Drainage: An Important Market Niche
Drainage does not have the pizzazz that other aspects of landscaping have. Even irrigation, which certainly isn’t glamorous, has more going for it than drainage. So, the best way to sell drainage is to show the implications it has for the landscape. The key to selling it is to stress the consequences of poor drainage.
For homeowners, “drainage” is usually something they trip over, fall on, or maybe, possibly think about after slogging through their muddy yard. Yet without it, you can pretty much kiss a beautiful, well-maintained landscape goodbye.
The effects of poor drainage occur slowly, not like a hurricane’s wildly devastating waters. Rotting wood, crumbling walls, choking plants and flooding basements are all ways that drainage can do damage, but trying to get a client to understand the importance of drainage—that’s another story. Still, as long as there’s rain and snow it will be a necessary service, so why not add this to the services you offer?
There are two main areas of concern: sub-surface drainage and surface drainage. For the purposes of this article, we’ll address surface drainage. “Every home in America has a drainage problem somewhere on their property,” says Sharon Vessels, director of marketing for NDS, Woodland Hills, California. The trick is to get people to install it before a hard rain. “Drainage is weather-affected. When it rains, we sell drainage,” Vessels says. “I call drainage a ‘distress purchase’ because people don’t usually buy it until they need it.”
Who hasn’t seen water shooting out of a downspout and pooling next to a home or building? Kevin Rost, vice president of Dura Plastic Products, Inc., Beaumont, California, sees that as a great opportunity to sell drainage. “Ask homeowners where all the water pouring out of their downspouts is going,” says Rost. Vessels agrees, “Downspouts are the first place you should look for an opportunity to sell a homeowner on drainage. You can tie those downspouts off with a catch basin. It’s a very simple job and it really does a lot to protect a home.”
A catch basin works like a sink. It may collect water fed to it from an inlet pipe, or it might be placed where water collects, like the foot of a downspout or on the lowest spot in the middle of a lawn. Wherever it is, a catch basin properly installed will safely carry water away. “Downspouts tied off with corrugated pipe that runs directly to the sidewalk create a hazard in winter climates where that water can turn to ice very quickly. Also, it just looks bad,” says Vessels.
“Downspouts need to be tied off to a pipe that goes into a catch basin, which runs into the stormwater system.”
“A really good feature for the contractor is to sell his landscape design or irrigation system along with a quality drainage system. It’s an easy sell and some contractors aren’t doing it,” Rost says. “They’re just going in and installing an automatic sprinkler system. It’s so easy to dig another trench at the same time right next to it, figure out the slope of the grade and get the water 50 to 75 feet away from the residence.”
Whether water problems occur because of the soil’s characteristics or the land’s contour, a proper drainage system gathers water that would otherwise collect in inconvenient places, and uses gravity to send it away. “Everything is gravity in drainage,” says George Shackelford, business manager of the drainage division for Old Castle Precast, Auburn, Washington. “What I mean by that is you have to have at least an 1/8" slope from the back of the yard to the street level, so the water will run down the line.”
“If a slope or grade doesn’t exist, you will need to create it,” says J.C. Mallmann, owner of H20 Water Services, Santa Barbara, California. “We grade everything away from the house. When a big downpour occurs, you have to make sure that everything slopes two or three feet away from the house, so that the water that comes to that location gets taken away before it seeps down to the foundation.”
Drainage can be divided into three major phases: collection, conduction and discharge. Catch basins fall into the collection phase. And while their size range makes it possible for them to handle different water problems, channel drains and French drains seem better suited to collect and drain water over wider areas. For example,
“Channel drains are used around patios, driveways—anywhere you have a longer area for drainage,” explains Shackelford. “If you have a patio that’s 30 feet long and you want to drain it quickly, you would use a channel drain.” Channel drains come in plastic or precast concrete. “Both are installed the same way, but plastic channel drains weigh a lot less and are easier to carry and work with,” says Vessels. “Precast could have problems with product arriving on the jobsite damaged and unusable.” Shackelford, on the other hand, touts the advantages of precast channel, explaining, “Where there’s heavy traffic, such as on a driveway, a properly installed concrete channel will avoid the settling that heavy traffic might cause.”
The traditional French drain, which is usually a square hole in the ground or could be a trench, is partially filled with different-sized gravel that is put down in layers. A perforated pipe can be laid in the middle of the gravel, but is not necessary. Either way, it’s important to leave lots of room on the top half to gather the water. The excess water flowing into the drain eventually seeps into the soil.
Prefabricated strip drains are another alternative to French drains. However, they use plastic instead of pipe, and because of the filter fabric that wraps them, they do not use gravel. “The disadvantage with gravel,” says Jim Saxon, mid-central regional sales manager for American Wick Drain, Monroe, North Carolina, “is that it is so expensive and much more work to backfill with. There’s no need to use gravel with prefabricated drainage.”
A driveway above the grade of the house and sloping down towards the garage is also another place for a channel or French drain. As Tim Malooly, president of Irrigation by Design, Plymouth, Minnesota, points out, “If you’re faced with the situation where the driveway’s installed, and the homeowner or landowner doesn’t want to make dramatic changes to the driveway or the grade, a channel drain or French drain at the base where the water collects and carries it away from the area of concern is one option.”
In addition to channel and French drains, Malooly suggests a dry well as another possible solution for a driveway. All three methods can be used in situations where water needs to be drained from large saturated areas. Dry wells don’t have drains. They are large pits filled with gravel or some other material. Their big benefit is that they allow water to leach into the soil on site. “Rainwater runoff and other runoffs are a high concern these days, “says Malooly. “Using the water where it lands or percolating the water into the soil instead of causing it to runoff somewhere else is a big deal.”
The more stringent codes are the big deal that Malooly is referring to. “EPA rules and state departments of pollution control and agencies and so on, are mandating more and more that water that lands on any kind of site, whether it’s residential, commercial or industrial, has to be managed consistent with local codes or local requirements to handle the water onsite first, and then drained away second.”
Stricter codes, altruistic motives or water costs and scarcity are reasons that spur new products and methods. Permeable pavers filled with sod and grass, for instance, are able to handle the heavy traffic that hardscape materials, such as concrete, asphalt, tar and other non-permeable surfaces have traditionally handled, but unlike them, they allow water to leach back into the site’s soil.
Permeable pavers can also be used in some instances in the landscape, not just the driveway, to remove water. “And rainwater harvest techniques such as green roofs, cisterns, retention ponds— any method that collects water for irrigation or other non-potable uses instead of just sending it down the stormwater drain—are other dispersal methods that can be used,” said Malooly.
Another area that requires water to be collected over a wider area and hauled off is basement perimeters. According to Malooly, basements bring water concerns. “In cold parts of the country, it is more common for houses to have basements than for them to be built on slab foundations. When you introduce basements into residential construction, the house is now vulnerable to water damage and mold.” Water may cause footings to shift, basements to leak, and mold to form.
Of course, the best time to install drainage is at the time of construction; the site is already disturbed, so adding pipes and catch basins or changing grades or soils can be more easily accomplished. However, with housing starts way down, the market for adding drainage during construction has also slowed. Still, Shackelford, who has been in the field for 38 years, sees the need for drainage retrofitting. “There’s a lot of business out there on homes that still don’t have the proper drainage. Even when it was put in, it might not have been put in correctly,” he says. Also, Shackelford feels there’s a real need for competent contractors. “You don’t have a lot of certified quality guys when it comes to installing drainage. There’s a need for contractors who know what they’re doing.”
Manufacturers offer seminars and classes to contractors to help them increase their knowledge and experience with drainage solutions. “We’ve had a lot of success with our contractor drainage program. We teach them how to install drainage and how to sell it to homeowners. We give them very nice brochures, drainage calculators, and installation videos, as well as bilingual materials for their crews,” Vessels says. “Sometimes we’ll go with them on their first installation. We also try to teach them how to bid and estimate drainage.”
This little market niche could prove to be a bonanza for the contractor. Without proper drainage, money spent on landscaping could literally go down the drain. The need for quality work makes an add-on drainage service a natural fit for landscape contractors.