper and have a metallic finish.

overall of rain chain garden with copper bowl, cannas, papyrus, verbena, coleus
Brie Passano

What is the purpose of a rain chain?

If you’re wondering what a rain chain is used for, the answer is simple. They have two main purposes. The first is to guide rainwater from the roof’s gutter and drains down to the ground, where it can be absorbed into the lawn, run along the pavement to curbside drains, or be captured in a rain-harvesting bucket. The second is simply to decorate the home’s exterior.

While most people are conservative with exterior home colors and designs, many people want their homes to stand out from their neighbors. This outdoor feature has the right balance of function and whimsy.

Do I have to replace the downspout to use a rain chain?

Some people choose to remove the existing downspout from the gutter channel to replace it with a rain chain. If your home has an elaborate downspout pipe with an elbow and extensions, removing the existing draining system might be your biggest worry. 

First, clean the gutters completely. Be careful not to damage the gutter or the exterior walls as you unscrew the downspout and its elbows from the home. Hold on to any splash blocks as you will use them with the rain chain. Most gutters already have an opening to place a downspout, so you can use a V-shaped hook or a rain chain adapter placed inside that opening to neatly attach the rain chain.

How to Install a Rain Chain

If you decide to add a rain chain along the gutter channel or the eaves without removing the existing downspout, you can use tin snips to open a small hole in the gutter, where the rain chain can be hung. Think wisely about where best to place a rain chain. People who collect rainwater may want to place the rain chain in the rear of the home to capture some water in a bucket or barrel. Others use a rain chain to guide water to a visible rock garden, garden planter, or picturesque fountain. The possibilities are endless, but you’ll still want to make sure that water drains away from the house and doesn’t seep into the foundation.

If your home doesn’t have gutters, you’ll want to identify where water accumulates most on your sloping roof. Usually, there’s a corner or crevice where rain creates small canals that channel water down to the ground. That’s where a rain chain is most useful. Use S hooks to attach a copper bucket to that corner, then pierce the bottom of the bucket and hang the rain chain from the bucket.

Should I switch to a rain chain?

During heavy rains, downspouts can make loud noises. Rain chains can create an almost waterfall-like sound effect as water drains through each level of the chain. Many people find this to be a calming, soothing sound, especially for children and pets that are easily startled.

If you need to replace your existing drain system, now is a good time to test out a switch. Because rain chains age well, they may be a natural replacement for a broken, cracked, or leaking gutter or downspout. In the U.S., most rain chains are made of metal, so they age beautifully and complement brick, siding, and wood facades. 

Last, many people want to leave a mark on their homes. Landscaping and painting are costlier endeavors. A rain chain is a cheap and easy outdoor upgrade that leaves a positive impression. 

Remember, you might need more than one. Rain chains can be attached to garages, homes, and any carport overhangs. Making handmade rain chains can also be a fun project for the family.

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