Finding Faults of Failing Retaining Walls

Know Signs of Walls At Risk of Collapse

“Walls protect and walls limit. It is the nature of walls that they should fall.
– English Author Jeanette Winterson

No wall stands forever with weak limbs (ever see the Chicago Bears offensive line come the fourth quarter?). Heck, even the legendary, two-millennium-old Great Wall of China is showing its age. And when it comes to your property’s retaining walls, there are a number of telling signs that can indicate if your wall is in danger of failing.

Trust us, folks, this is one landscape issue you don’t want to put off. When concrete retaining walls fail, they leave a pile of spilled Earth, create extensive landscape damage and costly repairs. Concrete retaining walls are especially costly as they are more expensive and much harder to replace than bricks and planks. Retaining wall repairs aren’t for a fly by night wall contract repair shop, but a trusted, established, experienced team.

Like the flu, there are evident signs of a retaining wall in immediate danger of failing.

Retaining Soil Ain’t Easy

Holding back soil 24/7 ain’t an easy job and isn’t for the faint of heart retaining walls.

“Retaining walls have to work a lot harder than freestanding walls,” Bob Vila.com’s Joe Provey notes.

The three most common signs of a retaining wall in distress are (1) Leaning; 2) Cracking and 3) Bulging of the Wall or Segments. These are telltale indicators of a wall losing its fight and at risk of collapsing at any moment, including the worst possible moment: the middle of a rainstorm.

So what are the chief culprits of retaining wall failure?

Poor Drainage

Meet the major cause of retaining walls failing. Without proper drainage, hydrostatic pressure builds up behind the retaining wall. Saturated soil is substantially heavier than dry soil, and the retaining wall may not be designed to handle such a load.

Shallow Footing

A retaining wall with a shallow personality is doomed to fail. Industry experts recommend that retaining wall footing deep enough to resist the weight of saturated soil. Wall footing should also be deeper than a frost line.

Retaining walls with shallow footing has a lower capacity to resist the lateral pressure of the soil and the water behind than a wall with a deeper footing.

Sub-Standard Materials or Lack of Reinforcement

Like two of the three little pigs learned the hard way in the famous children’s fable, the cheap route never leads to a wall that stands the test of time. The use of a poor concrete mix, the lack of supports or the lack of reinforcing bars are also causes of retaining wall failure. Remember, retaining walls hold up a heavy load of Earth. A four-feet hight, 15-foot long retaining wall can be holding back as much as 20 tons of soil.

Other culprits behind retaining wall failure include extra loads on top (which can cause blowout failure) and slope failure.

The good news from retaining wall doctors: Most often, even the sickliest retaining wall can be saved from collapse.

“Most retaining walls can be rehabilitated despite their initial issues, so the first task is identifying the cause of the failure,” Jill Odom of Total Landscape Care stresses.

How To Save A Failing Retaining Wall

For leaning walls, re-excavate or have a professional reinstall drains or rebuild. Professionals can quickly stabilize the wall, and in most cases, pull it back into its original position. Foundation repair contractors recommend using helical anchors – helix-shaped blades welded to steel shafts to form an anchor – to stabilize and reinforce foundations. Helical anchors are significantly less expensive than tearing down the wall and rebuilding.

Remember, don’t go cheap on rehabbing your retaining wall. Proper retaining wall repair requires excavation, ground preparation and a trained, experienced professional. Shop around for quotes and find the best team for the size and scope of your wall. Foundation Repair Services estimates the average cost of repairing a failing, simple retaining wall at $800-$1,000.

Smart retaining wall repair is money well spent today and tomorrow. For it’s a smart investment in a wall that will stand the test of time.

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