Waterfront Bulkhead: 11 Things (2024) You Need To Know

Are you the proud new owner of a waterfront property?

If so, congratulations!

That’s a lifelong dream for many landowners, so take time to celebrate that achievement.

However, even the most desired waterfront properties are at risk for things like natural erosion and rising tides.

To protect your property, you’ll want to consider investing in a waterfront bulkhead as a protective barrier between your property and the water.

If this is the first you’re hearing of this, don’t worry.

We’ll walk you through everything you need to know.

Let’s get started.

1. What is a waterfront bulkhead?

A waterfront bulkhead is a barrier wall that separates the water from the property.

Specifically, it’s a retaining wall or vertical shoreline stabilization structure that primarily retains soil and protects a shoreline from erosion.

If your property doesn’t currently have a bulkhead, then building and maintaining one may be in your best interest.

A certified bulkhead specialist can inspect the bulkhead — or the area where the bulkhead should be — and help you create a plan to construct one.

2. What effects do a waterfront bulkhead have?

The purpose of a bulkhead is to slow erosion at a bluff or beachfront, and they’re successful in doing this.

However, they also have some other unintended impacts that can change a beach’s profile if there are many waterfront bulkheads.

For example, the increased wave reflection caused by bulkheads can result in an increased re-suspension of sand in the water in front of them.

As a result, more sand will be pulled from the beach and distributed toward the ends of the bulkheads.

This will leave larger gravel and sometimes bedrock in place of the once sandy beach, which will also subsequently impact wildlife.

Sand is the natural habitat for several species of fish, and it’s the only surface on which eelgrass can take root.

When there is no sand, fish eggs cannot be laid, and eelgrass will not be present.

All food chains and ecosystems that rely on these species will be absent from that point forward as well.

3. Where are waterfront bulkheads used?

Waterfront bulkheads are most often used at lake houses; however, they can also be used for beachfront houses.

The bulkhead keeps the water at bay while holding the soil in place.

4. What factors should be considered when building a waterfront bulkhead?

The following design considerations should be addressed:

bulletTopography – elevations, grading, etc.

bulletSoil properties – the unit weight of soil, clay vs. sand, etc.

bulletEmbedment and stability – depth of bulkhead

bulletWater table – differential water levels behind and in front of walls can introduce an additional load on the wall

bulletExposure – climate and saltwater vs. freshwater

bulletMaterial properties – strength and performance in the marine environment

bulletSurcharge – live loads behind the wall

bulletIce loads – in northern climates

bulletPrior maintenance

bulletChanges in use

5. Why should you consider a waterfront bulkhead for your property?

Are you wondering if you should install a waterfront bulkhead at your waterfront property?

Here are the top reasons why they’re a must!

bulletIt’s a great return on investment

While you’ll need to invest in a waterfront bulkhead upfront, this investment will ultimately pay out.

You’ll save money on damage caused by erosion and flooding to an unprotected property.

Over time, repair charges will end up costing more than the bulkhead.

bulletIt can save your land

You may not think that erosion has much impact on your property, but this is because it occurs very gradually.

In some cases, people lose not just inches but entire feet of land in a short period of time.

Bulkheads can prevent this occurrence by retaining soil and keeping your land above water.

bulletIt can help define your property

Having a high-quality waterfront bulkhead helps outline where your property begins and ends.

This helps to prevent land disputes with your neighbors and prevents erosion on their properties from carrying over to yours.

It’s more scenic and appealing than seawalls

If you’ve previously seen unsightly waterfront bulkheads and you’re worried about the aesthetic change to your property, take comfort in the fact that there are numerous materials that can be used to construct bulkheads.

This means they can be built to match your existing property and blend right in.

bulletIt differs from a seawall (in a good way)

Sometimes people think of seawalls and bulkheads as the same structure.

However, seawalls are often much taller, and they’re constructed with cement or steel.

Bulkheads are built to preserve a more natural-looking landscape with natural construction materials, and they do a great job of retaining soil.

The primary purpose of seawalls is to protect the area from large waves (5+ feet).

bulletIt can make fencing easier to install

If you’re interested in installing a fence, then a bulkhead will help to support and outline it.

If you decide to install a fence alongside a waterfront without a bulkhead, then it will sink or sag quickly.

So don’t skip this step if a fence is in your future!

bulletIt can make it safer

Have you ever walked alongside a shoreline and tripped?

Shorelines can be hazardous areas when they aren’t elevated or kept clear of rocks.

This is where a bulkhead comes in.

Building a waterfront bulkhead will enhance the safety of your property.

bulletIt’s easier to build than a dock

If you want people to come to your property via water, then a bulkhead is a necessity.

You’ll need a structured waterfront to build a dock and that’s where a bulkhead comes in.

As noted above, the bulkhead makes your property safer for you and your visitors, which can help you avoid lawsuits.

And if you’re worried about the aesthetics of the dock and bulkhead, don’t fret.

They can be constructed to match!

bulletIt lasts a long time

How long a waterfront bulkhead lasts depends on a variety of factors, like the materials used, the strength of the water, the amount of harsh exposure, etc.

That said, the average bulkhead can last for decades.

If you choose to build with vinyl, then your work can last for upwards of 50 years.

Pressure-treated wood and steel have also been known to endure well.

6. How much does it cost to fix a bulkhead?

The cost of a bulkhead largely depends on the local construction market and bulkhead design requirements.

Repairs may cost anywhere from $100 to $250 per linear foot of wall.

Bulkhead replacement may cost $150 to $600 per linear foot.

7. What’s the difference between various protective waterfront structures?

Below, we’ll provide definitions that indicate the core differences between the primary protective waterfront structures.

bulletBulkhead: A soil retaining wall structure comprised of vertical spanning sheet piles or other flexural members.

With smaller wave heights (5 ft or less), a decision between a bulkhead and seawall will be made based on land use and financial considerations.

Often, the vertical-wall construction of bulkheads is preferred if it is an option.

bulletSeawall: A soil retaining or armoring structure whose purpose is to defend a shoreline against a wave attack.

Seawalls are required along exposed shorelines subject to attack by wave heights of 5 ft or more.

bulletQuay wall: A gravity wall structure having the dual function of providing shore protection against light to moderate wave attack and a berthing face for ships.

It’s similar to a bulkhead, but a quay wall should be chosen when overall height requirements or wave environment severity exceeds the practical capabilities of typical bulkhead constructions.

8. What are signs that your waterfront bulkhead should be repaired or replaced?

Is your waterfront bulkhead looking a little worse for wear?

Inspect your bulkhead and watch for the following signs.

If you see any of these issues, you may need to have your bulkhead repaired or replaced.

Having your bulkhead repaired (instead of replaced) can give it another 10 to 15 years of life without requiring you to tear out and redo your existing waterfront bulkhead.

This is often appealing to landowners from a time and money perspective.

bulletWormholes caused by mollusk and barnacles covering pilings, which destroy the integrity of the pilings, post, and wall from the inside out.

bulletTopsoil from the property falling below the grade level of the wall.

bulletThe top bulkhead is crooked and uneven.

9. What materials are waterfront bulkheads made from?

Waterfront bulkheads can be constructed from a variety of materials.

Here are the most common.






Below, we’ll continue the discussion about materials in the context of their pros and cons, and which will last the longest.

10. What material will last the longest for a waterfront bulkhead?

bulletVinyl: Has been around for 25 to 30 years, easier installation with no preservatives or toxins, UV resistance, impervious against worms, termites or bacteria, corrosion-proof, and longer service life, 100% recycled material, beautiful aesthetic appeal.

bulletConcrete: Concrete structures will settle and crack then will deteriorate over time.

bulletSteel: Expensive and treated with toxic chemicals to keep it from rusting.

bulletWood: Least expensive upfront costs, effective, provides a natural look, treated to stand up to the elements, average 25+ years but various factors influence longevity, must be treated with toxic chemicals, can be damaged by UV exposure, compromised by fungus, termites, etc.

11. What are the common bulkhead repairs or replacements?

Because waterfront bulkheads are not permanent structures, you should plan to repair and replace them periodically.

Here are some of the most common bulkhead repairs that you’ll encounter as a landowner.

bulletWall piles: The wall piles are longer than the sheeting and form the main structural component.

While damage to piles cannot be repaired, the piles themselves can be replaced to ensure your bulkhead functions properly.

bulletThe waler: This is another major structural piece that bridges the piles together into a wall.

If walers sustain damage, then they cannot be repaired.

They must be replaced.

bulletSheeting: the sheeting isn’t a structural element of the waterfront bulkhead.

Instead, it serves as a “dirt seal.”

If your sheeting is made of wood, then it’s often the first component to have problems.

Fortunately, the sheeting can be repaired.

bulletTie-back rods: The main structural anchor for the wall.

The rod anchors the top of the bulkhead to another pile behind the bulkhead.

You should replace this part of your bulkhead if it’s malfunctioning as it’s a critical part of the system.

bulletDeadman: An anchor pile that’s driven into the ground about 10 to 12 feet behind the bulkhead.

It’s connected to the wall piles via the tie-back rods.

You should replace this if it shows signs of rot.

Final Thoughts

Are you interested in investing in a waterfront bulkhead for your property?

This is one of the best ways to protect your home from erosion.

The next step is to find a reputable contractor in your area.

Get started today!

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


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