Concrete Retaining Wall Pros and Cons

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Jan 08, 2015 | Laura Firszt

Rae Allan/flickr (crop)Retaining walls built of stone or brick are the traditional style and usually blend nicely into their surrounding landscape. The question is, though: are these really the best materials for the job today?

The purpose of a retaining wall in a residential setting is to “correct” the natural slope of the grounds, leaving a level area for gardening, building a patio, or enjoying more of your property than you would otherwise be able to. This function calls for a huge amount of strength, endurance, and weather resistance. Nowadays, concrete may be the material that best fills the bill. Let’s look at the pros and cons of installing a concrete retaining wall on your land.

Advantages of Concrete Retaining Walls

Choice. There are three basic types of concrete wall construction: concrete blocks, precast concrete panels, or poured-in-place concrete. This allows you the flexibility to choose the method that’s right for your situation.

Strength. Concrete is extremely strong, a vital quality when you’re talking about holding up tons of earth and water. After installation, your concrete retaining wall will continue to cure in place, further increasing its strength.

Durability. A concrete wall can stand up to the test of time, often lasting for a century or longer.

Resistance. Do you want a retaining wall that’s fireproof, rot-proof, and rustproof? Concrete’s right for the job. Precast concrete also tends to be exceptionally resistant to road salts and freeze-thaw cycles in harsh winter climates.

Ease of installation. It is usually faster and easier to install a concrete retaining wall compared to much more labor-intensive masonry structures.

Flexibility. Concrete will allow you to build curves, angles, or staircases into the retaining wall design with a minimum of difficulty.

Good looks. Say goodbye to the boring gray concrete of yesteryear. Today’s concrete offers a plethora of design and color possibilities. It can be made to look like a variety of materials, such as stone, or faced with a natural stone veneer. Color concrete to your choice of shade with special stains.

Low maintenance. Low-maintenance concrete walls will require a simple cleaning only once annually, plus occasional inspection for cracks or other evidence of wear and tear. They are easy to patch with mortar.

Eco-friendliness. Concrete retaining walls are non-toxic and don't off-gas allergens or dangerous chemicals. Concrete wall construction includes a large percentage of natural materials, like clay, limestone, fly ash, or slag, which are normally sourced locally or recycled from manufacturing processes.

Affordability. The cost of a concrete retaining wall installation is mid-range, giving you an excellent cost-benefit ratio.

Disadvantages of Concrete Retaining Walls

Design demands. A retaining wall built of concrete must be carefully designed, with effective support and adequate drainage. It is not a feasible do-it-yourself design project.

Challenges of installation. Pouring and casting concrete is not a DIY job either. Hire an experienced contractor with the know-how to avoid cracking or bulging, which will tend to weaken the structure in future and necessitate complex major repairs. If you are going the precast panel route, special equipment will be necessary to lift and install the heavy panels.

Limitations. There are two limitations to concrete walls: 1) Concrete block retaining walls don't have a footing and therefore can be constructed only to a maximum height of four feet (though this is not true of other concrete walls). 2) If you decide to change the placement of your wall or design of your landscape in the future, this kind of retaining wall is complicated to remove. You'll need heavy equipment to break it down and haul away debris.

Laura Firszt writes for networx.com.

Updated January 3, 2018.

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