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Drainage: Don't let potential profits go down the drain

| Drainage
Hear that giant sucking sound? It's money swirling down a black hole called missed opportunity, never to be seen again. The opportunity, which is often overlooked and an otherwise unconsidered profit center, is found on the other side of the landscape drainage system installation.

But what is there to say about draining the water that you, a professional, have worked so diligently to put on? Plenty, according to Mike Fallon, vice president of sales for NDS, Inc., a manufacturer of drainage systems and materials based in Lindsay, California.

"Drainage isn't an irrigation item," notes Fallon. "Once you get more involved in landscaping, you get more adept in your understanding of drainage, because with landscaping if you don't have proper drainage you're going to have real problems."

"Water conservation is the buzz word today. More municipalities are mandating that proper drainage be installed in residential homes," says George Shackelford, president of Turf-Tek, a manufacturer of drainage systems in Riverside, California. "Without some form of drainage, there is the chance for future property damage."

There's no doubt that water can cause damage. Consider the drowning of plants, a more imminent threat to plant life than the slow death of drought, which can be rectified if quickly discovered and addressed with hydration. Silt and clay can also be introduced in areas with excess water. But for many in the green industry, water has always been the good guy, thus the reason for the boom in the irrigation business.

"You're putting on water, then you're taking it off," says Fallon. "You're talking about both sides of the street. But if you?re involved in landscaping, in turf and plant life, drainage becomes very critical. And the more you?re involved in poor soils, the more critical drainage becomes. We always stress water management. Water management includes, as a farmer would understand it, putting water on properly and taking it off properly."

There has always been an effort to divert runoff and excess moisture, by properly grading new lawns, installing downspouts, and raising planting areas. For low-lying areas to which these standard fixes do not apply, French drains have been installed, acting as subsurface drains. Basically, these subsurface drains are installed as gravel-filled trenches with perforated pipe in its bottom, allowing water to drain from the surface that surrounds it.

For some landscape contractors, an in-depth drainage project only comes around from time to time, especially in areas where the awareness of the importance of efficient drainage hasn't quite hit home, as in David Cundiff's market in the Ohio Valley. In these areas, traditional solutions are the mainstay, where perforated pipe is run after trenching, either to the street or connected to storm drains.

"Usually the builder installs the drainage system," says Cundiff, owner of Cundiff's Lawn and Landscape Inc. in Jeffersonville, Indiana. "It needs to be fixed if there's a problem they're going to have a mess in their yard if they don't. Usually builders will run all the corners, and if they miss something it'll be in the middle, like from an overhang, that needs to be picked up."

"Drainage is bigger on the West Coast, which is odd because it doesn't rain out here much," says Fallon. "But we've been out here longer. In the southern regions it's a little bigger, but in the Midwest and the Northeast it's not as big. But it's growing, like irrigation."

"The need for drainage products keep growing," says Shackelford. "We keep adding new items to our line to make the contractor's job easier." Like irrigation, the materials and products that make drainage a specialty niche in the green industry, will take time to find their way onto contractor's trucks.

"Traditional methods are still used," says Jim Sabraw, director of marketing for Grass Valley, California-based Permacorp. "Systems such as Perma Panel, (a proprietary subsurface drainage system) part of a more complex drainage solution, are relatively new. As with any new technology, early users will pave the way for the next wave of users until the masses can see the benefit of using these systems."

Selling Points

As with Cundiff's customers who hear his warning of what too much water, inadequately drained, can do to their lawn and newly planted greenery, many will disregard the issue until it becomes a problem. The challenge is making the public aware of the need for drainage systems, an item that is not often mentioned to win the low bid.

"Unfortunately, landscaping in this area seems to be done mostly by the lowest bidder, and usually without any plan other than the description provided by the owner to the landscaper," says George Wooster of Wooster & Wooster, general engineering contractors specializing in water intrusion in homes. Geotechnical engineering in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in California means dealing with drainage issues that arise due to poorly draining clay and clay loam.

"If drainage is not considered when landscaping a property, I can virtually guarantee that I shall be visiting the property sometime in the future because of a water intrusion problem," says Wooster. "The cost of intercepting and diverting the water is bad enough, the cost of foundation repairs is astronomical. Nevertheless, homeowners still seem to purchase their landscaping by price. I shouldn't complain; it gives me much more business than I can handle?but what a shame!"

Unless a homeowner wishes to have wetland for property, the stakes should be set high for not installing adequate drainage. Compared to what repair costs may be, running into the several thousand when dealing with foundation repair, installation costs pale in comparison.

For the homeowner, it's a logical service, especially when the facts are laid bare about inadequate drainage: Aside from a plethora of landscape problems, poor drainage leads to weakened foundations, loose facing materials, rotted supporting wall studs and base plates, and structural damage from pests that thrive in wet conditions. But don't assume homeowners know the risks of improper drainage -- it's up to you to educate them.

"We, as landscape contractors, know what's on the market because we see it in the trade publications," says John Allin of Allin Companies in Erie, Pennsylvania. "We have to educate customers most of the time, what's on the market and what?s available."

Homeowners aren't the only ones wet behind the ears; contractors unaware of the best drainage methods for specific jobs are losing out to fast-talking low bidders on their heels.

"One of the things we run up against when we recommend a drainage system that works well, is that these people will also talk with Joe Tailgate Landscaper down the street," notes Allin." And he says, "we can do that with 4-inch drain pipe and sewer pipe and do it for half of what Allin Companies quoted." The customer doesn't realize that they're getting an inferior product that's outdated and antiquated."

Considered the granddaddy of drainage, Shackelford remembers the early development of drainage systems. His introduction began in 1980 when he started a company called Associated Products. He developed and introduced the 9' and 12'" catch basin, which today is the standard of the industry. Over the years, Shackelford has been instrumental in developing additional products. Last year, he introduced the first 18' and 24' one-piece constructed catch basin with steel reinforced grate.

NDS also, has taken the drainage business seriously, and for over 20 years has provided the green and construction industries with solutions. Of the company's newest strategies, discharging the water a drainage system collects is a hot topic, primarily because of the cost factors associated with obtaining permits needed for certain areas of discharge. For example, in some localities, a permit is needed for coring a curb, the norm for drainage to streets. To avoid this, NDS has unveiled a dry well that can be buried with connecting pipes. Once the well fills with runoff, holes in the well allow the excess water to discharge into the existing water table.

Another device is the pop-up emitter, which is opened by the hydrostatic pressure of water flowing through the drainpipe, and is located away from structures and erosion-prone landscapes. Such items allow contractors to lower their quotes by negating the need for special permits.

In many areas of the country, few contractors offer drainage service. And simple economics dictate that offering the rare service spells sales. Contractors who install drainage see it as a more profitable project for them, because they're not getting three other bids from people that are as adept in putting in drainage as they are in installing irrigation.

So it's an opportunity for a contractor to sell up. You're setting yourself apart, creating awareness.

Some distributors are helping contractors (their end users) by providing seminars on how to install the systems, and informing them of the costs of installation, to make them more comfortable about the whole matter of drainage. "Once they're comfortable with it, maybe they'll go the next step to promote it," says Fallon. "Then you've really got someone who generates a more profitable position for themselves when they go to a property."

Sabraw agrees: "From the contractor's point-of-view, he needs to think about how he can do the best job possible in dealing with drainage -- not just sticking something in the ground and hope it works. Good work and effective solutions lead to very satisfied customers, which leads to more business, which leads to increased profitability. Presented properly, these more modern and more efficient drainage systems can become a new profit center for the contractor and can set him apart from the run-of-the-mill contractors."



 
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