Thursday, March 3, 2016  |  0 Comment(s)  |   Email   Print

Downspout Disconnects

by Ryan Mackin

With spring on the horizon, Vacant to Vibrant is preparing for more green infrastructure (GI) updates at sites in Gary and Cleveland. Downspout Disconnects (DSDs) are a simple means of diverting stormwater from impermeable rooftops to rain gardens or other GI. While all Vacant to Vibrant sites were designed to handle both on-site runoff and water from adjacent properties, there are additional factors beyond design and downspout redirection that must be considered before moving forward.

Overview of DSD Plan

Design and Layout Considerations

As you see from the sample design template to the right, DSDs have been part of Vacant to Vibrant’s plan for some time. Designs are great and help to inform decisions down the road, but working with the actual built sites is another story. Each rain garden was sized to incorporate adjacent runoff, but as-built retention capacity doesn’t always follow the plan. For instance, our rain garden on Hulda Avenue was designed to handle three DSDs but is functioning as our most saturated garden already, before any disconnects have been made. On the other hand, our rain garden on Crestwood Avenue is dryer than expected and disconnects may be impractical for reasons outlined below.

Once a DSD has been deemed feasible both in design and in the field, there are other non-capacity issues in site layout to consider—namely obstructions. Significant obstructions like driveways, busy pathways and solid walls are criteria that lead to exclusion for V2V DSDs. Moderate and light obstructions like fencing or existing shrubs are easier to work around. This sample field survey PDF highlights some of our methodology for exclusive (or inclusive) criteria in the field:
Sample DSD Field Survey

Other physical factors include grade and distance between the downspout and rain garden. While grade should be resolved in the design-build phase of a project, there can be grading concerns on adjacent parcels. It’s very difficult to divert water uphill! So you might have to trench, dig and get creative. In terms of distance to the rain garden, this may have the most impact on budget. Constructing a swale or strip from a downspout to a rain garden 50 feet away can be costly.


Budget and Permit Considerations

Distance between downspout and rain garden is just one budget-related concern. To what extent are you willing to repair gutters? What is the material cost of additional downspout length and elbows? What about gravel or other trench filler? Who will do the labor, at what cost? These are important questions to consider before diving in. One DSD layout can be much pricier than the next, though ultimately they’re doing the same thing.

Before all of these factors are considered, knowing more about your municipal codes, ordinances and permitting is essential. The law of the land is different everywhere you go. For V2V, this has been a substantial consideration, one I’ll discuss more below.


Resident Considerations and Education

With everything else in place, you still have to get homeowners and residents on board. The general public usually doesn’t know much about downspout disconnects. Though simple and beneficial to the greater environment, it can be tricky to convince a resident to participate in something they see coming from left field. What’s in it for them? Will they get a discount from the sewer authority? Are there flooding and foundation concerns?

We’ve found that basic resident education is a must. If you’re doing multiple disconnects, preparing some literature may help to explain the benefits and process. Vacant to Vibrant made a basic DSD brochure that you can check out in this PDF, which includes the graphic from our site signs:

Full V2V Downspout Disconnect Brochure (printable PDF)


Application of DSD Plan

V2V Status

Each V2V city is at a different stage in the disconnect process. Buffalo has already completed two DSDs at the Massachusetts Avenue and West Utica Street sites. There will probably be no more disconnects in Buffalo due to resident consent, as well as the configuration of the Lawrence Place infrastructure.

Gary and Cleveland are currently in the planning phase. Gary DSDs look very feasible, with few obstructions and occupied adjacencies. Cleveland DSDs are looking a little trickier, physically and legally.

The chart below outlines the status of each DSD in Gary and Cleveland. Because there are few hurdles in Gary, we will be ready to work with residents soon. With a little more ground truthing and signed resident agreements, all systems are go. In Cleveland, you can see from the chart that there are more significant obstructions to DSD implementation in addition to code and permitting concerns.


DSD Hurdles

The greatest hurdle to disconnects has been building and housing code in Cleveland. Without a downspout disconnect ordinance to help expedite the process, the hurdles may be too much for a small project like V2V to overcome in a short amount of time.

Even with an ordinance, V2V is a unique project in that disconnects were designed to cross a private-to-semi-public property boundary, and the green infrastructure is built on leased Land Bank land. Though other examples of cross-parcel boundary disconnects exist in the city, there is no code allowing their existence. Most flow from DSDs is contained on one site owned by one entity. Crossing a property line opens up liability concerns that the City has yet to confront.

Still, many liability concerns should be able to be addressed in resident-project agreements, like this one used by our team at PUSH Buffalo. The difference between Buffalo’s resident agreement and ours is that PUSH plans to own and maintain Vacant to Vibrant sites in perpetuity, whereas we will transfer ownership and responsibility once our Land Bank lease term ends in 2019. Though disconnects are relatively harmless and easily reversible, this change in ownership is another hurdle in seeing V2V disconnects come to fruition in Cleveland.

Other hurdles in both cities include aforementioned physical obstructions, ability to reach and work with residents, and finding reliable contractors to provide service. While multiple contractors in Cleveland have experience working in GI with downspout disconnects, the same contractor experience may not exist in Gary. This may require more intimate communication with contractors, and possibly education or training. Again, the concept is simple and implementation is easy to execute, but DSDs are still unfamiliar to many landscaping and construction workers.



As long as Gary sites do not encounter unforeseen liability concerns that face Cleveland DSDs, they should be ready to be installed within a few months. Approaching residents will be the next big step in the process. In Cleveland, the stars must align but we will do what we can to help align them. As multiple organizations stand to benefit from downspout disconnects, the issue of code extends far beyond Vacant to Vibrant.

In examining our site selection criteria from a couple years ago, DSDs did not play a significant role in the selection process. Beyond adjacent vacancy analysis, downspout disconnects were not part of the physical plan until the design phase. In hindsight, more consideration for factors involving DSDs should be considered early on.

The ease of implementing disconnects in Buffalo gives some hope for their success in Gary and Cleveland. All Rust Belt cities may be different, but we are really trying to solve the same problems and hope lessons learned elsewhere can be used as an example in moving forward everywhere.



Printable Downspout Disconnect Brochure

Sample PUSH Buffalo Resident DSD Agreement

Sample DSD Field Survey


<< Back

Reader Comments

Submit your comment

* Name
* Email
* Your Comment
You have 300 characters remaining for your comment.