CTRE is an Iowa State University center, administered by the Institute for Transportation.

Address: 2711 S. Loop Drive, Suite 4700, Ames, IA 50010-8664

Phone: 515-294-8103
FAX: 515-294-0467

Website: www.ctre.iastate.edu/

Iowa State University--Becoming the Best

Evaluating Roadway Subsurface Drainage Practices


Principal investigators:

Co-principal investigators:

Project status


Start date: 01/15/12
End date: 05/31/13


Report: Evaluating Roadway Subsurface Drainage Practices (3.26 mb pdf) June 2013

Tech transfer summary: Evaluating Roadway Subsurface Drainage Practices (894.52 kb pdf) Jun 2013



About the research


The bearing capacity and service life of a pavement is affected adversely by the presence of undrained water in the pavement layers. In cold winter climates like in Iowa, this problem is magnified further by the risk of frost damage when water is present. Therefore, well-performing subsurface drainage systems form an important aspect of pavement design by the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT). However, controversial findings are also reported in the literature regarding the benefits of subsurface drainage.

The goal of this research was not to investigate whether subdrains are needed in Iowa pavements, but to conduct an extensive performance review of primary interstate pavement subdrains in Iowa, determine the cause of the problem if there are drains that are not functioning properly, and investigate the effect of poor subdrain performance due to improper design, construction, and maintenance on pavement surface distresses, if any.

An extensive literature review was performed covering national-level and state-level research studies mainly focusing on the effects of subsurface drainage on performance of asphalt and concrete pavements. Several studies concerning the effects of a recycled portland cement concrete (RPCC) subbase on PCC pavement drainage systems were also reviewed. A detailed forensic test plan was developed in consultation with the project technical advisory committee (TAC) for inspecting and evaluating the Iowa pavement subdrains. Field investigations were conducted on 64 selected (jointed plain concrete pavement/JPCP and hot-mix asphalt/HMA) pavement sites during the fall season of 2012 and were mainly focused on the drainage outlet conditions. Statistical analysis was conducted on the compiled data from field investigations to further investigate the effect of drainage on pavement performance.

Most Iowa subsurface drainage system outlet blockage is due to tufa, sediment, and soil. Although higher blockage rates reduce the flow rate of water inside outlet pipes, it does not always stop water flowing from inside the outlet pipe to outside the outlet pipe unless the outlet is completely blocked. Few pavement surface distresses were observed near blocked subsurface drainage outlet spots. More shoulder distresses (shoulder drop or cracking) were observed near blocked drainage outlet spots compared to open ones. Both field observations and limited performance analysis indicate that drainage outlet conditions do not have a significant effect on pavement performance. The use of RPCC subbase in PCC pavements results in tufa formation, a primary cause of drainage outlet blockage in JPCP. Several useful recommendations to potentially improve Iowa subdrain performance, which warrant detailed field investigations, were made.