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5 Signs You Need Retaining Wall Repairs

Retaining walls may fail suddenly, but signs of distress are usually present long before failure occurs. Five signs that you need retaining wall repairs include:

  • Severe cracking or fractures
  • Crumbling
  • Tilting or bulging
  • Poor drainage
  • Soil movement

If any of the above signs are present, it’s time to schedule an inspection for your retaining wall. If issues are addressed soon after they emerge, an expert crew may be able to provide repairs before the structure fails.

During an inspection, your retaining wall repair contractor will consider the signs of damage and recommend the proper course of action.

1) Cracks or Fractures are Present

Large fractures in a retaining wall indicate structural failure and are usually obvious, even with a cursory inspection.

If lengthy fractures are present, your contractor will likely recommend replacement. These indicate intractable problems with the wall’s construction or base – issues that can only be addressed by tearing out the wall and correcting the issue.

Hairline cracks may be too fine to notice without a detailed look at the retaining wall, but they are also a significant concern. Hairline cracks don’t indicate structural risks, but every small crack is an entry point for water. If it penetrates the wall, water will:

  • Accelerate material erosion inside the wall (if it’s made from stone or concrete)
  • Cause the material to rot and deteriorate (if it’s made from wood)
  • Widen cracks and cause them to spread
  • Saturate backfill and place additional pressure on the retaining wall

Fortunately, hairline cracks are an easy repair for experienced contractors.

2) The Wall is Bulging in Areas

If your retaining wall is tilting, leaning, buckling, or bulging, the problem may lie in the wall’s design and construction, or it may be due to changing soil conditions. In both cases, this is a sign that your wall is dealing with uneven loads.

Construction-related failures can be avoided by selecting a crew with engineering experience on staff.

Before installing a retaining wall, the project must be reviewed by a structural engineer. Only an engineer can calculate the loads your wall will face. Once this information is specified, the installer will know where to place footings, how deep to place them and how wide to form them. This will ensure the wall is properly supported at every point.

3) Water Is Not Draining from Weep Holes

Weep holes are small drainage ports that allow water to flow through the retaining wall. They are typically installed near the wall’s base to prevent hydrostatic pressure from building up behind the wall and stressing it.

If you don’t see water draining through the weep holes during inclement weather, it indicates one of the following:

  • The weep holes are plugged
  • The wrong drainage aggregate was installed
  • The retained soil isn’t properly sloped from the wall

It is imperative to address any drainage issues immediately, as clogged weep holes will lead to oversaturated soils, which leads to additional loading on the wall.

4) The Soil Has Shifted or Subsided

If your property’s soils have shifted recently, this could greatly alter the loading profile on your retaining wall and rapidly damage its structure.

Areas along the Gulf Coast, including Houston, are characterized by clay-rich soils that swell and contract as they soak up and release water. This cycle is constantly activated by the region’s intense rainfall and can cause soils to shift around.

Property owners should keep a close eye on their retaining wall during an extended wet or dry period. This is when soils are most likely to be affected. A clear sign of soil movement is subsidence – or caving in. When the topsoil collapses, there is a noticeable difference in elevation between the subsided area and other backfilled areas.

5) Small Pieces of Retaining Wall Material Have Separated

If your retaining wall is made from stone or concrete, crumbling is a major sign of oncoming failure. It is also a subtle form of wear because it occurs only after the wall’s material has weakened from the inside. As a result, the wall’s integrity will be compromised over time.

When stone or concrete crumbles or erodes, small bits of aggregate will gather around the retaining wall’s base. If you notice it piling up, your wall may be slowly losing its strength.

What Causes Retaining Walls to Fail?

Retaining wall failure may be caused by the following:

  • Oversaturated backfill
  • Vegetation and root growth
  • Natural shifts in the landscape (mudslides, floods)
  • New construction on the property
  • Exposure to water, wear, and the elements
  • Design mistakes that lead to inaccurate loading calculations
  • Low quality construction materials and processes

An expert retaining wall team can quickly spot these factors during inspection and determine what is causing the wall to fail. That way, future failures can be avoided.

When is it Time to Replace a Retaining Wall?

Some retaining wall issues can be addressed with repairs or reinforcement. For example, most minor cracks can be easily repaired and do not threaten the wall’s structure.

However, if your retaining wall has been damaged due to fundamental construction or engineering mistakes – you’ll probably need to replace it. Signs of poor retaining wall construction include:

  • Bowing – indicates insufficient loadbearing capacity
  • Leaning – indicates insufficient support, which may be due to footing being too narrow
  • Separating – indicates imminent collapse
  • Leaking – indicates drainage issues

Whether to repair or replace a retaining wall comes down to a judgment call in many cases, but a trusted contractor can guide their clients toward the right decision.

Site Preparation and Foundation Repair Teams are Retaining Wall Experts

If your retaining wall is showing signs that it needs repair, a site preparation or foundation repair contractor can provide necessary maintenance. Site preparation teams are knowledgeable in soil stabilization and grading, which are critical skills for proper retaining wall installation and maintenance. Foundation repair teams can provide a similar set of skills.

When a retaining wall fails, it can have disastrous, even fatal consequences. It can also have disastrous legal or financial consequences for the property owner. As such, it’s important to schedule an inspection with a site preparation or foundation repair team if there is any doubt about your retaining wall’s condition.