Stormwater management and the installation of drainage systems is a nice little niche with work that can be both steady and profitable. But these areas also require some understanding in order to be successful. Drainage work combines critical thinking and math skills with fairly intensive labor. There are, of course, similarities to irrigation work, and many contractors may already have some of the background understanding and equipment to get started.
Eric Drenner, president of the $6.5 million E-Landscape Specialty Solutions in Davidsonville, Md., says for digging small trenches, a trench shovel would be sufficient. The next step up would be a walk-behind trencher. Finally, a compact mini excavator, which has the capacity to have a number of different sizes of bucket lifts, may be necessary.
“Most irrigation contractors already have the shovel and probably a walk-behind,” Drenner says. “If you do require a mini excavator, my best advice is to determine whether you should purchase the equipment or rent it. You need to do a utilization analysis and make sure it’s worth the investment. For as big as we are as a company, we still rented our mini excavators for many years before finally buying.”
Because this work is a specialized niche, drainage pros say it can be quite profitable. “Drainage work is a specialty solution and any time you’re coming up with a specialty solution to resolve an issue – especially when there’s not a lot of competition – there is going to be good margins,” Drenner says.
“I would say margins are around 20 to 30 percent. People are willing to pay when you’re truly solving a problem they can’t solve on their own.”
Of course there’s also a lot of liability involved in work like this. If you tackle drainage without the understanding and skills, you could easily get in over your head.
“Drainage work is hard,” says Thomas Rubino, president of Landscape Drainage Solutions in Phoenix. “It is labor intense with a lot of unknown factors built in. There is also the liability aspect of doing invasive work on someone’s property.” If you’re considering drainage work, there are some must-know pieces of the puzzle to consider from the moment you step on the job site. The drainage pros we spoke to summed up what is important.
Do some investigative work.
First you need to figure out the source of the water and why there is an intrusion, Rubino says. Is it coming off the roof? Is the deck or ground sloped toward the foundation? Is the water being blocked by hardscaping or landscaping? It’s critical to fully understand the problem before getting to work fixing it.
Understand the original intent.
Chris Speen, general manager of Twin Oaks Landscape in Ann Arbor Mich., says reinventing the wheel is neither necessary nor efficient when coming up with a solution for a drainage problem.
Understanding where water was originally designed to flow and restoring those conditions makes sense whenever possible. Oftentimes, if your plan is only to restore the original intent, you may not even need permits, Speen says.
“Whether it was 10, 20, or even 50 years ago, building wouldn’t have been approved without some plan for drainage, so my first step on a job site is to figure out that original intent,” he says.
Know where to go.
As you consider your options, it’s important to look at the big picture. If you’re going to be piping the water somewhere else, where can you pipe it? And is there enough slope to run drain pipe?
Rubino says the rule of thumb for necessary slope is one-quarter-inch per foot. Failing to calculate the slope or calculating it incorrectly are two of the most common problems Rubino sees on a failed drainage system. Of the four or five drainage leads Speen goes to each day, he says half of them are related to fixing someone’s mistakes.
Picking the right pipe.
Those who are pros at drainage say selecting the right piping is a critical – but often overlooked – key to success. Drenner says too many contractors opt for black corrugated piping which is not a long-term solution. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to replace a system because the material loses its structural integrity and fails.” For residential work, Drenner says he uses thin wall PVC. For commercial work he uses SDR 35, a heavier duty PVC pipe.
Of course, there are a number of other common mistakes contractors run into when dealing with drainage solutions. Many of them surround safety concerns. Rubino says that before doing any digging, it’s important to get the property marked for utilities. “Breaking a gas, water or electrical problem is not a fun day at work,” Rubino says. Drenner adds that working in or around trenches can easily lead to dangerous mistakes. A trench can quickly become an OSHA safety violation if soil is improperly piled or precautions are not taken.
While drainage work can seem intimidating, walking before you run will help you ease your way in. Start small and make sure you know what you’re doing before tackling a big job. “The mystery of working underground may deter people from doing this work,” Drenner says. “But although there can be perils and pitfalls, the profit margin and demand for this type of work definitely make it something to consider. If you go about it in a smart way, you can be very successful.”