Where to drain all that rain

While the drought continued in California, just a couple of states to the east, areas of Texas were drenched, leading to serious flooding. And although the West is dry, certain areas of the country get a steady dose of rain on a regular basis.

This provides great opportunities for contractors who want to help customers be more eco-friendly, and save some money. Here are four systems that use rain where water is needed, instead of it coming from your hose or faucet.

Permeable pavers.

Permeable pavers are an alternative to concrete and asphalt. Typical pavement materials are impervious to fluid, resulting in runoff, but permeable pavers permit rainfall to percolate through, or permeate, voids or cracks in the pavement surface to the underlying soil.

Camille Stauber, landscape architect and president of Sustainable Places in Skokie, Ill., says that a lot of landscape design practices have resulted in very compacted soil, which shed water and prevent rain from entering the underground water system. She says, especially in larger areas, it is important to use a paving system that has a neutral stone base with a sand topping that is well-compacted and constructed.

“It’s a little more expensive, but in the long run, it is a much better system. You can do plantings along the side so that water underneath the paved system gets absorbed quickly,” she says.

Stauber says not to use limestone, as the chemical reaction from lime and water makes the soil harder and less porous.

“I would always use permeable pavers whenever you can, and I always provide different kinds of plant materials in low elevation areas,” says Stauber, stressing that you should use native plants when possible and plants that will tolerate wet conditions.

Stauber says permeable pavers wear really well and are a very good and durable choice. “Unlike asphalt or concrete that will crack and give, if they sag or heave, you take them out one by one, fix it, and put them back again,” she says.

She adds there exists a wide range of choices in this product for every budget and for every situation.

Porous material.

Porous Pave is a brand of pavers made primarily from recycled tires, which allows water to drain through the entire surface. The material can be used in areas such as driveways and parking lots. The product is used in at least 35 states now and in both private and commercial properties.

Tim Allen, owner of T&K Outdoors, in Bemidji, Minn., says the product doesn’t plug up like a lot of permeable surfaces or crack like concrete.

Plus, he says, it can get into tight areas, is easily workable and is easy to maintain with glue. Another bonus is that he is now able to blend up the basic solid colors, which has led to more sales to correlate with the numerous color options.

“You can put it in a planting bed, around tree rings instead of big metal grates, and the water runs right through it,” Allen says.

He says he would not install them in a clay-based area, as clay needs to be sealed. He says that they also can be used on very steep slopes.

“It doesn’t slough off, as it is rubber, and it doesn’t get slippery," Allen says. “In winter, this is a huge asset because it doesn’t hold the moisture. Water goes through it. Customers don’t have to worry about slip and fall incidents.”

Rainwater harvesting.

Rainwater harvesting involves collecting or catching rainwater where it falls to store for future uses, such as irrigation.

The rainwater can be collected from rooftops or other above-ground hard surfaces. It then goes through a pre-filter and is piped into the containment system.

“In the past this has meant a rooftop petroleum tank that could be considered an eyesore,” says Chad Turpin, co-founder and co-owner of EcoDrainage Solutions, a drainage system installation company in Coatesville, Pa.

“Recent improvements in rainwater harvesting allow us to capture the excess water from gutters and downspouts, send it through a pre-filter and store it in an underground cistern. Then distribution can range from a simple pump to an entire fully automated drip irrigation system and treatment.”

Once it has been captured and pre-filtered, Turpin, who also co-owns Turpin Landscaping, says the water can be used in a number of ways, such as irrigating landscaping and vegetable gardens, sustaining a water feature, providing water to wildlife and livestock and even assisting in fire protection. And those are just the bigger uses. “Consider things like washing your car, power washing your home, etc.,” he says. “The list goes on and on.”

Depending on size, though, a system can be costly to set up. Turpin says a professoinally installed system starts at about $6,000. Harvesting rainwater is an option under most normal circumstances, but for those with well water as their only source, it can be especially useful as a supplement to the well, particularly if the well is unreliable, Turbin says.

Rain Gardens/bioswales.

Rain gardens and bioswales are similar landscaping concepts. Both are used to capture and filter storm water by being positioned near a runoff source.

“A rain garden is a bed that has soil amended and allows plants to survive in both wet and dry conditions,” says Matt Ciminelli, owner of Ciminelli’s Landscape Services in Lothian, Md.

A rain garden will collect contaminants that run off of asphalt and from the roof. It should only be able to hold water temporarily while it absorbs during storms and then it filters through the amendments of the soil layers.

Bioswales are essentially ditches with plants that channel surface water to slowly intercept water pollutants. They are primarily used when there are significant slopes or hills, and are less common than a typical rain garden.

Ciminelli says he doesn’t think of rain gardens as an expense but rather as a necessary cost or an investment. “If we keep polluting our water and environment, and not treating our property, there is a cost down the road,” he says. The expense lies in the cubic footage of the soil and plant bed, and the number of specifications for materials will drive the price up further. Rain gardens and bioswales can be planted anywhere you’d have storm water runoff that needs to be controlled, though Ciminelli says they are more prevalent on the East Coast than on the West Coast.

Some commercial properties in the mid-Atlantic region require them, such as parking lots.

Also, those who plant rain gardens can often obtain tax credits and refunds from municipalities, as they are storm water management tools.

In general, Ciminelli says he’d use them in any circumstance where there is the ability to capture storm water. “We would not use a rain garden or bioswale in an area that would prevent proper construction method and regular maintenance,” he says, which would include any severe slope or subsoil that could not be excavated properly.

“You should only use native plants which would benefit insects, birds and wildlife, and reestablish those plants that were removed when construction was done,” he says. “You are recreating a habitat, so you should put natives in.”

The downsides are few, though Ciminelli cautions that many people do not understand how to maintain them, or they are sometimes not installed properly or are “overly planted” with weeds. Owners should pick up trash regularly, keep out invasive plants and promote the plants that were planted there. Another option is putting a maintenance clause in the contract.

“That’s the number one thing for me: Are they going to do the maintenance?” Ciminelli says. “Don’t take that lightly; you want to make sure it is still functioning 20 years from now.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.


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