Larry’s Rant #4
Thank goodness for rainy days, or contractors would never get any paperwork done. Also, rain causes foundation problems, and well, that’s what we do here. Today, even the paperwork is under control, and I found myself having a long and often repeated conversation with a potential client. The subject is drainage. Now, I have done my fair amount of drainage over the years, and I am trying to get out of the business. Not foundation repairs (hey, I’ve got three kids I have to send to college!) but the drainage business. Sure, I still will do a French drain (more on those later) but the basic drainage stuff is too time consuming for me nowadays, especially since it is pretty simple. I am finding that doing what I do (fixing foundations) is best for me to focus on. Here, I hope to give you, my audience, enough information so that you can “self diagnose” your drainage needs, and then either hire someone (preferable) or do it yourself (you fool you!). This rant may be shooting myself in the wallet, but if I save you from big problems, I can console myself in knowing there are lots of other people who won’t follow my advice, or its too late already (insert diabolical laugh here….)
So, let’s define: what is drainage? I define drainage as getting the water away from the foundation. Water is the universal solvent. It wears out concrete, causes soil to shift, and can even make you sick with mold. So water is bad, right? No. Water is good, even if it is sometimes used to cut whiskey. Water makes plants green, cools you off when you dip in the pool, makes the dog clean (and smell funky) and is necessary to life. A necessary evil, but it must be controlled.
I must point out that my advice here is specifically aimed at older homes, but is generally true for all houses. In San Diego, we have large areas of older homes built on clay soil. Clay soil is expansive, which means it swells up when it gets wet, and shrinks when it dries out. This change is often seasonal. Wet in the winter and dry in the summer. When wet clay expands, it doesn’t really lift the house up, but expands up around the foundation (in an action we call “pumping”) like when you step in mud, and the soil bulges up around your shoe. The house moves relatively little from the increase in water in the soil. The problem is when the soil dries out in the hot So Cal summer, the ground dries, starts shrinking, and causes the foundation to settle. This is exacerbated by water that has intruded under a house and into the crawlspace. This soil takes longer to dry, causing the middle to settle later than the perimeter. This can also cause the perimeter to rotate out as the exterior dries and the interior stays wet. Also, the north side of the house is the shady side, and the south gets the sun. So one side dries out sooner, maybe doesn’t get as saturated. Porches, sidewalks, roofs that drain to the sides but not the front, all these variables also can cause differential settlement. Add uneven watering patterns or lack of irrigation, and the variables become quite daunting. Overwhelmed? Me too….
So let’s simplify. I said previously the key is Moderation. Are you ready? Got your crayon? Write this down! The key to drainage is: Avoid too much water in the winter, and too little in the summer.
Yes, it’s that simple. By using proper drainage to reduce the extreme saturation in the winter, and having landscaping that you water in the summer to keep a little moisture in the soil, you can minimize the effects. It’s that balance, that Zen of water if you will, that you are striving for.
Now, it’s as much an art as a science, and there are a lot of ways to get there. I will lay out the basics that can really help you. First, I always recommend raingutters. Specifically, seamless aluminum raingutters (I like copper too, but they are a bit more pricy). The downspouts need to be routed to direct water away from the house, into pipes if necessary. These pipes can also be used for area drains in patios and yards, but dollar for dollar, raingutters are the most effective way to keep water away from the house. Think of it this way: If it rains an inch in a day, and it drains off a 10 foot section of roof (most roof sections are twice that) then you have a concentration of 10” of water directly adjacent to your foundation. Shall I say it? OK….That’s very bad.
Some people say to me:”But I don’t want raingutters….the eaves are not built for it, the house didn’t originally have raingutters”. True. A lot of old houses didn’t have toilets, either. You can choose to not have gutters and have the water drain down to the ground, but then you might want to pour sidewalks around the house to direct the water away from the house. This is acceptable, but more expensive. Generally, code calls for a 2% slope directing water away from the house, but it sure helps when the slope is concrete. I try to incorporate drainage into patios, sidewalks, and other improvements, so I can get more bang for my buck, more living area out of my drainage improvements. While the powers that be in government want you to keep all the water on your property, it is not in your best interest to try to soak it all in on your property.
Generally, we’re talking common sense here. Water flows downhill, so make it flow downhill away from your house. The other common sense issue is to have some sort of landscaping that can be watered in the summer. It can be drought resistant; you just don’t want your yard to go back to desert every summer. Your design should incorporate these principles. You can also do the obvious stuff first, and then add to the improvements as needed.
Now, I will address the French Drain issue. (Should I call it a Freedom Drain?) So, what is a French Drain? A French Drain has two components: First, it is a barrier to stop water from moving sideways underground, and then a mechanism to remove the water. It is typically constructed by excavating a trench, placing a moisture barrier on the downhill side, and placing a pipe with holes in it to catch the water. We use gravel to back fill, and have filter fabric around the pipe itself and around the entire gravel bed. Works great, if done properly. So, why don’t we use them all the time?
There are a few issues. I will use a gross analogy (my wife will hate this) …The problem isn’t that you pick your nose, but where do you put the booger? If the drain is 3 feet deep, and your lot is flat, where does the pipe and water drain to? You need a sump to collect the water, and a pump to pump it out, to….where? You cannot legally pump water through the curb under pressure, so you need a “break box” to break the pressure, and then drain out by gravity. Oh, and when you dig out the trench, all the material (soil) needs to be removed and disposed of properly. That’s expensive, especially if done by hand. So, French drains are expensive, and when you are done, they are buried and you don’t really see them, and you may have a maintenance issue with electricity and a pump that wears out. Not as enjoyable as spending your money on… like… a new big screen TV or Cadillac. Hey, this is my rant, so I put in stuff I like!
My point is a French Drain is a last resort. Another last resort is a sump pump under your house. If you have enough water under your house to pump out, then you better reread this rant. Water under your house means the horse has left the barn, and the pump is you closing the door.
Finally, I have one more concept for you. There are two sources of water. Man and Nature. We’ve talked about Nature’s role, but what about Man’s role in this (or Woman’s for that matter. If it is a problem, my wife says blame Man). If your neighbor is over watering (sprinklers running in the rain) or you have a leak in your plumbing, or your waterbed bursts, you are going to have issues. These problems can be avoided or repaired, and I suggest occasionally checking your water meter and under your house for leaks or water, especially in summer and fall. If it’s wet in August, it probably ain’t Gods’ fault. For neighbors that get carried away with the water, I suggest a nice bottle of wine (or three) drank in friendly companionship (call it courage juice) and lay out your friendly reminder/taunting jeer.
Well, thanks for reading. Hope this rain stops or we’ll be trout fishing on Adams Avenue.