It isn’t known how much the El Nino storms predicted for early 2016 will help with California’s historic drought. But it will affect work, so professionals are getting ready. While the conditions for El Nino have already begun and some of the effects are being experienced – mostly in other countries - the heavy rains are expected to hit California in January, February and March. One climatologist told the Los Angeles Times that the signals so far point to “one storm after another, like a conveyor belt.”
Some builders and service professionals are making preparations to ensure their workers’ safety, the stability of jobs in progress, the ability to get as much work done as possible, and they’re looking at staff and business issues.
“We want to be able to be as efficient as possible when it rains,” said Scott Cohen, owner of Green Scene Landscaping & Swimming Pools in Northridge, Calif. “I got hurt last El Nino. This time, we don’t want to be shut down.”
This may seem simple enough. But considering the lack of rain the past few years, industry professionals have become used to working full-bore all year round, especially service technicians. Because of this, the storms may require company owners to take a step back and re-imagine what winters used to be like. “We have to look at how that’s going to affect our schedule – are we going to have to send people home? What are the things we can be doing, and when should we be doing them?” said Javier Payan, president of Payan Pool Service in El Cajon, Calif.
Texas professionals recently went through the same thing, with historic floods following years of drought. Getting through the storm in the best way possible will require all your business chops, said Matt Gohlke, president of Gohlke Custom Pools in Denton, Texas. “The meter keeps running on the expenses whether it’s raining or not,” he said. “Some of the expenses go down, but you still have to figure out a way to make it work. So I would just say you have to manage it well and be a little bit more aggressive about pushing projects through.”
Some tasks should be handled before the downpours. Each February, for instance, Payan and his crews perform walk-through on the sites they serve, assessing for any repairs or improvements that could be made. This time around, those were completed by mid December. “When it’s raining, you can’t really go out and do that,” Payan said.
For those who do want enhancements, he’ll offer a reality check about the weather and its impact on scheduling. “If they have a project they want to do, they have to factor in that it may be raining and we may have delays,” Payan said. “ ‘So if you want to do it, do it now or be prepared to wait.’ ”
Even after the rains have gone, he explains, the ground may be too wet to perform any tasks that require draining the pool, such as acid washes.
In other cases, it may make sense to delay tasks that can be performed during at least light rains.
For instance, builder/designer Scott Cohen is waiting to install veneer materials on structures that sit under a shelter, or where cover can easily be installed.
“There’s almost always a barbecue counter on our projects [and] there’s a lot of work on them,” Cohen said. “We’re holding off building those right now, because we’re going to get the patio cover built... Later when it rains, we could set up a tarp tied to the patio cover and build the barbecue, and I can do my stone veneers underneath the cover.”
This work would only be done during light rains, for the sake of safety. “We’re working with power tools,” he said. “I don’t want anybody getting hurt.”
Builders also must worry about the stability of jobs in progress. As many Texas contractors experienced in the 2015 floods, some excavations may cave in if exposed during the storms. That may not be preventable except to perhaps delay that stage until all’s clear. Builders can try to flash the excavations, shooting ½- to 1 inch of shotcrete over the walls, or they can place plastic sheeting on top of it.
“The purpose of the flashing is not to hold the soil back but to prevent the soil from getting saturated,” said Neil Anderson, a principal and senior engineer of Neil O. Anderson and Associates, a Terracon Company, in Lodi, Calif. “So you can actually accomplish the same thing by just draping [plastic sheeting] or tarps over the walls and preventing the rain from soaking into the ground. When the soil becomes saturated is when it will collapse on them.”
But this weather also imposes the risk of unfilled shells popping. To prevent this, Cohen and his crews are putting about a half dozen holes measuring ½ to 1 inch in diameter in the floor, in addition to hydrostatic relief valves. This way, groundwater can escape up into the pool rather than imposing pressure on the shell. Gravel underneath the pool also will help move water away from the shell.
Builders also should make sure that the site itself is graded to send runoff away from the pool and house, Anderson said. Make sure deck areas are sloped the standard ¼ inch per foot of plane away from the pool and house, and toward grates or other drainage.
While contractors are used to doing this on new construction, they should also make sure to do this during remodels. “If you’re doing a remodel on a pool and you’ve ripped off the decks, then you’ve created kind of a low area around the perimeter of the pool,” Anderson said. “And water can sit there and cause you problems if you don’t get it out of there.”
If there are any random holes in the ground, fill them up, he advises. “You shouldn’t allow water to pond next to the pool shell,” Anderson said.
Conversely, remove unnecessary hindrances to water as it tries to escape. For instance, try to avoid leaving the mounds of earth from excavated trenches, because they can stop the water and cause it to accumulate.
Safety also should be considered. Payan and his staff begin preparations in fall by checking tires and replacing when necessary – even that that could have lasted another could months. The same goes for brakes and windshield wipers. And because it hasn’t rained seriously in the state for a few years, workers may need some reminders about safe driving in the rain, Payan advises. He plans to have a conversation with his staffers to go over the basics.
Workers similarly will have to be prepared to go for several days without work and, unless they’re on salary, without pay. But during this downtime, some workers also may have to be on call to take care of any flood control or damage control issues that could come up.
Stock up on supplies now, these professionals advise. Cohen has purchased all the ponchos, painters plastic, and tarps he’ll need. Painters plastic placed on the ground and secured with something heavy, such as cinderblocks, can help workers and wheelbarrows get around on ground that’s wet, but not necessarily saturated. This is more likely to work over gravel and sand that have been put in place already, as opposed to raw mud.
Sump pumps also will become extremely handy for contractors and service professionals, so make sure there are enough on hand now. “During the last El Nino, each of my crews had its own,” Cohen said.
Don’t wait for the downpours to make these preparations. “The last time we had El Nino, a lot of the local stores were running out of all these things, and we were caught off-guard,” Cohen said. “If you didn’t have [the supplies] you couldn’t work.”