Today we talk about tips on how to manage melting snow and basement water.
Reuben discusses where melted snow goes and how they penetrate through the basement or even the sewers. Tessa mentions that newer houses in Minnesota have a drain tile system then she explains how a sump pump works. They share tips to reduce the potential for water problems without a drain tile.
Reuben shares a story about basement flooding while Tessa shares about a corrugated extension pipe that was used by squirrels to store acorns.
Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Reuben Saltzman: Welcome to my house. Welcome to the Structure Talk Podcast, a production of Structure Tech Home Inspections. My name is Reuben Saltzman, I’m your host, alongside building science geek, Tessa Murry. We help home inspectors up their game through education, and we help homeowners to be better stewards of their houses. We’ve been keeping it real on this podcast since 2019, and we are also the number one home inspection podcast in the world, according to my mom. Alright, good to see you again, Tessa.
Tessa Murry: Hey, good to see you too, Reuben.
RS: So, we were just talking before the show and I thought, let’s just dig right into the show, let’s just hit record and start talking about this on the air a little bit. We’re talking about our morning routines, and everybody’s got their own morning routine and I’ve changed my morning routine significantly since having kids, that made a dramatic shift. But I thought, What is your morning routine, Tess? What do you do?
TM: Well, one thing you said that stands out to me, you said everybody has a morning routine and I… Honestly, I don’t think I ever did have a morning routine.
TM: Yeah, until recently, my morning routine was like set the alarm as late as possible so that I could get as much sleep to the last minute and roll out of bed. I had my morning routine down to getting ready in like 15 minutes, like throw on my clothes, wash my face, brush my teeth, like out the door. And this is like… Yeah, this… I mean, I wouldn’t eat breakfast…
RS: That’s a routine.
TM: No, I mean, it was just like, yeah, sleep into the last possible moment and…
TM: Then go. And it just depended on what time I had to be somewhere when my day started, so it was a different time and all of that. So, it’s kind of like starting my day off, like frazzled, I guess you could say. [chuckle]
TM: And my whole life I’ve had to wake up early for jobs and get somewhere by like 7:00 or 8:00 AM. And I am naturally not a morning person. So, in the last year or so, I have been able to slow down. And since leaving Structure Tech, I’m working part-time and doing a lot of these other things, but I’ve had a lot more space in my days to kind of figure out what works for me. So, my friend had a sewer inspection done through inspection services and she said that they found something that they’ve never seen before and that your dad and a few other people from Structure Tech ended up coming out to the house because of this finding during the sewer inspection to look at it. And what it was was, I guess, a crack in the pipe and water was spraying into the sewer line from below. And they weren’t sure if this was like a problem with the water main, so they called the utility company and the utility company said, no, we think it’s just like ground water that… Because of all the melting snow we’re having, it is… There’s so much water underneath the sewer line, it’s pressuring and it’s just shooting into your sewer line.
RS: Holy cow.
TM: So, I saw the video of it.
RS: I’ve never heard of that before.
TM: Yeah, me neither. I saw the video and the sewer line is just filling up with all of this pretty clean looking clear water coming into it.
RS: Wow. Now Tess, when you were on the team, you know how much I would beg people every week to share photos and videos with me…
RS: You’re telling me about something that you heard about from a friend of yours, yet I can’t get anybody on my team to share this stuff with me. I’m begging them for these videos…
TM: Oh man.
RS: Alright, that was a tantrum. I’m sorry. That’s crazy.
TM: Yeah. This was an inspection with Mike and it just happened and I know Mike is really good about posting content for you.
RS: He is. I’m sure I’ll see it eventually, yes.
TM: I might have jumped the gun telling this story… [chuckle]
RS: [chuckle] But lots of people having basement water problems right now.
TM: Yeah, yes.
RS: Alright, so let’s talk about what you can do. This is not roof water management really. It’s a little bit of that, but it’s surely too late right now, everybody’s stuff has melted already. By the time this podcast airs, we will have had 80 degree weather in Minnesota and the snow will surely all be gone by then. But the ground is still gonna be saturated and people, some pumps are still gonna be going off. So, what do you do to help make sure it’s not coming back into your house? I’d say one of the biggest things to start off with is in the winter time, what a lot of people end up doing with their sump pump… And let me back up, what’s a sump pump? Tess, you wanna explain drains how… How does it work?
TM: Sure. Well, not all houses but a lot of the newer houses, at least here in Minnesota, have a drain tile system. It’s this kinda perforated pipe that runs along the footings of your house around the perimeter of the foundation, and that collects any water from around the foundation underneath the house and takes it, dumps it into this pit, basically, that’s below the slab. And this pit usually has a pump in it, and then that pump pumps the water that it collects from the drain tile out of your house. And it’s really important to have a pump that’s working, and then an extension on this pipe at the exterior to get the water away from your house. If you’re lucky enough to have a house with a system like this… And there are houses that are older that people have added drain tile and sump pump later as a retrofit situation to resolve water intrusion issues in their basement, but a lot of the older houses around here don’t have drain tile in sump baskets and sump pumps.
RS: Yep, yep. And so if you do have that system, it’s important to realize where this water is coming from. This is all water that’s melting into the ground and then it’s finding its way under your house. And it would be water that would come in to your basement, so you wanna pump it out way away from your house. If you have this stubby little pipe that just sticks outta your foundation wall and you pump it right out there, well, you’re just kinda creating a loop. It’s gonna saturate the soil right next to your house, and it’s gonna drain right back down in the exact same system…
TM: [chuckle] Yeah.
RS: And it’s just gonna keep going over and over again. So, it’s really important to take that water, pump it well away from your house, so you wanna have a big long hose on there. However, during the dead of winter, you don’t wanna have this big long hose running along the surface of your house ’cause any water that gets pumped into there, eventually that’s going to freeze and it’s gonna completely block your discharge and you could end up with a flooded basement. The first time your pump actually needs to kick on, pump’s gonna turn on, it’s gonna try to push the water out of that system, and it’s not gonna have anywhere to go. So, something’s gonna give. Either your motor is gonna burn out or it’s gonna separate one of the fittings inside your house, and you’re gonna have a big old mess, the water is not gonna get to the outside. So, people typically disconnect those in the winter time. But now that we got the smell, you definitely should have reconnected it.
RS: And I got a fun little personal story. I’ve got a family friend who had a problem with her house, she was having some flooding in the basement. I went over to check it out, and on the outside of her house at the sump pump discharge, the typical pipe coming out the side of your house is a 1 1/2 inch pipe. And someone had put a bell reducer on that, getting it from 1 1/2 inches down to a garden hose thread. And the difference between 1 1/2 inches and 3/4 inches is not half because if you go back to grade school math to figure out the surface area of a circle it’s… You do pi r squared or something like that and it’s way more. You’re cutting it down to like a fourth of what it should be when you get down to a garden hose size. So, we’re taking all this volume and we’re trying to squeeze it in this tiny little hole but then to top it off, there was a short length of garden hose attached to it and it went away from the house just a few feet and the garden hose was completely frozen, everything in there, and the sump pump had kicked on. As soon as things started melting, it tried to pump water out into this frozen hose, there’s nothing going through there.
RS: So then, the fitting inside the house just disconnected. It had this…
TM: Oh no.
RS: It had a rubber coupler on there and that thing just disconnected. So, I came over, I said, “Yeah, I’ll try to help you fix this,” and reconnected that fitting for her. We turn the pump on and instantly, it disconnects, water everywhere. I mean, it sprayed me, it sprayed the home owner, we got soaked. And now what? Uh-oh, we got a problem at the outside. So then I… I wasn’t dressed for it which is why I don’t check first. But then, traipse through the snow in my tennis shoes to check out what’s going on at the outside. I’m like, oh yeah, this is it. So, ended up disconnecting the garden hose and that was all I could do. I tried unscrewing the bell coupling or the bell reducer but I didn’t have a wrench with me and I couldn’t get it. I said, “Alright, well, we’re good enough for now. At least it’s going out this tiny little hole, it’s going right next to your house… “
RS: “But it’s better than nothing. At least your basement isn’t flooding anymore, so I’ll be back.” And then I come back another time and I bring my wrench with me, I’m like, alright, we’re gonna get this bell reducer off there, put my pipe wrench on there, give a little crank. What do you think happens, Tess?
TM: Does the pipe crack?
RS: The pipe completely came apart inside the wall…
RS: Yes. And I’m like this, could not be any worse.
TM: Yeah. [chuckle]
RS: Yes, yes. And… I don’t know, luckily, I had brought along exactly what I needed to fix it, like I had brought…
TM: Oh my god.
RS: A rubber coupling and I had brought a short length of pipe. It just…
TM: You’re kidding.
RS: I don’t know how it worked out.
TM: Of course you did, of course you did.
RS: Yeah, I just got super lucky like…
TM: Oh my god.
RS: I grabbed my wrench and I just saw this stuff sitting there, I was like, I’ll just grab this just in case, I don’t know why, something tells me to bring it. I was able to get it connected before the sump pump filled their wall with water.
TM: Oh my gosh, wow.
RS: And then we put a corrugated hose on there, it went out about 25 feet into the yard, and that’s perfect.
RS: And that’s all you need for now, so take care of that.
TM: Oh my gosh, good story. I was gonna add to that.
TM: My parents had a sump pump that just discharged right next to the house for a while when they lived in Dubuque, Iowa. And I told them to get an extension on to that. And so, they did and they took this corrugated extension all the way down to kinda to the bottom of the yard at the end of the house. But it turns out that the squirrels started using that hose as a storage place for their acorns. [laughter]
RS: Oh no. Oh no.
TM: So the pump was having problems, my dad’s like, “I don’t know what’s going on here.” So we went out there and we looked and sure enough, there were like 100 acorns stuffed into this corrugated extension pipe that we had to clear out for the water to start flowing again. So then, we put a little bit of… We wrapped the end of the hose in some sort of like… I don’t know, what do you call it? Like a mesh thing to keep the…
RS: Hardware cloth or something…
TM: Yeah, exactly. To keep the rodents out, and that worked as well.
TM: Yeah, check your extensions, make sure they’re away from the house. And sometimes too what can be a nice solution, it takes a little bit more work and a little bit more money, but to actually bury the pipe that takes the water away from the house and have that extension below the ground and then have… How would you describe that Reuben, where it terminates outside of the house and then it dumps water into that?
RS: I think you did a great job of describing it, and it’s gonna terminate at daylight is what a lot of people say. You wanna daylight your termination.
RS: It means you don’t have this ugly corrugated pipe running across your lawn that you gotta mess with every time you mow your lawn and people jumping over it and all that. It’s a nice cosmetic upgrade to dealing with all that way more nuisance. And I totally agree with you, I’ve done that. I have had that at every house I’ve lived in. I had that when I used to live in Minneapolis, I did that just for my downspouts, so I wouldn’t have downspout water dump in into the backyard. I’d have an underground system that took it to the front yard. Did it at my last house and somebody else, the previous owners did it at the house I’m in now, and it’s a great way of doing it and it’s not really that big of a deal. I mean, I did it at my last house when I was in Maple Grove and it took me half a day tops. I mean, it was a matter of just getting a shovel and cutting the sod, just doing one slip in the sod and then folding the sod over about maybe an eight inch path where I fold the sod over and then get a little trenching shovel, dig a trench, lay down that corrugated stuff you’re talking about pretty close to the surface, but it runs down the hill and then it terminates at the lowest point in the hill near some wetland area and then put the dirt back on top of it and then flip the sod back over or flip the grass back over and… I swear, within a week, you could barely see where it was.
RS: It just… It started growing back right away. So, it doesn’t have to be this nasty scar that destroys your yard, it doesn’t need to be super deep. It’s really not that big of a deal to do this.
TM: You can do it with just a shovel. Well, that doesn’t sound too bad. Initially, when you say something’s really easy, it only took me half a day, I think, well, that’s Reuben time. For a normal person, probably a day or two days, maybe even a week. But that sounds doable.
RS: Yeah, yeah. It really wasn’t that big of a deal. And it’s about getting the right shovel, it’s gonna be a really, really long, narrow shovel. It’s like the long nose pliers versions of a shovel.
TM: Yes. Uh-huh. [laughter]
RS: Long and narrow.
TM: Yeah, that’s good.
RS: Good for digging trenches.
TM: What else would you say about… For people that don’t have drain tile, what sort of things can they do to help reduce potential for water problems?
RS: Man, I don’t know. This time of year?
RS: It’s like you’ve already… It’s a little bit too late. I mean, you’ve got all the snow melting around your house.
RS: Once it gets nicer, you can work on grading, making sure that your landscape directs water away from the house. That’s a huge one. But today, I don’t know what you can do, Tess. Here’s one thought…
TM: Get the drains up off the floor. [chuckle]
RS: Yes, yes. Exactly. That’s what I was just gonna say, is if you’ve got unfinished basement areas, don’t store stuff on the floor where it can get wet. And if you’ve got an unfinished basement and you get water coming in your unfinished basement, you don’t need to freak out about it. It’s not really gonna cause any damage unless you’ve got stored stuff that it gets wet.
RS: Water coming through the concrete block, water sitting on your concrete floor, none of these things are gonna damage the house. It’s really not a big deal. I know people’s tendency is to freak out about it, but you’ll be fine. It’s only a problem when you get your stuff wet or you’ve got finished spaces, you get wet carpet, wet walls, that’s a thing. I’d be concerned about that.
TM: Yeah, ’cause it’s mold and all those things that go along with it. But that’s a really good point, Reuben. I grew up in a house in Wisconsin that was built kind of on a hill. And every spring, snow would melt and drain towards the house. And we would get pretty significant water intrusion through the basement. And I remember it was like, okay, everybody get your mop and we’d head down and there would be like a stream going through the basement. And luckily, it was unfinished but it was still… It was a lot of work to mop up all the water, but the good news was exactly that, it was unfinished and we would just mop it up and let it dry, and then it was fine.
TM: But nothing we could do. We had gutters, we had good extensions on, we tried sealing all the cracks and gaps in the driveway and everything that could allow water to come in, but it was just… It was clay soil, it was where the house was located on the hill, it was the way the water came down towards it that there was nothing we could do.
RS: Yeah, yeah. And it’s not the end of the world as long as it doesn’t stay wet. The only concern, I think, we’d have there is if a wall stays wet for a really long time, eventually you’re gonna get mold growing on it just from dust in the air. I mean mold won’t go on concrete itself, but it’ll grow on dust and dirt that’s on the concrete. So, eventually you can get some mold growing, but it’s not a big deal to clean that up either.
TM: Right. Because it’s unfinished, you can clean it.
RS: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So keep it clean, deal with the water when it does come in.
RS: And if you’ve got a sump system, make sure it’s discharging well away from your house. And I know we’ve probably covered this, it feels like a half a dozen times on this podcast, but we gotta bring it up again. Make sure your sump pump is working, test it out periodically. If you don’t hear it discharging frequently, go in there, lift the float, make sure it kicks on and look into a backup system. If you know that you have an active sump pump, you need to have some type of contingency plan. Maybe it’s a simple $10 alarm, you can buy these alarms at Home Depot where it just… You got a couple of wires that sit in your sump basket, you do it somewhere close to the top of the sump basket. And if the wires touch water, an alarm goes off. Just lets you know your pump failed. If you wanna go fancier, you can install a backup pump where you have a secondary pump powered by a battery that’s gonna be installed higher in your sump basket, so if your primary pump fails, you’ve got something else that’s gonna pump the water out. That’s an even better option.
TM: Yeah. And that might be… Like you said, that’s something to think about if your sump pump is going off a lot in your house. And we’ve come across that frequently in the Twin Cities area especially in certain neighborhoods where the water table is higher where I’ve been in an inspection when the sump pump goes off like every 30 minutes, you can hear it kick on. If your sump pump fails, you’re in a lot of trouble. So, definitely think about getting a backup pump.
RS: Yep, think about that. And at a minimum, get an alarm…
RS: Just so you know about it.
TM: So you can go down and panic and watch all the water flood your basement. [laughter]
RS: You can at least do something. Yeah, yeah, exactly.
TM: Man, what would you do if that happened and you don’t have a secondary pump backup and the water alarm goes off, like what would you do Reuben? WWRD, what would Reuben do?
RS: Well, personally, I have a little device that connects to a drill, it’s like this little drill pump where you can connect a garden hose to either side of it, it’s like a $10 device, maybe 20. And you stick a garden hose on one side a garden hose on the other, and you hook up your power drill to it and you pull the trigger and it pumps water through the hoses. So… I mean, I would start with that and I would pump water out of my sump pump into the floor drain. Now technically, technically, you’re not supposed to take rain water and put it into your municipal sewer system, but emergency like this, I’m putting it in my floor drain.
RS: I’m doing that. And I would pump all the water down as low as it needs to go, and then I would grab my wife or one of the kids, I’d say, you hang out here, as needed, pull the trigger on this drill and pump the water out. I’m going to the store to get a new sump pump and…
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: I ended up having to change my pump out last year, I think I talked about it on this podcast, remember I was doing a mock inspection on my house and I went to demonstrate on video how to test a sump pump and my pump just buzzed. By just a freak occurrence, I determined had a bad sump pump…
TM: Oh funny.
RS: Doing a test inspection on my own house, so I ended up replacing it. And really, it’s not a big deal to replace a sump pump, this is like…
TM: How much does it cost?
RS: This is a 15, 20-minute project. I bought a good one, I probably spent 200 bucks on it…
RS: Bought a higher end one that I didn’t want to fail, so it’s not a big deal.
TM: Yeah. And how long will that last for?
RS: I think it may have come with a five-year warranty, maybe three years, I don’t remember.
TM: Okay, okay.
RS: I don’t remember.
TM: A few years…
RS: Yeah, I might be confusing it with my garbage disposal. I just recently replaced that too.
TM: [laughter] Well, the main thing is a pump isn’t supposed to last for 10 or 15 years, is it?
RS: I don’t know, Tess. I don’t think so. I mean, I think a big thing is how often it runs.
RS: I think that’s a big determinant of the life is how often does it kick on and off?
TM: Yeah, yep. And the more it runs, the faster it wears out. That’s an amazing emergency plan that you have. How many people have one of those little pumps that’s powered by a hand drill? That’s pretty cool. [laughter]
RS: Nobody, nobody.
TM: I know.
RS: But it’s a cheap little device and I’ll tell you, if I didn’t have one of those, then I would be going to the store. My family, their plan would be, here’s a large pitcher, dunk this in there and scoop water out…
TM: Bail it out.
RS: Pitcher by pitcher. Y’all have fun, I’ll be at the store. [laughter] Yep.
TM: Classic, classic.
RS: Yep, yep.
RS: That would do it.
TM: Hopefully, those are some helpful tips for people and hopefully…
RS: I hope so.
TM: There is some practicality in some of our stories there for people that are dealing with water in their basements this spring.
RS: Yeah, and if we missed anything, please write into the show as always. You can always email us email@example.com. We love to hear your comments.
TM: Yeah. We’d love to hear from you.
RS: Alright, Tess, as always, great to see you, good show. Hope this will help a few people with some basement water problems.
TM: Agreed. Thanks for listening, everybody. We’ll catch you next time.