Drain Tile Can Save Your Basement

drain tile can save your basement

What is Drain Tile?

Chances are, if your home has a basement and has experienced flooding, someone has told you to get drain tile. But what is drain tile and how does it help?

Essentially drain tile is a way to protect your home from groundwater flooding. It redirects water away from your home before it can enter and cause damage. It is one of those things you never need – until you do!

Increased runoff from urban expansion and more frequent severe weather systems make our homes more likely to flood. Investing in a drain tile system could save you from lengthy insurance claims and expensive cleanups in the future.

How Drain Tile Works

Despite its name, drain tile is actually not tile at all. When used in the construction industry it actually refers to the drainage pipe. Drain tile is a system of subterranean drainage laid around the footings of a building.

Water always chooses the path of least resistance so drain tile offers the easiest path. The pipe used for drain tile is porous so water finds its way into the pipe system rather than your home. Water is then directed away from your home using a combination of gravity and a sump pump.

Once in the pipe the system directs the water to a dry well or releases it above ground to run off into a storm drain or sewage system.

The Origins of Drain Tile

The practice of using drain tile has existed in agriculture for over 2000 years. Early civilizations used channels lined with clay tiles to divert excess water away from crops. This improved crop growth and yielded better harvests.

However, it wasn’t until 1838 that this drainage system was introduced to America. A Scottish immigrant named John Johnson was the first to deploy the drain tile method on his New York farm. The results were astounding. His crop production surpassed all neighboring properties and drew considerable attention.

One man who was particularly interested was fellow agriculturalist, Henry French. While Johnson pioneered the use of drain tile it was French that brought the idea to the masses. In 1859 Henry French wrote a book titled “Farm Drainage: The Principles, Processes, and Effects”. Following its release the use of drain tile increased to the point that the system became known as French Drain. This term is still commonly used in agriculture today.

Outside of agriculture, drain tile is the term predominantly used. There are other terms that are also used and are interchangeable with the term drain tile. These include perimeter drain, perforated drain, foundation drain, rubble drain, weeping tile, and footing tile.

Drain Tile in the Construction Industry

The aim of drain tile in the construction industry is to prevent ground water damage to a building. Drain tile gathers water from around a building and removes it.

There are two different types of drain tile systems – internal and external.

An internal system is when the drain tile pipe is installed inside of a building’s foundation beneath the floor slab. This is the more common option when retro-fitting drain tile. It is also used in new builds along with external drain tile.

An external drain tile system is when the drain tile pipe is installed around the perimeter of a building below the level of the floor slab. This is the preferred method for all new builds, either with or without internal drain tile. It is also possible to retro-fit external drain tile.

If you live in a recently constructed property you may already have drain tile installed. Building regulations nationwide now mandate the installation of drain tile whenever a home has a crawl-space or basement. The only exception to this rule is if the home is being built on naturally well-draining soil such as sand-gravel.

A soil that drains well lessens the risk of future water damage but doesn’t prevent it. Installing drain tile is still advisable. The benefits far outweigh the initial installation cost and may also make future resale easier.

Likewise, when purchasing your next home, especially an older home, ask if there is a drain tile system.

4-inch corrugated, perforated drain tile pipe stretched out inside unfinished basement.

Types of Drain Tile Pipe

There are two different types of pipes used for drain tile.

The first is a rigid PVC pipe. At first glance, it resembles an ordinary drain pipe but one side of the pipe has small holes to allow water to enter. When laying the pipe the holes are placed face down so rising water enters the pipe. As with all rigid PVC pipes, you require corner fittings to change the pipe’s direction. The rigid pipe comes in lengths of 10-feet and costs approximately $8.95 per length.

The alternative to the rigid pipe is a corrugated flexible pipe. This pipe has small slits on all sides of the pipe. This allows water to enter from any direction, but sand, grit, and soil particles are mostly blocked. One recommendation to further protect the pipe from a possible blockage a fabric sleeve can be used along with the pipe. We don’t recommend it. Filters are designed to be changed. They eventually get clogged. You will not be able to change the filter unless you dig up the drainage system.

The pipe costs approximately $0.89/foot. It is cheaper than the rigid pipe and doesn’t need corner fittings because it is flexible. The pipe’s polyvinyl composition makes it super durable in high temperatures and cold. It will not crack like the PVC pipe when a 2800+ pound car drives over it.

Regardless of the type of pipe used it will usually be 4 inches in diameter. This is the industry standard for residential drainage, but other diameters are available up to a maximum of 18 inches.

Laying Exterior Drain Tile

Drain Tile can be retro-fitted for an older home, both internally and externally, but installation during the build phase is best. It is ideal to lay drain tile in conjunction with the foundation footing of a new home. This gives maximum flexibility with system design and keeps cost to a minimum.

When a building’s foundation is near completion a deep trench is dug alongside the footings on the exterior of the house. Installers place the pipe in the trench and then cover it with washed gravel. It is important the gravel is at least 1/2 – 3/4 inch in size to avoid blockages and render the drain tile ineffective.

The gravel is then covered with a layer of porous fabric such as landscape matting. The fabric allows water through but prevents soil from clogging up the drainage channel or the pipe. After the fabric is in place it is covered in soil and brought to ground level.

Strong high-density polyethylene drain tile packed in 3/4 inch stone before installing a vapor barrier and 4 inches of newly poured cement flooring.

Retro-fitting Drain Tile: Exterior or Interior

Although easier to install during construction, it is possible to retro-fit exterior drain tile. The process is disruptive and costly but often resolves an ongoing water problem.

This method involves digging a drainage trench around the outside of the building at the foundation level with a large backhoe truck. It is a labor-intensive process and causes considerable outside disruption. To gain access to the foundations, it may be necessary to remove features such as pathways, decking, and trees.

External installation takes a considerable amount of time, money, risk to structural damage, and short-term results with no long-term solution. Contractors will rarely offer a guarantee for over 10-years. Longer guarantees mean they have more confidence in their work.

The alternative is to use the internal method. This is a method that causes internal disruption but is the most common method for a retro-fit system.

Prior to installation, the basement area needs to be as empty as possible. In finished basements, that includes removal of floor covering and sheetrock along the bottom portion of the walls, and any fixed cabinets. Unfinished basements don’t require as much prep work.

Once clear, all items are moved to the center of the room. Everything is covered including light fixtures and smoke detectors with a plastic sheets.

A perimeter trench and sump-pit will be jackhammered out of the concrete foundation slab and below ground. This is a time-consuming and noisy process, but much faster than exterior excavation. The pipe is then laid in the trench and will direct any groundwater into the sump pit. The sump pump then moves the water through a discharge pipe to the outside.

This is a very effective solution for older homes that were not built with foundation drainage.

Drainage Destination

As previously mentioned, the purpose of the drain tile is to direct water away from a building. Where and how we channel water depends on your geographic location.

If you live on a property with a significant slope gravity is the perfect way to drain the water away. A slope of 1/4 inch per foot is the absolute minimum to consider for this method. Anything less will be ineffective. The slope method is a low cost, highly efficient way to remove water.

If the gradient on your property is insufficient you will need to use the collection method. This time the water collects in a sump pit in the basement of the property. From here an electric-powered sump pump will pump the water away from the property.

The final destination can be a storm drain, sewer system, or even a dry well. When using a dry well it is important to place it at a significant distance away from the property. This will prevent water from seeping back into the basement and cycling back through the system.

A backhoe digs out a trench around the perimeter of the building to waterproof exterior walls and drain tile.

Exterior Drain Tile Drainage Issues

Even if you have drain tile installed around the exterior of your home water issues can still occur. As with other drainage pipes, drain tile is susceptible to blockages. This may be due to tree roots or dirt and debris entering the pipe. Other causes include cracked pipe allowing water to flow back to the building or a malfunctioning sump pump.

Possible signs of a problem include:

  • Water stains on the walls of your basement.
  • Water pooling in the basement.
  • Mold
  • Salt like residue on basement walls (efflorescence).
  • Puddles of water around the perimeter of your basement floor.

If you are experiencing any of these issues and cannot find an obvious explanation, then contact a professional to investigate. Finding the source of the problem can be difficult and time-consuming but the longer you leave it the bigger the problem will become.

Drain Tile Cost

The cost of installing drain tile can vary considerably. There are many factors that affect the overall cost. Professional or DIY installation, new build or retro-fit, internal or external installation, rigid or flexible pipe etc.

The most expensive option is to hire a professional. It does cost more but you are paying for their expertise and experience. A professional installer will be quicker and you will less likely experience future problems.

To install an outdoor drain tile at the new build phase, you can expect to pay anywhere between $50 and $80 per foot. The larger the drain diameter, the higher the cost. A good average to work with for budgeting is $70 per foot. This is at the higher end but should give a realistic figure for you to work with. That would mean you need to budget $3,500 for 50 feet of drain tile. This cost will increase from $25,000 to $50,000 to retro-fit an exterior drain tile system for an older home.

DIY is always a cheaper alternative as you make a considerable saving on labor costs. There will still be material costs and equipment hire. Daily hire of a trencher is roughly $400 a day and a compacter about half of that. The DIY option will probably take longer but you can complete the work in sections.

If you have exhausted all the alternatives and are retro-fitting internal drain tile the costs are more reasonable. You will need to budget up to $4500 when using the “pitched” method and a sump pump. Basement access, size, and project complexity all impact the installation cost.

Hidden Costs

Both internal and external drain tile systems are designed to take the excess water away from your home. If the water can drain to an existing external drainage system your additional costs will be minimal. However, if the water is draining to another area on your property you may need to install a dry well.

There are several types of dry well configurations, made from a variety of materials. The volume of water It needs to handle will dictate the type and size of dry well you will require. A professional may charge up to $3500 for an installation. The most you would expect to pay for materials and self-installation is approximately $500.

What are Basement Engineering Tabs?

Basements should have engineering tabs made during basement waterproofing for a strong foundation. Leaving sections of your floor on the footer is vital.

backhoe making foundation clay bowl

Wet Basement Problem: False Water Table

A false water table is the primary cause of wet basements, deteriorating foundation walls, and cracking floors. It is “false” because it is temporary.


6 Ways to Prevent Basement Flooding

Basement flooding usually occurs when groundwater finds the path of least resistance. There are six things you can do to prevent flooding inside your basement.

monolithic slab foundation with poured concrete walls

What is a Monolithic Slab Foundation?

A monolithic slab foundation is created by pouring a single layer of concrete to form a slab and footing. The construction process is faster and low cost.

Useful guide: General Permit for the Discharge of Stormwater