Like it or not, the landscape industry isn’t one to embrace radical change. The needs of plants remain the same as in previous centuries. Irrigation technology continues to evolve, but the basic concepts are constant. Landscape masons still use many techniques practiced by their forebears in antiquity.
But one aspect of modern landscaping—stormwater management—has recently experienced a dynamic shift. Understanding how best practices in this area have changed can help contractors ensure profitability.
For many years, the only concern most people had about stormwater was getting it off their property and directly into a drainage system. Now that sustainability has become a mainstream interest and water conservation tops the list of many communities’ concerns, that trend has completely reversed itself. Modern stormwater management calls for safely retaining or storing as much water as possible on a property, then allowing it to evaporate or sink into the earth.
This strategy has multiple benefits, experts say. It reduces the amount of water entering the public drainage system, making flood prevention easier and more cost-effective. It also improves water quality because many of the impurities carried by stormwater are naturally filtered out as the water percolates through layers of soil and rock on its way to becoming groundwater. And, as a side benefit, many environmentally conscious municipalities and individuals find that this approach contributes to a more economical use of water.
Mandate, demand drive sales
In most locations, new stormwater management techniques emerge primarily in response to federal and local regulations. But sometimes corporations or even small businesses and individuals spearhead the trends with their sustainability initiatives, says Dave Marciniak, owner of Revolutionary Gardens in Culpeper, Virginia.
He explains why this is true in his area: “We have more homes getting crammed into smaller areas where we’re required to manage runoff more intensively. Also, the last two years have given us massive storms that dump several inches of water in a few hours. Over the last several years, I’ve seen municipalities in the D.C. region really hammer home the idea of keeping stormwater on-site as much as possible to percolate through the soil as opposed to entering the storm drains.”
On the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also been tightening its stormwater management requirements. “The EPA is concerned about two things: water quantity after a storm and its quality when it leaves the system,” explains Bob Roehrig, sales representative for permeable paver manufacturer County Materials and member of the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute‘s Technical Committee. “In a heavy storm, your system needs to slow down the water to a rate and volume the storm sewer system can handle. Analysis of the subsoil is also critical—what it can take as far as water penetration. The key is to get it into the aquifer as clean as possible.”
Unfortunately, where government mandates are concerned, sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, says Pablo Solomon, a designer based near Austin, Texas. “I’ve seen some local authorities overstepping their bounds and actually limiting how much rainwater a homeowner can hold,” he says. “It’s really nuts. These same government officials will be the first ones crying when they get a heavy rain. When they prevent landowners from slowing and holding runoff, it results in mudslides, flooding, sinkholes, washouts and other unintended consequences.”
Now that the general public’s awareness of stormwater management has increased, it has joined the ranks of more traditional landscaping services. When the city of Portland, Oregon, began mandating stormwater management, clients also responded and demanded it even when code did not require it, notes Ben Bowen, head landscape designer at Ross NW Watergardens in Portland. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s the client that requests stormwater management,” he says. “People don’t want oil from driveways or fertilizer from lawns ending up in rivers. Even clients who can’t really articulate why they want to keep rainwater on the property often do.”
Given the growing popularity of stormwater management services, it’s no wonder that many landscaping companies see offering them as an opportunity for profit. It can definitely be lucrative, Bowen asserts. “We aim for 20 percent to 25 percent gross profit margin and have no problem getting that on stormwater management,” he says. “Anything that requires extra or special knowledge and expertise is easier to price well. We certainly don’t feel any downward pricing pressure on these services.”
Contractors willing to do commercial and municipal stormwater management work may find additional opportunity. “In cities, wastewater is taxed. Municipalities are looking for other options to reduce the pollutant level and for solutions to the Total Suspended Solids (TSS) reduction EPA is mandating,” Roehrig says. “Just in the state of Wisconsin, there are 190 cities, 445 municipal communities, 5,700 industrial sites, all the four-year universities and 145 large agricultural farms that must meet that requirement. That’s a lot of potential business.”
Another benefit contractors can offer to commercial accounts is the ability to make better use of valuable commercial land, experts say. For example, converting urban land into a parking lot with permeable pavers rather than installing a retention pond can be a very attractive option for an owner or developer.
Whether commercial or residential work, another plus is that it encompasses a wide variety of service offerings, including design, installation and maintenance. While some companies offer the full spectrum of services, there is room in the marketplace for specialists as well as partnerships between companies. If specializing, contractors should be very specific about what they do and do not provide. “We do design and consulting only,” Marciniak says. “We either do strictly conceptual designs, explicitly stating that final grading and drainage details are the responsibility of the installer, or very detailed drainage plans with everything spelled out. Anything else leaves us legally exposed.”
Of course, no opportunity comes without challenges. Here are a few common ones for landscape contractors who take on stormwater management projects:
Red tape. Regulations go hand in hand with paperwork. Expect to have to submit data such as impervious lot coverage calculations with new stormwater management plans.
Site analysis. For most installations, the big question is capacity. How much water will the site need to hold and for how long? A percolation test is usually in order, even if it’s an informal one. For some projects, soil analysis may also be required. A number of helpful calculators and tutorials are available: Top 5 Stormwater Management Resources
Aesthetic challenges. “The challenge with all stormwater management techniques is to integrate them into a landscape in an attractive way,” Bowen admits. Some designers relish this aspect of the work; others dread it. If the latter applies, contractors may want to connect with providers who feel the opposite and refer unwanted clients to each other.
Sales challenges. In many areas, high demand leads to easy sales. In fact, simply blogging about stormwater management has been enough to bring in business, contractors say. But the services are often pricey enough to lead to sticker shock, especially in regions where water quality awareness is low. Contractors in these locations may need to spend extra time educating customers on the benefits of stormwater management best practices.
Despite the challenges, stormwater management services are fast becoming a mandatory offering for most landscape contractors. Not only do the projects pay well, but they also frequently offer the opportunity to showcase a contractor’s creativity and problem-solving abilities. They can become a value-added service to offer existing customers, boosting the bottom line and performing a valuable service to the community at the same time. Who could argue with that?
Read more: 7 Stormwater Management Trends