Once upon a time, landscape professionals just took care of landscapes. Issues with water were left to others. Then, as time went on, we expanded our range of services to include hardscapes, outdoor lighting, pond construction and installation, and most of all, irrigation. After all, without the targeted application of water to grass and plant life, nothing is going to grow.
In a perfect world, every drop of water that comes from either Mother Nature or a modern irrigation system would be nourishing plant roots. However, it doesn’t take many hours in the field to understand that we don’t live in a perfect world. Physics comes into play. While much water may penetrate soil and get where we want it to go, other water runs off and drains away.
But what happens when the water doesn’t drain? When the water stands and stagnates? Without proper drainage come problems for your customers . . . and moneymaking opportunities for you. If you don’t take these opportunities, you are literally letting money run down the drain.
“Drainage issues are common problems that cause thousands of dollars of damage. They can usually be fixed for a few hundred dollars of inexpensive repair,” says Dave Polisky, director of sales and marketing for FLEX-Drain, owned by Cleveland Tubing, Inc. in Cleveland, Tennessee.
“If you have water that sits up against a foundation, it wicks into the walls. It can do everything from causing rot, mold and mildew to getting into wood floors or the subflooring,” reports Polisky.
Sharon Vessels, director of marketing for NDS in Woodland Hills, California, agrees that drainage work can be a serious profit center for landscape contractors. “Drainage represents a big opportunity for contractors to increase their average invoice on a job by at least 20 percent or more. It’s the type of work that can be done with your crew that’s already in place for standard irrigation projects.”
Market research shows that customers are sensitive to drainage concerns—maybe because they’re so visible or pose a threat to the integrity of the structure of their homes—or both. “Our company’s research found that 90 percent of the time, a property owner will take a contractor’s recommendation about putting in new drainage or fixing an existing problem,” says Vessels. “It’s a great opportunity for the contractor who’s already on the jobsite. He can just do a site or yard inspection and recommend something.”
Taking care of your customers’ drainage issues is a four-part process. First, understand why drainage problems are so serious, so that you can communicate with your customers. Second, learn to seek out and identify drainage issues. Third, determine which remedy is right for the problem you have identified. Fourth, do the fix.
So what’s the big deal, anyway? What’s so bad about bad drainage?
“Drainage is extremely important. Basically, it’s the basis for everything else you’re doing,” says Steve Bowes, a superintendent and partner at Phoenix Home Services, a full-service landscape company in Burke, Virginia. (At Phoenix, he’s the go-to drainage guy, and has earned the nickname “Aquaman.”) “Whether you’re installing plantings or building walls, unless you have the right soil conditions, nothing is going to work the right way. And the first step to having appropriate soil conditions is to have the drainage figured out correctly.”
So how do you “figure it out right?” What are the tip-offs that there might be a drainage problem? It’s all a matter of learning how to ‘read’ a site.
“The simplest way is to make sure the grade is correct. In other words, that the water runs away from the house,” says Philip Paul, owner of Preston Landscape Contractors in North Dallas, Texas. He’s been in business for 33 years, and is also a licensed irrigator.
Polisky puts a similar emphasis on slope. “The first thing you want to do is to make sure the ground is pitched correctly. If the ground is pitched into the foundation edge, as a landscape contractor you know you need to build up or change the pitch.”
The laws of physics haven’t changed—water always runs downhill. If water is running towards a home or building, you know you’ve got a problem. If water is running away too quickly from the area you’re seeking to irrigate, you also know you’ve got a problem. And if water is pooling someplace that you don’t want it to pool, you know you have another type of drainage problem.
There are other drainage red flags that should grab your attention.
“You can see erosion lines or see sunken areas in a property. Or, something as simple as a run of dead grass or algae in a lawn can tip you off,” says Bowes. “Look for them. If you see a lot of moss instead of grass, that’s an indication that there’s water standing around in the yard. Look for that, too.”
Bowes offers yet another practical tip: “If you’re designing a project, the best way of checking for drainage problems is to just drive by when you get a good, heavy rain and take a look at the site.”
Since rainy days normally keep your crews off the job and maroon you at your desk, this is a good way to take advantage of inclement weather. Instead of being deskbound when it pours, go drainage problem scouting.
Once you know what to look for, drainage issues become pretty apparent. “Look for streaming lines of water or migrating mulch,” says Polisky. “If you have to rake your mulch back into your mulch bed every time it rains, you’ve got a problem. It means there’s water streaming into that low-lying area.”
Getting a sense of the neighborhood is important, too. Chances are that all the houses in a tract have similar drainage problems.
“Sometimes they don’t build foundations high enough,” adds Paul.
“Then there’s not enough room to make sure water runs away from the houses.” He explains further, “You have the concrete foundation, and then you have the first layer of mortar, where the brick is. Mortar is very porous, whereas the concrete is not so porous. The water goes between the foundation and the first brickline.”
However, blaming the developer or the development plan may be pointing fingers in the wrong direction. Poor drainage isn’t always somebody’s fault.
“Many times, the natural drainage plan put in by a builder or developer has been changed over time,” says Bowes. “People put in patios, decks, other additional buildings— that all changes the pattern of water flow.” Also, major storms— think the “hundred-year storm”— can reshape landscapes in ways that the developer or homeowner never anticipated.
Whoever is at fault, drainage professionals counsel that when looking for drainage problems, don’t just look low. Look high, too.
“Gutters are extremely important,” Vessels reminds us.
“Where does all that rain water go? If the gutters aren’t right, it goes right to the foundation of the house.”
Paul knows this from experience. “I can be quite sure there’s a crack in a wall or foundation from a hundred yards away. All I have to do is see a broken gutter,” he declares. “Gutters are just taken for granted. But if they’re broken, or they don’t have leaf guards on them and they’re just dumping water someplace, that can cause a foundation crack.”
But you may not have to run around looking for clues like a member of a CSI team. Chances are, the property owner himself may have spotted the problem.
“Sometimes they’ll call and say, ‘We’ve been in this house for 25 years and we’ve never had a leak, but suddenly water’s coming into our basement,” says Bowes. “Or, there’s standing water in a yard or a common area of a community property, or coming through a wall.”
This is where your positioning yourself as a drainage specialist is key. “The closer a drainage problem is to the home, the greater the urgency for the homeowner to get the work done,” said Vessels. “They don’t know who to call, so they end up calling plumbers, or foundation repair contractors, when they should be calling their landscape or irrigation contractor.”
As a landscape professional, you know your local soil conditions. Knowing how that soil drains—or doesn’t—is vital.
“Where we are, in Virginia, and very commonly along the Eastern Seaboard, the majority of homes are built in and around marine clay,” says Bowes. “It’s very dense, very heavy, and water just sits in it. When you get a tremendous amount of water on the ground, it gets into the layers of clay. Too much water, and not enough space. That creates a great deal of hydrostatic pressure. And when that water finds a crack in the foundation of a house, you know that’s where it’s going to go— the path of least resistance. If it can’t go down into the ground, it will go sideways into a house.”
Okay, now that we know there’s a drainage problem, how do we fix it? And isn’t it too late once a building is built? No, is the short answer.
“When we’re talking about drainage, we’re mainly talking about retrofitting an existing home or building,” says Vessels.
To accomplish that retrofitting, there are many quality products on the market—filter socks, French drains, downspout adapters and much, much more. Flex-Drain, as the name implies, makes pipes that can stretch and bend. These can give you the flexibility to work around a mature landscape. They can be made longer or shorter without cutting.
NDS is introducing a product called EZ-Flow, a gravel-free French drain. NDS claims that it cuts down on labor substantially.
Best of all, you already have most of what you need to do the job. “Trenching crews, shovels—all the equipment and labor you need to do drainage—you already have when you’re doing irrigation work. It’s a great add-on to your existing services,” says Vessels.
And there’s a great need for that service. “Every home in America has some sort of drainage problem,” says Vessels. “And they don’t know who to call to fix those problems.” Why not you?
Learning how to do the work is not an issue. All the big drainage supply manufacturers offer free training. All you need to do is contact your distributor or salesperson.
Whether or not you ever earn a nickname like “Aquaman,” adding drainage skills to your landscape contractor resume should pay off handsomely for you. Otherwise, you’re just letting that money go down the drain.