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French Drain: Effective Basement Waterproofing?

Dec 3, 2013 • By Matthew Stock.

French Drain

Language can be a funny thing.  Among people who speak the same language and maybe even live in the same city, there may several different ways to refer to the same object.

For example, I might lace up my sneakers then empty the waste basket next to my desk, whereas my next door neighbor puts on his gym shoes (or his tennies or running shoes or, if feeling a bit British that day, his trainers) and dumps the garbage can (or the trash can or the bin.) 

When the same language crosses international borders, it can get even stranger.  TV home construction and repair expert Mike Holmes, a proud English-speaking Canadian, often refers to “eavestroughs” that are known south of the border as “gutters,” and even more frequently to something called “weeping tile.”

Despite the mental picture it creates of a sad floor in Toronto, weeping tile is actually a basement waterproofing device, known in the U.S. as a “French drain” or “drain tile.”  Now, language being what it is, a “French drain” and “drain tile,” although terms that are often used interchangeably, are not really the same thing.  Confused?  Here’s an explanation:

French Drain or Drain Tile – Are They Different?

The French drain, first of all, has nothing to do with the country that gave us stinky cheese and three-week bicycle races.  The French drain is the namesake of one Henry French, a Massachusetts farmer in the mid-19th century.  French wrote a book on irrigation and soil drainage in which he advocated that farmers switch from open irrigation and drainage ditches to sub-surface drains built of clay pipe buried below ground in beds of gravel.  The pipe would be laid on a slope that makes use of gravity to transport water.

Drain tile is also an underground drain that is typically situated at the lowest level of a home’s foundation, therefore known as a “footing drain.”  Use of the word “tile” is a misnomer these days because the system is typically constructed of plastic pipe; it comes from the fact that the earliest systems were built from leftover roofing tiles.  Drain tile is also embedded in gravel and usually carries ground water to a sump pump for discharge from the home.

Functionally, a French drain and drain tile are very similar but their placement and output make them different.  A French drain is typically installed just below the surface and is used mainly to move water from low spots or other places where it may collect and saturate the soil.  Drain tile is installed next to foundation footings, which may be eight to ten feet below the surface and is used to drain away ground water and relieve hydrostatic pressure around the foundation to prevent seepage and foundation damage.

So, it sounds like drain tile is the only one of the two systems that will help keep a basement dry, right?  Well, typically yes but a French drain can also contribute to a dry basement by playing a role in yard drainage.  Water that sits in pools or swampy spots on the lawn may eventually end up in the basement so an appropriately situated French drain can help by managing the water before it gets close to the foundation.

Also, in parts of the country with infrequent rain where homes typically do not have gutters, a French drain below the eaves can keep water out of the basement but is rarely seen in the Chicago area.

Even though the names may be interchangeable, drain tile and French drain are two very different things but both can help make the difference between a wet basement and a dry one.  A homeowner with water in the basement should consult an experienced basement waterproofing contractor to find out if drain tile, or a French drain, or another repair method will keep his or her basement dry.  At U.S. Waterproofing, we’ve installed miles of drain tile and done numerous yard drainage products in our 56 years in business so why not ask for our free advice?


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