Why I recommend tests for your soil
Take a look at some of the hundreds of real estate ads for homes in your area. You will find plenty of descriptions about the structure. The home’s street appearance, size, configuration, flooring, countertops and of course the view, and fantastic schools will all be mentioned. What you won’t find is meaningful information about the ground any the homes were built upon.
As a homeowner there are good reasons you should know about the land beneath your home. The structure is supported and surrounded by the land, and you, your kids, pets, garden and landscape will interact with it. If you choose to grow and consume vegetables or fruit on your property, you will literally become one with it. With that in mind, there are two key soil tests that I believe every homeowner will find valuable. 1) a soil chemical analysis to reveal the chemical, nutrient composition and any pollutants, and 2) a geotechnical/hydrological evaluation to determine subsurface make-up, stability and strength characteristics. Both tests will reveal things that are important and useful in answering key questions about your land.
- The history of the site matters! Explore the surrounding area and talk to folks who have lived there. Check local historical records and the assessor’s office to trace back the ownership and prior use of your property. If you discover your lot is over an orchard, old landfill or leaking underground storage tank, you need to know as there will likely be pollution indicators present.
- What about any building history? Were any structures built on the property before 1980? If so, what type? Were they residential only or for some kind of commerce. Either way, there will at a minimum have been exterior painting projects which would have resulted in lead paint contamination. Lead, cadmium, chromium, etc. are persistent heavy metals that will linger in soil.
- If you suspect pollution issues, consult a reputable health sciences firm to learn your risks and remediation options. As discussed, the soil should be tested for a number of key characteristics: type, chemical make-up/nutrients, drainage and erosion, sub-surface water, for its ability to support a structure and for pollutants and contaminants.
- What type of soil is it? If you’re planning a garden, vineyard or orchard, testing for drainage and nutrients will help identify which fertilizers and soil amendments are needed – if any. Knowing this information will help you select plants that will thrive in such soil and how you should be irrigating.
- Erosion. If there is a good mulch covering soil it is much less likely to travel. Covering exposed soil with leaf or bark mulch, gravel, or sod will help retain soil and moisture onsite and minimize erosion from both rain and wind. (Proper site drainage is also important to minimize soil loss.)
- Structures and soil technology. If you’re thinking of building on the site, or if experiencing significant settling in an existing building, a soil analysis will help you understand what sort of structural building methods/solutions will be required for your site. Bedrock, expansive clays and the presence of subsurface water and sand sediment all demand different approaches in terms of structural engineering and construction.
- Heavy metal contaminants: Most of these are solids or particles and will not travel upwards through layers of soil, and soil replacement or “encapsulation,” such as installing turf over exposed soil, are generally acceptable mitigation strategies for heavy metals. If you replace soil be sure to check the history of the new soil also. See photo below for an example of where new soil comes from.
- Gas and liquid contaminants: These will tend to migrate upward through the soil and out. When these are suspected, they should be identified and contained ASAP.
- When dealing with contaminants, sometimes things are better left alone. There are cases in which disturbing existing contaminated soil will do more harm than good. Deciding this is why consulting with a professional testing service is so important.
- Wearing shoes inside the home is one of the most common ways for herbicides, pesticides and other contaminants to find their way indoors. I recommend to our clients to routinely remove shoes at the door as there are proven health and cleanliness benefits to this practice.
- For my HPS clients (and my own personal needs) I recommend talking to Alex Stadtner at Healthy Building Science Alex is a real professional and can offer soil testing services and other practical help to guide you through the process. Finding out what is actually present, and what needs to be done to protect your family from soil contamination. Here is a soil testing video that they produce.
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