Dry Well vs French Drain: Choosing the Right Solution

Oftentimes the dry well vs French drain question boils down to needing both as a combined system. However, one or the other may be just what is needed to keep the yard and basement dry. I will try to sort out the details for you so you can make the best decision for your yard and home.

Additionally, if the collected water must be moved uphill for any reason then a sump pump will be needed. An excellent outdoor sump pump is the cast iron Zoeller M53 model.

Choosing the Right Water Management Solution for Your Property

Effective water management is crucial to maintaining a healthy and functional property. Whether you’re dealing with a soggy yard, a wet basement, or erosion problems, finding the right solution to manage excess water can save you time, money, and the headache of dealing with water-related issues.

In this article, we’ll explore two common water management solutions: dry wells and French drains. By understanding the principles, differences, and situational considerations associated with these solutions, you’ll be better equipped to make an informed choice.

Understanding Dry Wells

Dry wells are underground structures designed to collect and store excess water, making them an invaluable tool for effective water management on your property. Let’s delve deeper into the key aspects of dry wells:

Fabric covered drain tile pipe is coiled up in the dry well pit. Commonly the dry well vs French drain question requires both to solve water drainage problems.
Fabric covered drain tile pipe is coiled up in the dry well pit. The pit is then filled with clean rock. Which should be covered with landscape fabric to prevent dirt from filling in between the rocks. Commonly the dry well vs French drain question requires both to solve water drainage problems.

1. Definition and Purpose of Dry Wells

Dry wells, also known as soakaways, are subsurface receptacles constructed to collect rainwater, stormwater runoff, or other surplus water from various sources, including roofs, driveways, or landscaping. The primary purpose of dry wells is to prevent surface flooding, soil erosion, and water-related damage. These structures are designed to provide a controlled and eco-friendly solution for handling excess water, ensuring that it is efficiently absorbed into the ground.

2. How Dry Wells Work to Manage Excess Water

Dry wells operate on a simple yet effective principle. They function as large underground containers or chambers that temporarily store incoming water. The key components of a typical dry well include an inlet, usually connected to a drainage system, and an outlet that connects to a system of perforated pipes or aggregate-filled chambers. When water flows into the dry well, it is temporarily held, allowing the excess water to percolate into the surrounding soil gradually. This controlled release of water into the ground prevents rapid runoff and soil saturation.

Dry wells are particularly efficient at managing large volumes of water, especially during heavy rainfall or storms. By holding and gradually releasing water into the ground, dry wells help replenish groundwater sources, reduce the risk of surface flooding, and prevent soil erosion.

They are especially valuable in areas prone to waterlogging, where standing water can be a nuisance and a potential source of structural damage.

A smaller version of the dry well that would be approriate for small yards is shown below:

NDS FWAS24 50 Gal. Flo Stormwater Dry Well System Kit with 3 Side Panels & 1 Cover, Ideal for Rainwater Collection, Black
802 Reviews
NDS FWAS24 50 Gal. Flo Stormwater Dry Well System Kit with 3 Side Panels & 1 Cover, Ideal for Rainwater Collection, Black
  • COLLECT, DETAIN, AND INFILTRATE EXCESS WATER: Puts excess water back into the ground; the Flo-Well Dry Well is ideal for residential and commercial locations such as yards, playgrounds, golf courses, wash-down areas, rain gardens and bioswales
  • HOW TO INSTALL: Connect to 4 in. Sewer and Drain (S&D) Pipe through top cover knockout; 12 side-panel knockout points connect to 4 in. S&D and Sch. 40 Pipes; Can be buried or stacked up to 8 ft. deep and supports pedestrian traffic including lawn tractors
  • GRAVEL-FREE ALTERNATIVE: Unlike a traditional dry well that requires filling an large hole with heavy stone and gravel, the Flo-Well Dry Well only needs a small amount of gravel at the base to prevent scouring and provides 250% more detention volume
  • USE ONE OR MANY: The Flo-Well Dry Well works as a stand alone product and can be used in multiples; units can be stacked up to 4 high or side-by-side 18 in. apart
  • INCLUDES: 3 side panels and top cover, unassembled; open bottom allows water to seep into gravel and ground below; bottom panel sold separately to provide a base for a sump pump if desired

3. Situations Where Dry Wells Are a Viable Option

Dry wells are a suitable choice in several scenarios, making them a versatile solution for managing excess water:

  • Urban and suburban areas: In developed areas with impervious surfaces like roofs, driveways, and sidewalks, dry wells can efficiently manage the runoff and prevent localized flooding.
  • Properties with limited space: Dry wells are compact and can be installed in small spaces, making them ideal for urban properties or places with limited yard space.
  • Eco-friendly water management: For environmentally conscious property owners, dry wells offer the advantage of recharging groundwater by allowing water to seep into the soil. This not only helps manage water but also supports the local ecosystem.
  • Mitigating erosion: In areas susceptible to erosion, dry wells can be strategically placed to reduce soil erosion and protect the landscape.
  • Preventing basement or foundation flooding: Dry wells can be part of a comprehensive drainage system to divert water away from structures, preventing water-related damage.

In summary, dry wells are an underground water management solution designed to collect, store, and gradually release excess water into the ground. Their adaptability and eco-friendly approach make them a practical choice for various situations, offering an effective way to mitigate drainage problems and protect your property from water-related issues.

A man digging a French drain trench.
Digging a French drain trench to collect and drain water to a selected location. The black drain tile pipe is laying near the trench.

The French Drain Solution

French drains are a time-tested and versatile solution for managing excess water, preventing water accumulation, and safeguarding your property from the adverse effects of water-related problems. In this section, we’ll explore the fundamental aspects of French drains:

1. Definition and Function of French Drains

A French drain is a drainage system designed to redirect water away from a particular area or structure. It typically consists of a trench filled with gravel or rock and a perforated pipe. The primary function of a French drain is to provide a pathway for water to flow through the trench and into a designated drainage area, such as a storm sewer, dry well, or a lower-lying part of your property. This diversion of water prevents water accumulation, thus safeguarding your property from issues like flooding, erosion, and water damage.

2. The Mechanism Behind French Drains and How They Mitigate Water Problems

The key to the effectiveness of a French drain lies in its design and the principle of gravity. When excess water encounters the trench, it infiltrates the loose gravel or rock and enters the perforated pipe. Gravity then takes over, causing the water to flow through the pipe and away from the problem area.

Here’s how a French drain mitigates water problems:

  • Water Collection: Excess water from rainfall, surface runoff, or groundwater intrusion is collected in the trench. The gravel or rock provides a medium for water to infiltrate and reach the perforated pipe.
  • Gravity-Driven Flow: Once inside the perforated pipe, gravity guides the water away from the trouble spot, preventing water buildup and potential damage. The pipe is installed with a slight slope that ensures water moves away efficiently.
  • Discharge: The diverted water is channeled to an outlet or drainage area, such as a storm sewer, a dry well, or a designated low-lying part of your property. This enables the water to disperse safely and naturally, without causing harm to your property.

French drains are incredibly effective at managing surface water, intercepting subsurface water, and preventing issues like foundation flooding, yard inundation, and erosion. They work well in both residential and commercial settings and can be customized to suit various property sizes and layouts.

Shown below is a fabric covered drain tile pipe. The fabric prevents the pipe from slowly being filled by the surrounding dirt.

Cleveland Tubing Perforated Corrugated Expandable Flexible Landscape Drain Pipe with Sock, 4-in. by 25-ft.
104 Reviews
Cleveland Tubing Perforated Corrugated Expandable Flexible Landscape Drain Pipe with Sock, 4-in. by 25-ft.
  • Perforated corrugated flexible pipe with removable polyester sock
  • Expands from 6’ to 25’
  • Connects over 3″ corrugated pipe, inside 4″ corrugated pipe and 4″ PVC pipe
  • Makes landscaping drainage jobs easier
  • Bends around almost anything – no elbows needed

3. When and Where French Drains Are Most Effective

French drains are most effective in specific situations and locations:

  • Yard Drainage: If your yard is prone to water pooling, a French drain can prevent soggy areas, making it more usable and aesthetically pleasing.
  • Basement and Foundation Protection: Installing French drains around the foundation or basement of your home can prevent water from seeping in, reducing the risk of costly water damage.
  • Hillside or Sloping Terrain: In areas with slopes, French drains can divert water away from erosion-prone zones and keep your landscape intact.
  • Surface Runoff Management: French drains are ideal for managing surface runoff from roofs, driveways, and walkways, ensuring that water is redirected efficiently.
  • Landscaping and Garden Beds: These drains can protect delicate plants and landscape features from excessive water, maintaining the beauty and health of your outdoor spaces.

In conclusion, French drains are an essential water management solution that effectively diverts water away from problem areas, preventing flooding, erosion, and structural damage. Their adaptability and ability to work in various scenarios make them a valuable tool for property owners seeking to address water-related issues and maintain a dry, secure environment.

Blue arrows showing the route of an existing French drain system. Image by Richard Quick
This installed French drain system captures the water running down the hillside. Which keeps the playground and house foundation dry.

Key Differences Between Dry Well vs French Drain

Both dry wells and French drains are effective water management solutions, but they have distinct differences in their design, installation, water collection methods, and maintenance requirements.

1. Design and Installation

Dry Wells:

  • Design: Dry wells typically consist of an underground chamber or container designed to collect and store water. This chamber is connected to an inlet that receives water from a drainage system and an outlet that allows excess water to be gradually absorbed into the ground.
  • Installation: Installing a dry well involves excavating a hole at the chosen location, placing the chamber or container in it, and connecting the inlet and outlet. The chamber is often filled with aggregate material, such as gravel, to facilitate water percolation. The installation process may vary depending on the type of dry well used, but it generally requires careful positioning and proper connections.

French Drains:

  • Design: French drains consist of a trench filled with gravel or rock and a perforated pipe. The trench is typically sloped to direct water away from the problem area. This design allows for the collection and redirection of water.
  • Installation: The installation of a French drain begins with digging a trench along the desired drainage path. The trench is then partially filled with gravel or rock. A perforated pipe is placed at the bottom of the trench, and the trench is covered with additional gravel or rock. Proper slope and positioning ensure efficient water flow. French drain installation is often more straightforward and requires fewer components compared to dry wells.

2. Water Collection

Dry Wells:

  • Dry wells collect and store water underground. When excess water flows into the dry well, it is temporarily held within the chamber. This stored water gradually percolates into the surrounding soil, allowing for efficient groundwater recharge. Dry wells store water for later absorption into the ground.

French Drains:

  • French drains are designed to channel water away from a specific area. They do not store water but rather provide a pathway for water to flow through the trench and into a designated drainage area, such as a storm sewer or a dry well. The primary function of a French drain is to prevent water buildup in the first place by facilitating its redirection.

3. Maintenance

Dry Wells:

  • Dry wells may require periodic maintenance to ensure proper functioning. Over time, debris, silt, or sediment can accumulate within the chamber, potentially obstructing the water’s path. Regular inspection and cleaning are essential to prevent clogs and maintain efficient water absorption.

French Drains:

  • French drains generally require less maintenance. The most common maintenance task involves inspecting the perforated pipe for clogs or blockages caused by debris. Routine checks will help ensure unimpeded water flow.

In summary, while dry wells and French drains are valuable water management solutions, their key differences lie in design, installation, water collection methods, and maintenance requirements. The choice between these solutions should be based on your specific drainage needs and property characteristics. Understanding these distinctions will help you make an informed decision regarding the most suitable option for your situation.

Last Thoughts on Dry Well vs French Drain

In choosing between dry wells and French drains, understanding the specific issues on your property is paramount. Both solutions offer effective ways to manage water, but their suitability depends on the unique circumstances of your situation.

Making an informed decision ensures you’ll enjoy a dry and problem-free property while preserving the environment and complying with local regulations. Take the time to assess your needs, and you’ll be well on your way to a water-managed and worry-free property.

Remember that an outdoor sump pump may be a necessary part of your water drainage system. In some cases the sump pump can replace the dry well. In other cases the sump pump can shorten the length of a French drain.

Shown below is the Zoeller M53 submersible sump pump that can be used outdoors with a French drain system:

Zoeller M53 Mighty-mate Submersible Sump Pump, 1/3 Hp
  • Automatic with float activated switch
  • Non-clogging vortex impeller design
  • Durable cast iron switch case, motor, and pump housing
  • Cast iron switch case, motor, and pump housing, plastic base

Read my article: Sump Pump vs French Drain System for Yard: Do I Need Both?

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