Rain chains are a traditional element in southern and western Japan. From the edge of a Japanese roof, the "kusari-doi" directs rainwater into a barrel, drain, or basin, or onto a stone slab. The kusari-doi turns the rain and the collection area into aesthetic garden elements while the chain serves a practical purpose. Light rain trickles down and ripples the surface of a barrel or basin full of water. Heavier rain gushes and gurgles like a temporary waterfall.
Rain chains consist of a string of rings or cup shapes. The surface tension of the water cause it to grab the rings and cling to them as it flows to the ground. Cup shapes, like the one shown here, can be made to resemble flowers, tiny buckets, deep cups or other pretty shapes. The cups hang one under another, each a few inches wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, so that water flows from the bottom of one cup into the mouth of the one under it. The catchment at the bottom of a rain chain can serve to either collect and hold, or drain away, the flow. Chains can simply hang free, or may be attached in place at the bottom to a container, stone, or drain.
On modern Western homes, a rain chain may replace the standard utilitarian downspout that we usually try to hide (with little success) or blend in (poorly) to the house trim and siding. Like a downspout, a rain chain can end over a standard splash block that directs water away from the house foundation. But rain chains can fill a rain barrel too. In either case, a rain chain is certainly more interesting than a basic, boring downspout. Vincent Longo Custom Builders explains (click here for video) how a rain chain was a much more aesthetically pleasing choice than a downspout on a stone house with copper gutters.
Rain chains are sold on the internet, of course, and you may see them at high end garden centers*. The standard length is about eight feet, and some can be lengthened at a "per added foot" price. Copper is popular material and a natural one for an architectural element. Brass, enameled, and aluminum cups are other choices in metals. Rain chain vendors also offer two accessories worth considering. One is a gutter adaptor. It is a drop in flange and short tube that helps ensure that rain flows directly out of your gutter and into the chain. The other is a basin, weight, or bucket for the bottom of the chain. These keep the chain in place during windy storms, to help control the runoff.
A rain chain can be added to an existing gutter system by simply removing the downspout and hanging the chain in place. Chains can hang from a large "V" shaped piece of heavy wire inserted from above. This kind of installation is demonstrated by Mark Crovelli of Gutter University (click here for video.) There may be a piece of tube coming down from the gutter when you remove the downspout. This tube help direct water down instead of allowing it to creep along the underside of the gutter before dripping. As Mark points out, if the tube is scratched or unfinished, you can buy touch up paint in the hardware store to match common gutter material. Rain chain vendors also sell an insert flange that drops in place for hanging the chain. They say it can direct rain onto the chain more effectively than the standard stub. If there is no stub on your gutter, this insert flange and tube is highly recommeded.
Crafters and artistic gardeners have embraced rain chains and come up with many creative options. Pinterest, YouTube, and Google Images are loaded with creative concepts for rain chains. They're made from repurposed household items, dollar and thrift store goodies, and hardware store basics like copper tube. Natural items like pine cones can decorate a rain chain for a few seasons. Don't forget to check Etsy.com for beautiful handcrafted chains . Of course, you could be so creative as to actually hang manufactured chain.
The chain has to hang straight down; rain can't cling to a chain held at an angle. An exception might be if you buy or design a chain in which the funnels are closely spaced so that each always flows into the one below.
Since the chain hangs straight, it doesn't follow the same path as the downspout. This could be good, or bad, news for your rain chain aspirations. Your roof and soffit may make your rain chain end right over a walkway (bad) or a landscaped area prime for a pretty catchbasin or interesting splash stone (very good!)
Your rain chain should be seen in all kinds of weather, but seen and heard especially in the rain. Porch roofs make great rain chain locations, ideally eliminating those annoying downspouts that have to elbow over to try and hide along a pillar or attach to a wall.
Cups on rain chains should drain completely. Basins and barrels should be regarded as potential mosquitoes breeding sites, and treated accordingly.
Some chains can be quite heavy, depending on the materials used. They can also fill with ice in cold weather. Make sure your gutter can handle the wieght.
Attaching the rain chain at ground level is especially important if small children may have access to the chain.
Mark Crovelli and Gutter University, and VIncent Longo Builders, for posting excellent helpful videos to Youtube. A picture is worth a thousand words!