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What Are the Common Causes of Retaining Wall Failure?

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Retaining walls play a vital role in holding back soil, preventing erosion, and safeguarding structures and landscapes. But like any construction element, they can fail, leading to potential hazards. This article delves deep into the common causes behind the collapse or malfunction of these structures.

Life Expectancy of Retaining Walls

causes of retaining wall failure

The most predominant reason for a retaining wall’s failure is that it has simply reached the end of its expected life. Just like any other construction, retaining walls are not designed to last indefinitely. Over time, materials degrade, and structures weaken. Regular inspections and maintenance can extend the life of a retaining wall, but eventually, even the most robust walls will need to be replaced.

Installation Errors

Installer error is a significant cause of retaining wall failure. If a wall hasn’t been set up correctly from the outset, its lifespan can be drastically reduced, and failure becomes a very real possibility. Several factors play into this:

  • Poor Foundation: An inadequate or weak foundation can cause the wall to tilt or collapse.
  • Incorrect Materials: Using the wrong type or quality of materials can weaken the structure.
  • Inadequate Drainage: Failing to consider the drainage can lead to water accumulation, which can exert pressure and erode the wall.

Accidents and Environmental Factors

Accidents or unpredictable environmental events are also significant contributors to the downfall of retaining walls. From heavy rainfall to earthquakes, Mother Nature can exert forces on walls that weren’t accounted for during their design or installation. Some examples include:

  • Natural Disasters: Earthquakes, landslides, or floods can increase the pressure on the wall or erode its foundation.
  • Tree Growth: Roots from large trees can grow into the structure of the wall, weakening it over time.
  • Freeze-Thaw Cycles: In colder climates, the repeated process of freezing and thawing can expand and contract the soil behind the wall, exerting pressure.

Unintended Stresses

As the initial description suggests, an unintended load can be catastrophic for a retaining wall. These walls are meticulously designed to hold specific weights. When these limits are surpassed, the risks of failure skyrocket. Common scenarios of unintended stresses include:

  • Heavy Equipment: If someone drives a heavy piece of machinery close to a retaining wall, it can introduce unplanned pressure. A wall designed to hold just soil and grass might not withstand the weight of, say, a construction vehicle.
  • Construction Activities: Building or digging activities near the wall can destabilize the soil and introduce unexpected forces.
  • Water Accumulation: Sudden water logging due to broken pipelines or heavy rainfall can create sudden pressure on the wall.


causes of retaining wall failure

Understanding the common causes of retaining wall failure is the first step towards prevention. Regular inspections, maintenance, and being cautious about the activities near such walls can go a long way in ensuring their longevity and functionality. If you have concerns about your retaining wall or need professional assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact Natural Environments Corporation today. We’re here to help ensure that your walls stand strong for years to come.




Our landscaping services in Minneapolis St. Paul – Twin Cities include landscape design, retaining walls, boulder retaining walls, stone walls, rip rap, shoreline erosion control, patios, driveways, helical piers and more.


Phone: (763) 544-8002
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