New Jersey is a soggy state. This is true near the Atlantic, where the ocean meets the bay with some regularity in many towns, but it is also true 50 miles inland. "Percolation is not good in and near Princeton," says Doug Kale, second generation owner of Kale’s, a nursery and landscaping company on Carter Road.
He explains that lots of clay and shale in the soil makes it difficult for water to be absorbed. After a rain, water tends to sit. "Some places are better than others, but everywhere it’s slow, not rapid." The rain run-off seeks "the path of least resistance," he says, and if a basement is in the way, it will move on in, often using tiny cracks as a conduit.
This has always been true, but it is becoming a bigger problem for homeowners "with the advent of people being very aware of mold, mildew, and wetness in the home," says Kale. And while many families work around their damp basements and are too busy to worry much about a little mold or musty odors, home buyers are sensitive to the issue. Kale says that the majority of his calls for drainage help come from real estate agents in the process of listing homes. "A dry basement is a real selling point," he says. A wet basement, on the other hand, is a red flag.
Kale, whose company does more than 100 drainage projects a year, says that the process of creating a dry basement always begins with an analysis of the property. Sometimes the problem is merely the fact that gutters are sending water directly to the base of the house, where it pools and seeps into the basement. In that case, extending drainage pipes so that they move water away from the house can solve the problem. A next step is putting leader pipes under the ground.
After the course of the water is determined, and leader pipes are properly positioned, the next step is assessing grading on the property. Poorly graded lots are often the reason that water moves toward the house. Sometimes the grading issue involves other houses. "The adjacent house may be graded differently," says Kale. "The house next door may be higher."
Sometimes re-grading is enough to solve the problem, and Kale always considers it first. Sometimes, however, building up soil around the foundation to direct water away from the house is not feasible. "If the wood siding comes close to the ground, you can’t build up dirt on top of it," Kale explains. "If you do, the wood will rot."
But even re-grading can be problematic. "Where do you put the water?" says Kale. "It’s a big issue." Grading so that it flows into a neighbor’s yard, possibly pooling at his foundation, is not a solution.
When grading is not enough, Kale often turns to French drains to direct water away from a house. This involves digging a trench in which a perforated pipe – often made of PVC – is encased in clean gravel, which, in turn, is covered by filter fabric. "It’s like a coffee filter," says Kale of the layer of porous fabric that sits between the soil and the stone. "It keeps out soil so that the pipes don’t get clogged."
Depending on the lot, the way water tends to accumulates, and the presence of any underground springs, the French drain may be placed anywhere from less than a foot under the ground to all the way down to the level of the basement floor. The drain slopes to a downflow, depositing water away from the house, maybe to woods at the back of the property or to a storm drain on the street. "Just as the cellar is the receptacle of least resistance, the French drain becomes the point of least resistance," says Kale. "It relieves water pressure from around the house."
Every municipality has regulations governing where water can be directed. Permits have to be applied for and inspections conducted for any drainage project.
A new wrinkle – and potentially a huge issue for homeowners – is the state’s increasingly urgent insistence that water remain on the land as long as possible. Kale says that this is already a requirement in some new construction, and that he wouldn’t be surprised to see the requirement spread. This could mean that moving water to a storm sewer, perhaps by running a French drain from near a foundation, through a curb, and from there to the street, might not be allowed at some point in the near future.
The state, Kale says, is increasingly interested in what are being called rain gardens. These are shallow pools somewhere on the property. Pipes take water from away from the house and direct it to these pools, which, says Kale, can be planted with water-loving plants. The plants serve to clean any water contaminated by things like oil as it runs over driveways or roofs. Water gardens are shallow enough not to pose a problem for young children, he says, but could raise issues associated with standing water – including mosquitoes.
"The state wants you to retain runoff on your property so that it can leach down," he says. "What they would like to see is mini retention basins in everyone’s yard."
A cousin of the water garden is the home dry well, which also holds rain water in the yard. A dry well is basically a perforated box, often made of plastic, that is sunk into the ground and covered with a grate. "It’s like putting a giant colander into the ground," says Kale. "Water flows to the box, and, six inches from the bottom, there is a pipe that allows water to flow to a lower point." The pipe is placed at the level to keep sediment, which falls to the bottom of the box, out of the run-off. The grate over the dry well is generally dark green. "You grade the lawn so that the catchment basin is at the bottom of a gradually sloping bowl," says Kale. "It’s almost imperceptible."
While a dry well can be any size, Kale says that they are generally used on very large properties. Of the 100-plus jobs he does a year, dry well installations make up only about 10 percent. A limitation, he says, is that they can hold only so much water. "It’s better to get water to daylight," he says. Doing so, perhaps by re-directing it with a French drain, allows the property to handle any amount of water. The dry wells, on the other hand, have a finite capacity. They have relief valves on top, ready to blow out if too much water flows into them.
No matter what the solution to a wet basement, the time to get at the problem is now. Kale says that work on wet yards is best done in the dry season, which, he says, starts right about now.
In addition to working out drainage solutions, Kale is heavily involved in the landscaping and retails aspects of his business, which was founded by his father exactly 50 years ago. He says that he has been working it in "all of my life," and started full time after graduating from Rutgers with a degree in landscape architecture in 1973. This spring he is joined by his son Rob, who has just graduated from Rutgers.