Research Raises the Barrier

Winter 2016

NC State study confirms permeable pavement works in low-infiltration clay soils

by David R. Smith


Research Raises the Barrier

A common barrier to using permeable pavements over clay soils is their lack of infiltration. A recent study released by North Carolina State University demonstrated that permeable interlocking concrete pavement (PICP) is an effective tool to improve stormwater runoff hydrology and water quality, even when sited over very low infiltration soils. Located at a city park in Durham, NC, this project researched PICP efficacy over nearly impermeable soils (approximately 0.01 in./hr or 0.254 mm/hr) from March 2014 through April 2015. Four parking stalls (540 ft² or 50 m²) were retrofitted with PICP with a very small contributing impervious area. PICP design followed design guidelines outlined in Chapter 18 of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) BMP manual.

Results through 13 months of monitoring indicated 22% volume reduction via subgrade infiltration and evaporation. Inter-event infiltration of water within the 6 in. (150 mm) thick subbase created storage to capture over 70% of the runoff volume from storm events less than 0.30 inches, and peak flows were significantly reduced by a median of 84%. The site exhibited exceptional pollutant removal efficiency with influent and effluent pollutant concentrations significantly reduced for total suspended solids (99%), total nitrogen (68%), and total phosphorous (96%). The median effluent concentrations of total nitrogen (0.52 mg/L) and total phosphorous (0.02 mg/L) were below “excellent” ambient water quality thresholds for the North Carolina Piedmont Region. The median total suspended solids effluent concentration was also very low (6.99 mg/L). Nitrogen and phosphorous are nutrients that can accelerate algae growth and damage to waterways. Many pollutants are carried with suspended solids, so their concentrations are an indirect indicator of water quality. Obviously, any reduction in runoff volumes translates to reduced pollutant loads into waterways.

Additional sampling of the various nitrogen forms at 12, 36, 60, and 84 hours post-rainfall was conducted to better understand mechanisms of nitrogen removal in permeable pavement. Results from one storm event indicated denitrification is likely occurring in the open-graded aggregate reservoir within the pavement. For the events monitored, significant reductions in average concentrations for copper (79%), lead (92%) and zinc (88%) were also observed. Typically shed by vehicles, metals in high concentrations can severely damage aquatic ecosystems.

Cumulative loading reduction for the catchment was excellent with loading removal efficiencies of 98%, 73% and 95% for total suspended solids, total nitrogen, and total phosphorous respectively. These results show permeable pavements built over low-infiltration clay soils provide considerable improvement of water quality and moderate hydrologic volume reduction benefits.

Monitored data was also used to calibrate DRAINMOD, a widely-accepted agricultural drainage model, to predict the cumulative and event-by-event hydrologic performance of the study site. DRAINMOD accurately predicted runoff volumes from the impervious drainage area with very high correlations between modeled and actual inflows to the site. Good agreement between predicted and measured drainage was also observed. Cumulative predicted drainage volume was within 6% of what was measured during the monitoring period. These results indicate DRAINMOD can be applied to predict the water balance of permeable pavements built over low-infiltration clay soils on a long-term, continuous basis. To receive a copy of the 46-page report written by Alessandra Smolek, Ph.D. student and Professor Bill Hunt, email requests to the editor at

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