Friday, April 20, 2007

Sump Pump in Cellar Running Trash Pump in Old House Battery-Powered Sump Pump Backup: A Public Service

Because the most prevalent search hit on this blog comes from people with flooded basements looking for sump pumps or how to use them, I will consolidate my very limited experience in one post. Pump up your lumbar support, Googlers: it’s going to be a long, swampy read. And for you regular readers, here’s something else for your Friday.

Disclaimer: I am not a plumber, hydrologist, engineer, sump pump manufacturer or other sump-pump-savvy professional. My entire experience with sump pumps stems from a recent move to a hillside home with a cellar that intersects the water table when it rises as a result of heavy rain.

I was raised below sea level. At the age of ten, my parents built a small bedroom for me in the basement of our Long Island home, about five miles from the beach. And for eight years (and for a couple of years after college while I was a "failed adult") it was my retreat, my clubhouse, my den.

That room flooded once to my recollection, when the nor’easter of 93 blew in and pushed a couple of inches of rain against the window, which leaked. We got about an inch of water on the floor.

Today I live about 65 miles from the sea, about 900 feet above sea level, and my house — built around 1900 or 1915, depending what documents you read — has a stone foundation and a cellar that fills up with water when it rains really hard. And which gets some small amount of water any time it rains for more than a couple of hours.

In the bottom of that cellar is a pit, and lining that pit is a plastic bucket with perforations in the bottom and two four-inch holes in the sides near the top. Projecting slightly through these holes are the ends of two four-inch corrugated tubes. These tubes are part of the Be-Dri system installed by the previous owners; it consists of a trench dug around the interior perimeter of the cellar, against the foundation, about ten inches deep. The perforated, corrugated tubes are laid into the trench, canted downward so that flow will be in the direction of the sump bucket. A waffly plastic membrane is installed vertically on the inside wall of the trench, the top angled toward the foundation. The purpose of this membrane is to block water flowing in under the foundation, causing it to drop down into the tubes, where it can be safely channeled around to the bucket.

And in the bucket sits a Rigid Zoeller sump pump. Model unknown. It’s green. A power cord leads up from its top to an outlet on one of the joists at the ceiling. The pump has a float on a metal arm that activates the pump when it’s raised. So water flows in and rises until it’s high enough to float the plastic bulb on the end of the arm. That turns on the pump, the water is sucked up by the pump’s impeller and channeled into a 1 3/4-inch PVC pipe that leads along the floor, then up, through a small channel near the top of the foundation, and out to the downhill side of the house. When the pump has removed enough water for the float to drop, it shuts off. Once outside, the pumped water is further diverted into some flexible corrugated 1 3/4-inch tubing, across the yard to a spot beside the driveway, so that it will run down the asphalt instead of pooling in the yard and seeping into my downhill neighbor’s living room. I attach this unsightly tubing when it rains and take it away after the water stops flowing. Usually, this system works pretty well.

Here are some things that can go wrong:

1. The power can go out during or after a storm. In such a case, the pump will stop working. This is because it uses electricity.

2. The pump can trip a circuit. Apparently as these pumps age, or when they attempt to start up under load (meaning that there is already water in the pipes above and below the pump), they might suddenly draw enough power to trip a 15 amp circuit. In such a case, the pump will stop working. This is because it uses electricity.

Note: Water flowing downhill does not require electricity, and its performance will be unaffected by the loss of electrical power to the sump pump. When we first moved in, we lost power about six times in three weeks. It happened once just after a storm, and we got a few inches of water in the cellar. So I bought a generator (having been told over the closing table by the previous owner that it was a good idea — he had, in fact, wired the house for generator power, which was billed as a selling point by our realtor, heh).

3. An unholy deluge visited upon the sinful population of the northeast by a petulant, vengeful God can completely overwhelm puny human measures against the flow of water. This is an interesting wrinkle in the whole system, really. On Sunday it rained here more than it had in quite some time. Water sheds down from the adjacent town land into our yard and seeps into the soil on the uphill side of the house. Seven feet down it hits rock, then seeps downhill along the subterranean slope to find our cellar. The Be-Dri system only works to a point (although guaranteed by the manufacturer for the life of the home – so we’ll have to find that paperwork). This particular Sunday, water was eventually flowing into the cellar from new holes in the foundation about a foot off the floor – it was almost like nature was taking a leak into my house! — as well as a hearty bathtub-spigot-like flow from a spot at the foot of the outside cellar stairs which hits a grate that feeds into the Be-Dri trench. And you could hear it chuckling and burbling along all around the perimeter of the cellar, hitting the membrane, etc. Our pump was operating continuously, until it tripped the circuit (see #2), which was when we were alerted by the FloodAlert sensor, which beeps loudly when it gets wet. Hearing it meant that the water was about an inch deep on the cellar floor. I ran down, reset the circuit, and the pump started up again, but it was clearly a losing battle. There was too much water, and it wasn’t long before it filled the bucket and started flowing in over the top of the membrane. As it rose we called the fire department, who came quickly with a large portable plug-in pump attached to a wide-gauge hose that brought the level down. They kindly left it, and gave me instructions to turn it off whenever it removed all the water, and to turn it back on when necessary.

3a. Even the professionals’ equipment can be insufficient. As the storm progressed through Sunday, the fire department’s pump began to be overwhelmed as well. By night, the water had risen to more than a foot.

3b. Supplemental machinery may fail. The fire department was very busy that night, and couldn’t return with a more high-powered pump to clear the water. We called a selfless, can-do colleague of my wife’s who lives a half hour away. He came with a gas-powered pump that hadn’t seen use in some time, and he and a selfless can-do neighbor of mine (He Whose Cellar is on the Other Side of the Bedrock Ridge that Channels the Water Into My Cellar and Who Thus Does Not Endure Flooding) coaxed it into operation. This was time-consuming. While the motor eventually started and the rusty impeller turned, the system as a whole drew no water. Depth: about 2 feet. I turned off the furnace, we packed our cat and kids, and went to a friend’s house.

3c. Plugs fall out, guv’nor. Fings…’appen. Next morning the level was down – the storm had abated somewhat and the fire department’s pump had managed to keep up overnight. Now they returned with a powerful gas-powered model that drew out the remaining water in about four minutes and jetted it down the driveway. I spent the day at home turning their other pump on and off as necessary and resetting the fuse a couple of times when it tripped. I also purchased another pump at Home Depot – a 1/2hp Flotec with 72 feet of tubing. Convinced that the furnace was dead, we prepared for another night at our friends’ house. Once there, I checked with my neighbor, who said that the level was up again. Hurrying home, I found that the plug for the fire department’s pump had fallen out. Depth: 2 feet. Plugged in, the pump started to work again. My neighbor convinced me to try the furnace. It worked. I stayed, waking up three or four times in the night to make sure the three pumps were keeping up in various combinations. The town issued an advisory to boil all drinking water for two minutes.

Once those things had all gone wrong, we were okay. By Tuesday morning our smaller machines were sufficient to keep ahead of flow, so I shut off the fire department’s pump. I worked from home, and by evening our original installed pump was handling the water on its own (as it still is today, three days later).

What did not go wrong, but could have:

1) The power could have gone out. Sure, I have a generator and a hookup, but it would have meant adding one more machine to the mix, plus gasoline, and running it for hours and hours, which, who needs? Cheers to the power company.

2) The rain could have lasted longer. Of course, had the rain lasted longer on Sunday, the water would have continued to rise. I assumed we were coming home Monday morning to a house with a full cellar and no furnace, water heater, or electric panel, and possibly destroyed flooring on the ground floor. Fortunately, no.

3) The fire department could have been out of pumps, or less competent. They were very busy for two days, running all over town helping people in as-bad or worse situations. It was surprising that they had any pumps at all. The volunteers are getting a donation.

Next Steps
1) Tuesday afternoon I took a walk from my cellar up into the backyard, following the track of the water that had rushed onto the property, eroded a pit behind a retaining wall and then seeped into the ground to run up against the foundation. My neighbors have assured me that the problem got worse a few years back when the town paved over some of the adjacent parkland. I had no trouble following the path – there was still a light flow in some spots and swamps and puddles in others. It made a pretty clear waterway down into our yard. I’m trying to figure out the friendliest way to start them thinking about extending their drainage system to catch this significant waterway.

2) We’ve called an engineering company to advise on our own drainage system. There must be a way to send water around our foundation — although I suspect it will involve digging around the outside of the foundation and installing the equivalent of the Be-Dri system. I want something better.

3) We’re considering some kind of expansion to include an upstairs utility room. We could store boating and swimming equipment in the cellar and worry less.

Finally, if You’re Not Sure Whether You Have Flood Insurance, You Do Not Have Flood Insurance
Regular homeowner’s policies don’t include flood coverage (my blithe claims during the storm to the contrary), but the government has a program requiring companies to provide paid additional coverage for participating communities. Call the National Flood Insurance Program at 1 (800) 638-6620 to find out more.

I did. I’m gettin’ me some of that.

If anyone’s still reading, I hope this helps, and best of luck with your aquatic situation. Hey, at least you have Internet access!

1 comment:

wcs said...

I enjoyed this one - but not at your expense.

One very nice house we looked at : the owner told us that the last time the river rose, the water "only came up to here" [holding hand, palm down, just below the burner on the furnace]. We passed on that house and bought one at the top of a hill.

I kid you not : the word verification for this comment was "jequnk," the sound I imagine a sump pump makes at the precise moment when the electricity quits...