Causes and possible solutions to standing water and drainage issues around the home
The “natural” permeability of soil… a primer
The word “soil” is shorthand for a variety of minerals (in the form of crushed or eroded rock) and organic material between the surface of the earth and bedrock, also called “ledge”. Every type of soil has a natural ability to allow surface water to pass through; this is called permeability. A soil that has less permeability may cause puddling to occur at the surface, at least till the water can pass through the ground, or cause soggy ground. A soil with more permeability quickly dries at the surface, which can be a negative if, for example, water drains too quickly through the soil from your beloved vegetable or flower garden!
To a soil scientist, this simple explanation hardly (if you’ll excuse the pun) scratches the surface of soil study. Soils are not uniform, even within a relatively small area, and variations even a few meters apart can be dramatic. And don’t even try to wrap your head around geographic variances. New England soils, many formed from glacial activity during the ice ages, are totally different from those in Mexico or Florida.
What is important in this discussion is how different soils react to sudden exposure to water, such as a pelting rainstorm or, in the case of a septic system, doing laundry or flushing a toilet. Some soils swell when exposed to water, slowing down the percolation rate (the speed at which standing water will move through the soil). Others absorb water without swelling. These soils allow water to move through them quickly and allow for the best drainage.
Here is an article from the University of Minnesota on percolation testing (also known as perc testing), which is a scientific way to determine the porosity of soils for installation of septic systems. I wouldn’t expect you to run a perc test yourself, but if you are as curious as I am, you might want to give it a look!
Another factor in soil permeability is whether it has been disturbed or undisturbed. In the building of a home, various pieces of heavy construction equipment move on the soil bringing in materials for the job. Everywhere this equipment goes, it compacts the soil, decreasing its permeability. In some cases, such as under driveways, walkways or around home foundations, this is a good thing since this compaction improves the stability of the earth, keeping driveways from collapsing and foundations from settling, shifting or sinking!
On the other hand, moving heavy equipment over areas where you need superior drainage, such as future sites for septic systems, can be catastrophic and expensive!
Here is an interesting article on soil compaction from Multiquip, a construction equipment manufacturer. It’s written primarily for contractors, but is about as thorough a free guide as you can get on the topic.
Natural or unnatural topography…
Consider yourself lucky if you have a property where all nearby land slopes away from your foundation! Too many homeowners face a seasonal struggle with damp or wet basements because the slope of the land and the type of soil cause water to naturally flow towards, not away, from their home’s foundation, leading to excessive moisture and/or active water leaks.
Modern home builders attempt to compensate for this by building foundations higher than the surrounding terrain and backfilling soil to make an unnatural slope away from the building. Compacting the soil around the foundation plus modern waterproofing materials applied on the foundation’s exterior go a long way toward minimizing the possibility of water infiltration.
If your property allows it, you may be able to re-grade sufficiently to allow natural runoff to occur. However, if your property is level or sloped towards your home, your only solution may be to install a “virtual slope” beneath the ground level. One way would be to dig a wide trench around the foundation down just a foot or so, tapering it away. Then an impermeable membrane is laid in the trench and covered with soil. This membrane diverts the water away from the foundation where it can be absorbed by the soil a distance from the foundation. A deeper gravel trench can be installed at the edge of the membrane to allow a quicker dispersal of the water. This can be used on trouble spots, though there is always a risk that disturbing the soil around the foundation can make the situation worse. Professional guidance may be wise if you can afford it.
Other methods include adding drainage at the base of the foundation that leads to a sump pump which removes the water from within the basement. This is a radical and expensive measure for an existing home, as it can require removal of landscape features such as walls, bushes and even walks and driveways. Needless to say, this would be a last resort!
Standing water away from your home
As a property owner, an important consideration in your unrestricted use of you property is understanding the concept of “wetlands”. When I was young, there was no such word as wetland. We called them swamps, bogs and marshes. These were areas that were wet most of the year and were recognized by the gooshy ickiness of the ground (technical term) and the number of mosquitoes per square foot. Ouch!
Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has become quite aggressive in expanding the definition of wetlands to include many areas that would not seem to be swampy. This is a complicated field and there are still many unknowns regarding your rights and responsibilities. Should your property be considered a “wetland”, you may suffer restricted use and increased responsibility.
If you own property near a body or water, river, stream or a recognized wetland, keep yourself up to date on the rules that may affect your property ownership rights. Currently, there is a proposed rule to “clarify” the definition of protected waters under the Clean Water Act, also known as the “Waters of the United States”. Here is a link to the proposed rule:
Man-made puddles and pools…
As mentioned earlier, the process of building a home can unintentionally cause excessive soil compaction, especially if heavy equipment has been parked on the lot for a period of time. This can lead to seasonal or even continuous pooling of water in areas of your yard. Simply put, the compaction of the soil plus the natural swelling of the soil can team up to slow natural drainage enough to cause a pool or puddle to form.
Assuming that you know this area is not a wetland and not over your septic system (where you may need professional help), you may be able to remediate the situation simply by piercing the surface of the soil to a depth of a few feet. Drive an iron rod (such as rebar or a long heavy duty pry bar) to a depth of a foot or two to break the artificial “cap” will allow natural drainage to occur. Every situation is different, and the number or holes you’ll need to create will depend on the depth and severity of the compaction. Over time, the soil will dry out and the compacted areas will loosen naturally, improving drainage further. I’ve seen this done and the effects can be dramatic!
Unfortunately, if the soil compaction is severe, power equipment and fill may be needed to restore normal drainage.
Gutters and downspouts need attention and regular maintenance…
Water always finds a way. Even if the visible soil around your foundation has an adequate slope, you may still have water problems if you don’t have the proper gutter system or don’t properly maintain it.
Problems from roof drainage can be narrowed to two possibilities. First, the roof water is being discharged too close to the foundation which can, over time, forge a path to your foundation. Should there be a crack or even a poorly sealed joint between the foundation and the slab floor, one day you may be greeted with a watery surprise on your basement floor. Or a more subtle increase in basement dampness as the water pools next to the foundation.
The second possibility is that your gutters are blocked and overflowing… or you have no gutters. Many contractors do not install gutters for aesthetic reasons and this is fine as long as you have a tightly sealed foundation. However, I’ve found many homeowners end up installing gutters because of the problems caused by dumping large amounts of water along the foundation that are unrelated to leakage, such as excessive dampness in planting soil or even rutting in the ground caused by falling sheets of water. Furthermore, any excess water near the foundation can attract carpenter ants and termites!
Regular gutter cleaning has solved many a homeowner’s water problems. Installing gutter covers isn’t a panacea, but can minimize the work involved in gutter cleaning and even allow you to skip a year!
Also, adding a downspout extension to drain the gutters further from the home, or even installing an underground pipe to further divert the water are two possible solutions when your gutters are otherwise functioning properly.
Each water problem that homeowner’s experience is unique to their yard’s soil composition and their home’s construction features, but there is a solution for all of them. The key is to know your options, learn about the unique characteristics of your investment and move slowly, evaluating the least invasive (and least expensive) solutions first. Hopefully, you will be pleasantly surprised.
Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation. As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites, including his own at www.naturalhandyman.com