Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fear and Loathing In Tile-Land, or, The Flooded Basement Syndrome

I spent a total of about 20 minutes today sucking up water from the floor on the lowest level of our home with a shop-vac.  According to the precise meteorological monitoring equipment installed at the Morrissey Compound, as we call it, we got just under four inches of rain (or, as the weather folks now say, “rainfall”) between 4 AM and 8 AM.

My first pass with the shop-vac around 9:30 AM sucked up most of the water; and another quick pass at 2 got the rest.  Near as I can guess it amounted to about 5 gallons of water; at least that’s what I drained out of the shop-vac.  But 5 gallons of water looks like a lot more when it’s pooled on a tile floor.

I don’t have it anywhere near as bad as a lot of people in Madison had it today.  There are people I know who are telling stories on social media about standing ankle-deep or higher in water in their basement, bailing it out as best they can.  And if you’ve seen the videos from University Ave on the local TV’s, you know a lot of folks in that neck of the woods are facing a lot of hours of back-breaking work.

We don’t really have a “basement” per se.  Our home consists of four levels, and the lowest level, which sits on a concrete slab (or, as many would incorrectly say, a “cement” slab) is only half below the grade. The lowest level has an expansive “great room”, and full bedroom and full bathroom, a large storage closet, and a mechanical room where the HVAC equipment, water heater (or, as some would say, “hot water heater”), sump pump, and water softener are located.   All told the lower level is around a thousand square feet. We pulled the carpet out of the great room and bedroom a couple years after we bought the house, and replaced it with tile.

The lower level flooded several times the first summer we lived in the house; each time it was during hellacious rainstorms where the sky just opened up and it rained hard for a long time.  After we got as much water out as we could, we had to call in professionals to clean and sanitize the carpet, which was a soggy mess. 

I called a local landscaping contractor the next spring to tell me what he thought we should do, and his solution, which carried a 28-thousand-dollar pricetag, was to essentially recreate the Suez Canal in our back and side yard, to “capture” the water flowing down the natural lay of the land and redirect it away from the house.

I didn’t like that idea.

So I asked a bunch of people what they would do, short of building the Suez Canal, and most of them said I should try replacing our standard 4-inch rain gutters with commercial 6-inch gutters – and put a long extension pipe at the end of the downspout to throw the water draining off the roof as far away as possible.  I got an estimate from a local contractor, and I think it ended up costing three or four grand to replace all the 4-inch gutters with 6-inch commercial extruded aluminum gutters.

We went from having five or six “flooding events” each summer to one, maybe two at the most, and much, much less water got in when it did flood.  The challenge, as I learned, was to keep those big-ass gutters free of the ten zillion whirligigs that come off the huge old maple tree in our yard.  If I’m not vigilant about asking my wife to brave life and limb and go up on a ladder to clean out the ends of the gutters….where my 210-mile-per-hour gasoline-powered leaf blower with the eave-cleaning attachment can’t reach….the water will back up at the end of the gutter, eventually fill the gutter because it’s draining so slowly, and a ton of rainwater draining from two levels of roofs will end up splashing down right next to the foundation, and eventually seep into the lower level.

It’s not pleasant, but it’s not really that much of a pain to drag the shop-vac down there and suck up a few gallons of standing water.  It could be a lot worse.  Replacing the carpeting with tile, and adding the 6-inch rain gutters was money very well spent.

If you’re not so lucky, you have my sympathy.


  1. You are fortunate. In those summers 15 (?) years back, we helped several friends whose finished basements were hip-deep. The water blocked ANY access to the eastern end of our 'burb, meaning we couldn't return a sleeping-over child to her family for about 3 days.

    We lived on the hochgrund, so we only had a very wet (but not deep) basement.

    1. I'm still thinking I might be able to get some sort of government handout to build that mini-Suez Canal. Perhaps if I can convince the DNR that it could be a navigable waterway.....

    2. Better bet is the Army Corps of Engineers. They LOVE "navigable" waterways, even if they're only "navigable" for 2 hours/year.

  2. The basement of our old house, which boasts ambiguous drainage characteristics, used to be so persistently wet that we considered stocking it with catfish. Like you, we got estimates on what it would take to fix the problem. And, consistent with your experience, discovered it would almost be cheaper to add a story to the house and fill the basement with concrete (though cement might have sufficed).

    Instead, in a fit of DIY, I employed my Armstrong Steam Shovel, which features a No. 2 blade and a wooden handle. I dug a series of knee-deep trenches, ranging from 10 feet to about 30 feet in length. Each leads away from the house (the better to move runoff water away from the foundation) and ends with a deeper, rock-filled hole, maybe 3 feet in diameter, which serve as drywells. To understate the case, it took a lot of digging.

    Into the trenches went some slotted flexible pipes, which I attached to larger downspout leaders. I covered the pipes with several inches of gravel, then backfilled as much of the removed soil as would fit.

    Since then the basement has acquired a carpet which has remained dry through any number of near-biblical rains.

    The French have given us, or lent their national name to, many gifts, from the Statue of Liberty to a method of preparing potatoes to an osculatory technique. With the exception of the efforts of the Marquis de Lafayette and the French navy off modern-day Yorktown in 1781, I think I have derived the most direct benefit from the French drain.

  3. Your ambition is admirable. The results are laudable. I can't imagine taking on such a project.

  4. HK's drywells are the perfect and time-tested and manual labor intensive response.
    (And, as Tim knows, when it's poured, it's cement, when it dries, it is concrete.)
    I took the Tim approach, increasing the size of my gutters and downspouts and moving the water away from the house via buried drainhose AND putting some weird spongy cover over the tops of the gutters to keep the forest debris (and critters) out. Works fine. So far.
    I could write reams on ice dams...

  5. I’m sure that the money was very well spent. For one, you wouldn’t have to worry about leaks and flooding for a while. Hopefully the additional inches of rain gutters could withstand the tons of rainwater for this year. Good luck!

    Gail Wallace @ Emergency Flood Masters