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DIY: How To Build a French Drain Yourself

Installed french drain on the side of the house

If you’ve found yourself with soggy spots in your yard or a basement that’s prone to flooding, you might have a serious drainage issue. One of the most efficient and cost-effective solutions to this problem is something called a French drain which is a type of perimeter drainage.

Efficient drainage is crucial to maintain the structural integrity of your home and the health of your yard. Persistent water accumulation can cause a host of problems such as soil erosion, waterlogged plants, and a breeding ground for mosquitoes. More seriously, it can lead to dampness in your basement or even structural damage to your house’s foundation. A well-constructed French drain can help prevent these issues, protecting both your house and yard.

What is a French Drain?

A French drain is a strategically crafted drainage system that allows an easy pathway for water to flow away from your property. Despite the misleading name, the system does not originate from France but is named after its promoter, Henry French, from Concord, Massachusetts. Rooted in the simple law of gravity—water flows downhill and by the easiest route possible— a French drain protects your property from potential water damage.

How a French Drain Works

The operational principle of a French drain is straightforward, yet highly effective. This drain utilizes its unique construction—comprising a trench, round gravel, and a perforated pipe—to facilitate efficient water drainage. Here’s the step-by-step process of how it functions:

  1. Ingress: Water enters the French drain system by percolating through the gravel layer at the top of the trench.
  2. Transport: As the water descends, it reaches the perforated pipe installed at the bottom of the trench. The pipe’s holes are designed to allow water in, while excluding larger, potentially clogging debris.
  3. Egress: Relying on a gentle slope, the pipe then transports the water, aided by gravity, away from the area to be protected.

The effectiveness of a French drain largely depends on maintaining an appropriate slope in the trench—often recommended as one inch of fall for every eight feet in the direction of water flow. This gradual decline ensures the seamless transportation of water away from your property.

Benefits of Having a French Drain

French drains are typically needed when surface water issues occur, such as a perpetually wet lawn, a driveway susceptible to washouts, or even water seeping into your basement. Additionally, if you’re building a retaining wall on a hillside, a French drain can prove invaluable by relieving hydrostatic pressure and preventing water from accumulating behind the wall.

A French drain comes to the rescue in several situations:

  1. Persistent Surface Water Issues: These could be a soggy lawn, a driveway susceptible to washouts, or water seeping into your basement.
  2. During Retaining Wall Construction: If you’re building a retaining wall on a hillside, installing a French drain is beneficial for relieving the hydrostatic pressure and preventing water from building up behind the wall.

The French drain also referred to as a curtain drain, runs horizontally across your property, situated uphill of the area you aim to dry out. By intercepting water and steering it around the problematic area, the French drain provides a DIY yard drainage solution that mitigates potential water damage effectively.

Planning Your DIY French Drain

DIY french drain in the backyard

When it comes to making a French drain, a well-thought-out plan for the drain path can make all the difference between success and failure. It’s crucial to take into account your property’s topography, the water flow pattern, and the various obstacles that might hinder the construction. Understanding these factors will help determine the most effective path for the French drain, ensuring maximum water diversion with minimal landscape disruption. Also, planning ahead will make the installation process smoother and more efficient.

The first step in planning your French drain is to identify the areas of your property where water tends to collect or where drainage is necessary. Once these are pinpointed, you can map out a path for the drain that will effectively channel water away from these areas and towards a safer discharge point.

Identifying the Starting and Ending Points

The starting point of your French drain, typically referred to as the intake, should be at or near the areas where water collects the most. From there, the drain should slope downward towards the ending point, or the ‘outfall’, where the water will be safely diverted. The endpoint could be a low-lying area of your property, a drainage ditch, a dry well, or even the street. However, it’s critical to ensure that the water isn’t diverted towards a neighboring property, which can cause legal complications and neighborly disputes.

When determining the endpoints for your French drain, it’s important to consider the overall landscape, the volume of water that needs to be drained, and the potential impacts on the surrounding environment. You may need to consult with a landscape professional or a civil engineer, especially for larger scale projects, to ensure that your plan is effective and environmentally friendly.

Complying with Local Building Codes and Permits

Before you start digging, it’s essential to verify whether there are any local building codes or permits required for installing a French drain. Local regulations vary, and some may require you to submit a detailed plan of your project or even restrict certain types of landscape modifications.

Understanding and complying with local building codes isn’t just about legality. It’s also about safety and environmental preservation. For instance, you may need to locate and avoid underground utilities such as water and gas lines, which are a common requirement in many areas. Failing to comply with these rules could lead to dangerous situations and potential fines.

Essential Tools and Materials

Before commencing your French drain DIY project, it’s crucial to ensure that you have all the necessary tools and materials. Here’s a comprehensive list:

  • Perforated Pipe – Central to your French drain is the perforated pipe. This pipe will collect and transport the water that filters through the gravel. Generally, a 4-inch diameter pipe is ideal for most residential drains.
  • Gravel – Gravel serves to fill the trench in which your pipe is laid, allowing water to percolate down and into your drain system. Aim for clean, rounded gravel 0.5 to 1 inch in diameter.
  • Geotextile Fabric – This non-woven fabric is crucial for preventing soil and silt from infiltrating your gravel and pipe. It’s typically wrapped around the gravel-filled trench.
  • Shovel – A sturdy shovel is a must for digging the trench for your drain.
  • String and Stakes – These are used for mapping out the direction and gradient of your drain.
  • Measuring Tape – To ensure that your trench is dug to the correct dimensions.
  • Level – This tool will help ensure that your drain has the correct slope for optimal drainage.
  • Work Gloves – Essential for safety and comfort while working.
  • Wheelbarrow – A convenient tool for moving your gravel and soil around your yard.

Alternative Materials

While the list above includes the standard materials used in constructing a French drain, some alternatives might better suit your specific circumstances.

Types of Pipes

  • PVC Pipe – PVC pipes are durable and easy to work with, making them a popular choice for French drains. These come perforated for easy water collection.
  • Corrugated Pipe – A flexible alternative, corrugated pipes can be a good choice if your drain needs to navigate around landscaping features.
  • Rigid Drain Pipe – Ideal for straight-line drains, rigid drain pipes are sturdy but may be a bit more challenging to install due to their lack of flexibility.

Types of Gravel

  • Pea Gravel – Small and rounded, pea gravel is easy to work with and provides adequate drainage but can sometimes become clogged with sediment.
  • Crushed Stone – A more angular alternative, crushed stone allows for excellent compaction, which reduces shifting over time.
  • River Rock – Larger and rounder than pea gravel, river rock provides superior drainage. However, their larger size can make them more difficult to work with.

Building the French Drain

A large pipe being used for a french drain

In this section, you’ll find step-by-step instructions on how to build a French drain. By following these steps, you can create an effective drainage system to divert excess water away from your home and property.

Digging the Trench

The efficiency of your French drain largely depends on the trench. Begin by marking the path of the drain using stakes and string. Your drain should direct water from a high point to a lower one, hence your trench should slope downward.

  1. Starting Point: Begin at the highest point where water tends to collect and dig towards the lower point where you aim to divert the water.
  2. Trench Size: The trench should be wide enough to accommodate the pipe and leave room for gravel — typically about 1.5 feet across. As for depth, aim for at least two feet to ensure efficient water collection.
  3. Slope: To maintain a suitable slope for your trench, use a level and measuring tape. Ensure there’s an approximate one-inch drop for every eight feet of length. This gradient ensures that water flows smoothly toward the exit point.

Lining the Trench

Next, line your trench with geotextile fabric to prevent soil from mixing with the gravel and pipe.

  1. Lay the Fabric: Position the fabric in the trench, ensuring it fully covers the sides and bottom.
  2. Fabric Overhang: Leave enough fabric to fold back over the top once you’ve placed the pipe and gravel.

Adding the Pipe and Gravel

The pipe and gravel form the core of the French drain, serving as the channel for water.

  1. Base Layer of Gravel: Start by adding a layer of gravel to the trench bottom — about 2 to 3 inches deep.
  2. Position the Pipe: Lay your perforated pipe on top of this gravel layer, ensuring the holes face downward.
  3. Fill with Gravel: Fill the rest of the trench with gravel, until the pipe is completely covered. Aim to stop about 2 inches from the ground surface.

Ensuring the Correct Slope

Check the gradient of your French drain to ensure water flow.

  1. Check and Adjust: Use a level to check the gradient of the gravel and pipe, adjusting as necessary to maintain the 1:8 slope ratio. Remember, water should flow from the highest point (where it collects) to the lowest point (where it exits).

Covering the Trench

Now it’s time to cover the trench.

  1. Fold the Fabric: Fold the excess geotextile fabric over the gravel.
  2. Covering Options: For the final layer, you can use the original sod, additional soil, or even stones to create a decorative dry creek bed appearance.

Maintaining the French Drain

Regular maintenance ensures the long-term functionality of your French drain.

  1. Clear the Exit Point: Regularly check that the drain’s exit point is clear of debris for unobstructed water flow.
  2. Consider Plant Growth: Be mindful of tree or shrub growth near your drain, as roots can intrude into your pipe and cause blockages.

Potential Challenges and Solutions

While building a French drain, you might encounter challenges. Here are some solutions:

  1. Hard or Rocky Soil: If the soil is difficult to dig through, consider hiring professional help or renting heavy-duty digging equipment.
  2. Long Drain Runs: If your French drain covers a large distance, consider installing cleanouts at intervals for easier maintenance.
  3. Unanticipated Underground Utilities: Always check with local authorities for underground utility locations before you start digging. Safety should always be your top priority.

How To Install a French Drain

Constructing a French drain might seem challenging at first, but with the right guidance, it’s a doable project. This section will walk you through every step to ensure you build a functional and long-lasting French drain.

Digging the Trench

A properly dug trench is critical for the successful installation of your French drain. Here’s how you can go about it:

First, use wooden stakes or flags to outline the path your drain will follow. This pathway should start from the area where water tends to accumulate and extend towards a lower area where the water can be safely released.

Begin digging at the highest point of your French drain path. This is usually where water tends to pool during rainfall. As you dig, keep the end goal in mind — a trench that slopes downward to facilitate water flow.

The size of your trench will depend on the scale of your drainage issue, but as a rule of thumb, it should be about 1.5 feet across and at least two feet deep. This size should be enough to accommodate the drainage pipe and the gravel.

The slope of your trench is critical for effective water flow. As a general guideline, aim for a one-inch drop for every eight feet of length. You can use a level to help maintain this gradient as you dig.

Lining the Trench

Lining your trench is a crucial step to prevent soil from entering your French drain and causing blockages. Here’s how you can do it:

Choose a landscape fabric, also known as a geotextile fabric, that is designed to separate soil from your gravel and pipe. This fabric should be permeable to allow water to pass through.

Unroll the fabric along the length of your trench, making sure it fully covers the sides and bottom. Leave enough fabric on each side so you can fold it over the top once you’ve placed the pipe and gravel.

Adding the Pipe and Gravel

The pipe and gravel are the heart of your French drain, providing a clear path for water to follow. Here’s how you install them:

Begin by adding a layer of round gravel to the bottom of the trench. This layer should be about 2-3 inches deep and will provide a bed for your perforated pipe to rest on.

Next, lay your perforated pipe along the trench on top of the gravel layer. Ensure the holes in the pipe are facing downward. This orientation allows water to enter the pipe from the bottom, reducing the likelihood of the pipe filling with sediment and clogging.

After placing the pipe, cover it with more gravel until it’s completely buried. The gravel should come within about 2 inches of the surface of your lawn or landscape.

Ensuring the Correct Slope

It’s crucial to maintain the correct slope throughout your French drain to ensure that water is effectively drained:

Before you move on to the next step, use a level to check the slope of your French drain. The pipe should be sitting on a gradient, with a steady 1:8 slope ratio from the highest point to the lowest point.

If the slope isn’t quite right, now is the time to make adjustments. Add or remove gravel as necessary to achieve the right slope.

Covering the Trench

After all the previous steps, you are ready to cover the trench:

Take the overhanging edges of your landscape fabric and fold them over the top of the gravel. This acts as a further barrier to prevent soil from entering your French drain system.

For the final layer, you have a few options. If you prefer the drain to blend in with the rest of your landscape, you can cover it with the sod you originally removed. Alternatively, you could use extra soil or opt for a decorative finish with river stones for a dry creek bed appearance.

Maintaining the French Drain

To ensure your French drain remains effective over the long term, maintenance is key:

Make sure the drain exit point is always clear of debris and silt to ensure water can freely exit the pipe.

If the drain passes through areas with trees or shrubs, remember that their roots can grow into the piping and block it. Consider regular checks and root removal to avoid clogging.

Anticipating and Overcoming Challenges

Like any DIY project, building a French drain can present some challenges. However, with some foresight, these can be easily overcome:

If you’re dealing with hard, compact soil or you encounter rocks, you might need to use a pickaxe or rent a small excavator. This will make the process of digging your trench much easier and less time-consuming.

For very long French drains, it can be beneficial to install cleanouts at regular intervals. These are essentially upright pipes that connect to your drain pipe, providing an access point for maintenance and cleaning.

Before you start digging, it’s crucial to identify the location of any underground utilities. Call your local utility companies or national “call before you dig” number to have these lines marked. The last thing you want is to hit a gas or water line while digging your trench.

Finishing Touches for French Drains

Once your French drain is installed, there are several ways you can add finishing touches to improve its appearance and increase its longevity. From adding a decorative edge to blending it into your existing landscape, let’s explore how you can finalize your project.

Installing Landscape Edging

Landscape edging can give your French drain a more finished look and help keep the gravel from scattering into your yard or garden. Here’s how to do it:

There are several types of landscape edging to choose from, depending on your preference and the aesthetic of your yard. Some options include metal, plastic, brick, stone, or wood edging.

The edging should be installed along the sides of the trench after you’ve placed the gravel but before you’ve added the final layer of soil or sod. Be sure to secure it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Blending the Drain with Your Landscape

If you prefer a more natural look, there are several ways to make your French drain blend in seamlessly with your existing landscape:

Cover the top of your French drain with soil and plant grass seed, or replace the original sod. This will make the drain almost invisible once the grass has grown in. If you prefer a more decorative look, consider topping the drain with river stones or pebbles to create a dry creek bed effect.

Surrounding your French drain with landscape plants can also help it blend into your yard. Just be careful not to plant trees or shrubs too close to the drain, as their roots can grow into the piping and cause blockages.

Maintenance and Troubleshooting

A French drain is not a set-it-and-forget-it solution. It requires some maintenance to keep it working properly:

Regular Checks

Regularly inspect the exit point of your French drain to ensure it isn’t blocked with debris or silt. After heavy rainfall, make sure water is flowing out as expected. If the flow seems reduced, there may be a blockage.


If you’ve installed cleanouts in your French drain, use these points to flush the system with water periodically. This can help dislodge any small amounts of silt or debris that have built up inside the pipe.

Root Intrusion

Over time, roots from nearby trees and shrubs can invade your French drain, causing blockages. If water seems to be backing up or not flowing as freely as it should, root intrusion could be the culprit. In this case, you might need to replace sections of pipe or consider root removal procedures.

The Costs of Building a French Drain

Building a French drain is a project that requires time, effort, and investment. The total cost can vary significantly depending on various factors such as the length and depth of your drain, the materials you choose, and whether you hire professionals or do it yourself. Here, we will outline some of the potential costs you may encounter while undertaking this project.


The materials you’ll need to build a French drain include gravel, landscaping fabric, and perforated pipe. Their costs can depend on the quality and quantity you need:

  • The gravel is used to fill the trench around the pipe. Depending on the size and type of gravel, prices can range from $10 to $50 per ton.
  • Landscaping fabric, also known as filter fabric, is used to prevent soil from clogging the pipe. It generally costs around $20 for a roll.
  • The perforated pipe is placed in the trench to carry away the water. Depending on the material (plastic, PVC, or corrugated metal) and diameter, a pipe can cost from $0.70 to $5.00 per foot.

If you decide to hire a professional to install your French drain, labor costs will also contribute to the overall expense. Depending on your region and the complexity of the project, professionals may charge anywhere from $20 to $50 per linear foot.

Remember, your project may also include additional costs like renting excavation equipment, purchasing edging materials for a finished look, and the cost of any permits you need from your local municipality.

While the initial cost may seem high, remember that a French drain is a long-term investment in your property. It can protect your home from water damage, improve your yard’s appearance, and even increase your property’s value by improving its drainage. By carefully considering your options and planning your budget, you can create a French drain that not only functions well but also fits your financial situation.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much water can a French drain handle?

The amount of water a French drain can handle largely depends on its size (diameter and length), the size of the gravel used, and the soil conditions. A well-designed French drain can handle several gallons of water per minute. However, in soil with poor absorption, it may not drain as efficiently.

How to clean out a French drain?

Cleaning a French drain involves flushing the system with water, which can be done with a standard garden hose. For stubborn clogs, a plumber’s snake or a high-pressure water jet can be used. Regular maintenance, such as keeping the area clear of leaves and debris, can help prevent clogs.

How deep is a French drain?

The depth of a French drain varies based on its purpose and the landscape, but a typical French drain for yard drainage is about 18 to 24 inches deep.

What size gravel for a French drain?

The best size gravel for a French drain is typically between 1/2 inch and 1 inch in diameter. This size allows for better water flow than smaller gravel, while still being small enough to provide support for the drainage pipe.

How much does it cost to install a French drain?

The cost to install a French drain can vary widely depending on the complexity of the project, the materials used, and whether you do it yourself or hire a professional. On average, homeowners can expect to pay between $20 and $50 per linear foot.

How to unclog a French drain?

Unclogging a French drain often involves flushing the system with water to remove the blockage. If this doesn’t work, a plumber’s snake can be used to dislodge the clog. For severe clogs, it may be necessary to dig up part of the drain to remove the obstruction.


Building a French drain is a practical and cost-effective solution to managing excess water on your property. With careful planning, the right materials, and some elbow grease, you can install a French drain yourself and protect your home from potential water damage. Remember, it’s all about guiding the water safely away from structures and areas where it could cause harm. Happy DIY-ing!

Last Updated on August 19, 2023

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