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Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering


Corrugated Plastic Tubing

An Ohio Landmark Contribution Corrugated Plastic Tubing for Agricultural Drainage

Agricultural lands have historically been drained to enhance food production. Drainage allows timely field operations, encourages early and vigorous plant growth, and improves productivity, efficiency, and income.

The north-central region of the United States is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, and this productivity relies heavily on drainage. Some 60% of Ohio’s cropland needs drainage improvement to maximize production. The length of the drainage pipe installed in Ohio is enough to make three trips to the moon!

Subsurface drainage research and equipment development at The Ohio State University have made key contributions to a major transition in drainage techniques. Slow, inefficient installation of heavy clay and concrete tile has given way to lightweight, flexible, corrugated plastic drain tubing installed with laser-beam-controlled, high–speed trenchers and drain plows.

Valuable field tests with smooth-wall plastic pipe were conducted in Iowa as early as 1948 and in Europe in the early 1960s. Dr. Glenn O. Schwab of The Ohio State University published Plastic Tubing for Subsurface Drainage in 1955 in the Agricultural Engineering Journal. Small-diameter low-density polyethylene tubing was installed in a mole drain rather than a trench. Although early tests indicated that four-inch-diameter tubing, that had the required deflection strength, could not compete cost-wise with clay or concrete pipe, development work continued. Cooperative research involving USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and The Ohio State University’s agricultural engineering faculty began in 1959 and led to dramatic improvements in drainage materials and installation. The development of corrugated plastic tubing led the way for laser-beam automatic-grade-control-systems, tractor mounted drain tube plows, and new national standard for drainage materials and installation

Corrugated plastic tubing yielded many advantages compared to concrete and clay pipe. Plastic tubing was lightweight (1/25 that of clay and concrete), easy to move, easy to install, flexible, and resistant to chemicals from soil. Installation was also faster and required less labor.

Corrugated plastic tubing was first produced and installed commercially in Ohio and California in 1967, following the invention of corrugation extruding machines in Germany (1961). Tubing was made with polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, or polypropylene. Colored pigments (e.g., carbon black)were added for protection from ultraviolet light. The majority of tubing in the United States was made from High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE).

In 1968, Dr. J. L. Fouss, working for USDA-ARS in cooperation with Ohio State, published Corrugated Plastic Drains Plowed-In – Automatically. This marked the launching of a new era in subsurface drainage materials and installation. Adoption of the new materials and method was rapid, and the industry grew. The number of corrugation-extruding plants in the United States increased from 16 in 1970 to 70 in 1980, with Ohio being a point of activity. The largest extruding companies in the US remain in Ohio, and the state counties to be the center of excellence for drainage development and application around the world. Ohio is also the home of the International Drainage Hall of Fame housed in the Agricultural Engineering building at The Ohio State University.

Application of engineering principles allowed for the development of design criteria, materials, and standard testing methods for corrugated drain tube materials.  Deflection-testing methods developed cooperatively by USDA-ARS and The Ohio State University have been widely used for design and quality control. Creative design and field testing of installation concepts followed the development of the new flexible drainage materials.

Further history on “The Beginning of Modern Subsurface (Tile) Drainage” and research stories and supporting documents are available online at Transforming Drainage. The printed (hard copy) research “stories” and all supporting documents can be accessed in the International Drainage Hall of Fame for current and future research and extension engineers, graduate students, and industry officials involved in drainage research and development.  In addition to the access to printed copies, all the documents were saved in PDF format to facilitate sharing (if requested) via CDs, Flash Drives, and/or E-mail attachments, when visiting The Ohio State University’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Requests should be directed to Dr. Larry Brown, Director, Overholt Drainage Education and Research Program.