home Trench Drain Basics 3 Ancestors to Modern Trench Drain

3 Ancestors to Modern Trench Drain

I’m not a historian on drainage systems (though it sounds interesting). I’ve been thinking about the history of trench drain. Where was the first trench drain crafted? What was the application? Was it seen as special for that location? Did it catch on or was it forgotten, only to be re-designed for the first time by someone else in another part of the world?

Let’s look at a couple classic contributions to the current day trench drain:


Aqueducts of Rome
(initiated 312 BC)

Roman aqueducts, aqueduct designs, water drainage in Roman empire

Built of stone, brick and mortar, eleven (11) separate aqueduct systems were put in place that carried drinking water from the areas surrounding Rome into the heart of the city. The aqueducts were an essential tool in making it possible for up to 1 million people to inhabit Rome.

Les Egouts (sewers) de Paris

paris sewers, paris egouts, Les Egouts de ParisParis initiated its first sewer system in the 1200s, which consisted of a common trench down the middle of the street. These early “open sewers” contributed to the spread of the Black Plague. By the mid 1800’s, the system had moved underground.  During this time, metal bars were used to cover the basins which captured the sewage. This modern man-made marvel, known as “Les Egouts de Paris”, was a topic in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserable’s” and is currently in operation today.

Moats of England (14th and 15th Century)

Moats were mainly for defense purposes, though there was a design element focused on water drainage. At the gate house, the moat resembled more a culvert with a removable lid (drawbridge). By a stretch of the imagination, you can imagine this to be a large trench drain. But really, it was just a bloody culvert.

castle moats, England castle moats, Castles of England

The need to control waste water drainage always seems to follow population growth. And problem solvers as we humans are, we work with the materials which are at hand to solve the problems that we have at hand. This first guy that designed and built a trench drain, I can imagine, probably didn’t like water coming in his from door every time it rained. Maybe he dug a trench in front of the door, lined it with stone and then fitted flag stone or brick on top of the trench to allow water to flow away from the door. Wha – la.

With time, our construction materials have changed. Trench drain products, as we know them in North America and Europe, are a direct result of an evolution of construction materials. Cast-in-place concrete trenches with metal bar grating, once the standard, are less common. Increasingly, the trend is to replace the labor intensive trench drain construction practices with labor saving, lightweight engineered polymer trench forming products. Advances in grating materials have also been responsible for the shift in trench design. Simple cast iron or steel grating is now giving way to a wider assortment of strong lightweight materials with designs to compliment the surrounding architecture.

street trench drains, trench drains for roadways, sidewalk trench drains,In countries where labor is less expensive than engineered materials, traditional cast-in-place and precast concrete still dominates. Expensive materials for infrastructure aren’t in the budget of construction projects if the skilled labor can perform the task with a little more “elbow grease”. In my travels to South America and Asia, I have never seen a polymer concrete or fiberglass trench drain system. They probably exist in the expensive hotels and shops (a reason why I never saw them). However, the economy of their construction practices hasn’t reached that critical point to where you would see them on a grand scale.

So what am I really trying to say here? The need for drainage systems and the evolution of trench drains as a method of drainage is a function of:

  • Local population and infrastructure requirements
  • Environmental considerations
  • Construction material costs
  • Labor costs

We’ll continue to see changes and improvements in drainage products as these factors continue to change. Know your options!!

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