Rain chains vs downspouts: what are they & how do they work?

Image source: contraption

Jack Wisniewski

By Jack Wisniewski

June 22, 2021

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What if you could turn your clunky gutter downspouts into charming outdoor decor?

Rain chains do that exactly. They accentuate the sensory beauty of cascading water while diverting water away from your home.

But is it possible that something that looks and sounds as pleasant as rain chains can serve as a functional alternative for downspouts?

In this article, we answer that question, among others commonly asked about rain chains.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about rain chains, including where they come from, how they work, and their most popular styles.

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What are rain chains?

Rain chain hanging from a residential home

Image source: SEO Inc.

Traditionally called kusari doi, rain chains originated in Japan centuries ago. They only became popular in the United States in the last few decades.

Typically made of copper, brass, or aluminum links, rain chains divert rainwater from gutters to the ground in a controlled manner, not unlike a traditional downspout.

Rain chains connect to your existing gutter system in the cutout designated for a downspout. However, you can hang them anywhere as desired.

When the showers begin, rain chains transform into an elegant landscape feature. Water flows down the chains to create a kinetic sculpture that delivers on both liquid visuals and soothing sounds.

In a majority of cases, downspouts offer neither of these appealing sensations.

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How do rain chains work?

Rain chains direct water via surface tension. Essentially, water naturally “sticks” to the chains.

This surface tension slows water down to minimize splashing that can damage the siding and foundation of your home over time.

Although surface tension helps prevent the draining water from sprinkling about, it’s not as effective as a fully enclosed, impermeable downspout. Some splashing occurs just by the nature of water colliding with the chains.

Cup rain chains

Cup rain chains with water falling through them

Image source: SEO Inc.

To reduce splashing and amplify style, many rain chains feature cups that re-funnel the water as it streams down.

Rain chain drainage

Metal dish rain chain drainage system

Image source: VivaTerra

Rain chain systems often require some form of drainage system on the ground. Many rain chain systems include a metal dish, called a basin, that collects rainwater and anchors the tail-end of the chain.

To divert overflowing runoff away from the home, you may need to install additional drainage around the basin.

Rain chain barrel drainage system

Image source: Mississippi Watershed Management Organization

Some homeowners opt for rain barrels instead of basins to harvest rainwater for gardening or in-home use to conserve water.

Rain chain styles

Traditional, Japanese rain chains come in two main styles: links and cups.

Link styles typically cost less, but cup rain chains often strike as more noticeable and upscale. Cup-style rain chains can take on any shape, but bestsellers include watering cans, lily pads, and hammered cups.

Another design choice stems from the materials used. Aluminum and steel can deliver silvery, grey, or chromatic tones, whereas copper procures its distinct pink-orange sheen. With copper rain chains, keep in mind that it patinas into greenish color over time.

Rain chains with decorative rocks

Image source: ApricotMint

Should you seek more eccentric rain chains, check out boutique vendors and arts marketplaces. You could find one-of-a-kind rain chains and may use unconventional materials, such as driftwood or art glass.

How you anchor the rain chain is arguably just as aesthetically important.

For a simple but stately impression, many use anchoring basins and fill them with decorative stone. Enterprising homeowners can combine their rain chains with a ground-level fountain to take their landscaping to new heights.

All things considered, there are many ways to configure your rain chains to match your unique tastes.

Rain chains vs. downspouts

Attributes Rain chains Downspouts
Curb appeal Wide variety of styles, materials, and accessories. Becomes a water feature during rain Often out of sight and out of mind. Can be a statement with the right color and materials
Performance Splashes. Not ideal near windows and siding Drains effectively
Price $95 - $345 for a rain chain, gutter adaptor, and basin $120 - $240 per downspout
Installation Easy-to-install. Gets more challenging with sophisticated drainage, rain barrels, and fountains Usually included in pro gutter installation, but can be DIY
Maintenance May need to be removed during the winter Routine cleaning

Curb appeal

Rain chains with water cascading down them

Image source: From House to Home

Whether you choose basic link rain chains or hammered cups, they can add a novel element to a home or garden.

That novelty consists of a dangling metal wind chime most of the time. During wet weather, however, rain chains take an alluring form as both a fountain-esque sculpture and an aural experience.

Rain chains in a garden

Image source: Sustainable Ballard

Rain chains can elicit even more captivating vibes when integrated with a rain garden or ground-level water feature.

That’s not to say rain chains improve looks in all cases. For those who believe less is more, too many garden ornaments give a tacky impression.

As for downspouts, we tend to forget they exist, and rightfully so.

Many homeowners consider their rain gutters as a purely functional component. However, gutters can add significant flair.

Copper gutters on a roof

Image source: Ornamentals

Accenting colors, especially glossy copper gutters, conceivably induce just as much if not more elegance as rain chains.

Performance

An effective drainage system directs as much water as possible at a safe distance from the building.

By that metric, rain chains perform worse than downspouts because they can splash water onto windows and siding, especially during heavy rainfall.

Downspouts should not splash water, which crucially helps keep these components and the building foundation dry.

Price

Rain chains are typically sold in 8.5-foot lengths that cost between $50 and $120 per unit. Add the gutter adapter ($10-$25) and basin ($35-$200,) and you could pay between $95 and $345 for a single rain chain system.

Per linear foot of aluminum or stainless steel downspout, installers charge between $6 and $12. That comes out somewhere between $120 and $240 per downspout on a typical, 20-foot-tall, two-story home.

At most, a rain chain system costs $225 more than a downspout.

Installation

Rain chains require minimal skill and equipment to install.

Copper rain chain cup

Image source: Wayfair

Rain chain installation kits include adapters or hangers that slide into the downspout cutout. To collect water and anchor the rain chain from high winds, many systems use basins. You may need to perform some landscaping for drainage.

Rain chain installations get more complicated when integrating rain barrels or fountain features into the system.

Downspouts typically come with professional gutter installation, though you can DIY. Cut a hole at the low end of the gutters, place the downspout, and fasten it to the building.

Overall, both rain chains and downspouts provide relatively easy installation compared to other exterior home components.

Maintenance

Rain chains can decrease your gutter system’s maintenance needs.

A professional performing gutter maintenance on a home

Image source: TC Baker

Gutter maintenance primarily consists of cleaning, most notably at the downspout where debris tends to accumulate.

Some rain chains allow debris to drain out of the gutter along with the flow of rainwater, which helps keep gutters clean.

Rain chains frozen over with water

Image source: Gutter Supply

In regions that see freezing temperatures, however, ice can amass on rain chains. This places substantial weight on the gutters and eaves. To prevent system failure, many homeowners replace their rain chains with traditional downspouts in the winter months.

Downspouts, on the other hand, can remain in place throughout the year. Like gutters, you should primarily need to worry about routine cleaning.

Which is better: rain chains or downspouts?

Rain chains and downspouts on a residential home

Image source: The Rain Gutter Specialists

Although rain chains can bring your outdoor space to life, are easily installed, and offer relatively attainable pricing, they do not drain as effectively and reliably as downspouts.

In turn, you likely shouldn't replace all of your downspouts with rain chains.

Think of rain chains as a garnish first, drainage component second. When placed in moderation, rain chains provide a delightful note that most downspouts lack.

Get in touch with a local contractor today.

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