In Episode 2 of our podcast, Reuben, Tessa, and Bill discuss ways of keeping water out of basements. It all starts with exterior water management; roof lines, gutters, downspouts, downspout extensions, and drainage and grading. When everything has been done at the outside of the home but there are still problems, drain tile and a sump system can be added. We discuss how these systems can work, and what typically goes wrong with them. We also discuss recommended backup options, which was blogged about here: Backup Sump Pumps.
Tessa also mentions one of the most disturbing things that she has found in a sump basket, which was a doll floating face-down, covered in bugs.
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: You ask any home buyer, “What are you concerned about with this house?” And top five answers, maybe the number one answer is gonna be, “Is there water in my basement?” Everybody wants to know about water coming into their basement, especially if you’ve got a finished basement, home buyers want to know about this.
Bill Oelrich: It’s summer time in the upper Midwest, and it’s also the rainy season. We wanna talk about all the different things that homeowners need to be aware of to keep water out of the inside of their basements. Reuben, I’m gonna throw it over to you. From an home inspection perspective, what are you looking for to make sure that people are managing the water that’s coming off of their roof?
RS: Bill, that is a great question, and I’d say that’s probably the first thing we look at as home inspectors when we pull up to a home. We’re driving up slowly, it’s that creeper thing my wife hates. She’s like, “Reuben, quit driving so slowly. You look like a creeper.” ‘Cause that’s how I pull up to all my home inspections, I go slowly, [chuckle] ’cause I’m looking at the roof and I’m looking at all those roof angles thinking about where water comes off the roof. If you got these big valleys and all the water gets concentrated right to the front door, which it always is, right?
Tessa Murry: Always.
RS: Oh my gosh, houses built in the last 20 years or so, that’s the only way they do it. You take all of the front of the house, you make all these valleys and you deposit it right to the front door.
TM: And we’re not joking, seriously. Drive through a newer neighborhood and look at the roof lines, and look at where all that water drains to. My parents actually bought a town home a few years ago, about five years ago, and it was a double hip roof. And so at the front of that house, the left portion jutted out, and the right portion also has a jut out over the garage, and both sections of that roof drain right to the middle. And guess what’s in the middle? Their front door.
RS: Of course.
TM: So every time they have to go through a rainfall to get to their front door when it’s raining.
RS: Alright, sorry, that was a really long answer, Bill. What were you asking? No, just kidding. So that’s what we looking at, the first thing is, where does all the water come off the roof? And then from there, how does it get away from the house? We wanna make sure that, well, either the ground slopes away, or in a perfect world, you’re gonna have gutters and downspouts and downspout extensions.
TM: Extension’s keyword.
RS: Yes, yes. I said this so many times, having short downspout extensions is gonna be worse than no gutters at all, ’cause if you got no gutters, the water gets dispersed evenly along the edge of your house. But if you’ve got short downspout extensions, it concentrates all that water right to a corner, right to one area. That’s always where water comes in.
BO: I think for me, I live in the city, and I’ve got about six feet of land in between my house and my neighbor’s house, and all of us in the neighborhood are flat. There’s nowhere for this water to go, and I’ve sloped it whatever, three feet towards the center lot line. What am I supposed to do in this situation?
TM: Well, there’s a couple of different options if your neighbor’s really close to you. One thing you could do is create a swale, right?
TM: A swale is a little ditch between your property and your neighbor’s property. And you can get that slope away from your house and drain that water into this swale that can then take the water away from your foundation.
RS: Yeah, either to the front door or the backyard, either one.
RS: The other one, and this is usually… I tell people on the back side of a hill, is to have exterior drain tile, basically. Some people call it a French drain, it’s not quite an accurate term, but it’s corrugated, perforated plastic piping buried right below the surface of the ground, and it wraps around the house. So water cascading down the hill is gonna fall down into this piping, and then it gets distributed around the sides of your house, and deposited out in the front yard somewhere. That’s a really good way of dealing with it, and it’s not that difficult to put that stuff in, either.
TM: So do you have to worry about that type of drain getting clogged? How do you maintain it?
RS: Yeah, it certainly can get clogged, it depends on what you put on top of it. Ideally, when it gets installed… Now, we’re getting into design here, but ideally when it gets installed, you put a sock around this stuff, they even sell these socks, you can get big thick socks that are the same width of the drain tile, and it’s got foam beads in there to help it from getting clogged. Another way is to just fill in that ditch with class five rock. That means you’ve got big chunks mixed in with little chunks, and then over the top of that, you have a lot more rock. If you just use dirt, especially if you’ve got really tightly packed dirt like clay, that’s gonna clog the stuff up for sure. So you wanna fill it in with something else that’s a lot more porous like sand. And don’t try to grow grass over the top of it, it’s not going to work. You need to incorporate this into your land…
BO: There’s just not enough material there.
RS: It’s not porous enough, it’s gonna clog the drain tile.
BO: So we’re managing the exterior fine, but I’m still seeing water seeping in. Now what?
TM: Well, if you have done everything you can do on the exterior, you’ve added the gutters, you’ve maintained them, you’ve got proper downspout extensions, good grading, you’re still having these issues with water intrusion, well, the next step is to remove that water once it gets into the house. If you’ve done all these things on the outside and you still have a wet basement, you can add drain tile and a sump basket with a pump in it that will pump that water out of your basement. And how does that work? Well, you’ll have a company come, they will chop up the floor, the concrete floor in your basement around the perimeter of the foundation.
RS: How far in?
TM: Where the footing is, typically 6 to 12 inches into the floor, and lay this perforated, corrugated pipe around the perimeter of your foundation. And that pipe will collect the water that comes in and drain it into a basket. And then there’s a pump that’s installed in that basket that will pump that water out of the house into the yard.
BO: So it’s just a revolving door, comes in, pump it out, comes back in, pump it out.
RS: Yeah, and then if you have a short discharge on that pipe going out, you really have a revolving door, and it’ll pump right next to the house and then it’ll leak right back in and you have a continual circle there. But yeah, that’s kind of your last-ditch effort. If you’ve already tried doing everything on the outside of the house to get rid of water and you still have it, and there’s a lot of homes where that is a situation, high water tables, different types of soils, you can end up with that. And the drain tile is the last-ditch effort, and it’s just about a guarantee that you’re not gonna have a wet basement. Not a 100% guarantee, but it’s about as close as you’re gonna get.
BO: Thanks, Reuben, for that explanation. Now that we’ve got the system in, we’re managing the water. We can feel great about this. We can go on vacation and never worry again, right?
RS: Well, yeah, that’d be great if the sump pumps lasted forever.
BO: They don’t?
RS: I always joke that it’s not, if your sump pump is going to fail, it’s when. They all fail at some point, they have a finite life. And the first point of failure that just about everybody’s gonna experience is your power going out. When is the power most likely to go out? It’s when you got a big storm, and when do you most need your sump pump? During that big storm. So power goes out, what do you do now? Do you get the family down there and start getting buckets and bucket it out? I’ve talked to people who’ve done that before. Or maybe even better is you have a backup system installed, and that’s what I recommend. Any time I do a home inspection and I find a sump system and it’s active and my definition of active is there’s water in the sump basket, it’s not bone dry. If there’s an active system, I recommend putting in a backup system.
BO: Is this a whole second pump or what’s the back-up?
RS: Yes, it is. On the very low end of protection, you could just put an alarm in. You can get a little $8 alarm and it sounds off if the water level gets too high, and then it lets you know that you can start getting buckets and bucket the water out. [chuckle] It’s better than nothing. Other ways of dealing with it, you could install… Probably the best way of dealing with this is to install a back-up sump pump, and it’s a secondary pump. It’s a smaller pump, it operates on a 12-volt battery, essentially a car battery. It’s gonna be a deep cycle battery that gets installed outside the sump basket and it has its own float. And if the water level gets high enough, whether because your primary pump failed, or the power went out, or the flow got stuck, whatever the reason is, if the water gets too high, the secondary pump kicks on, and it starts pumping the water out. So it’s a nice backup to put in, and they’re not that expensive. The whole system itself, less than $500 at a home improvement store. And if you’re a fairly confident DIY-er, you could put one of these systems in. There’s some great videos on YouTube showing exactly how it’s done. If you want to hire a plumber, plan on spending another $500 to $700 to have them put it in for you.
BO: It sounds like a bilge pump on my boat.
RS: Sounds about right. I’m not up on boats and bilge pumps, but…
BO: It’s a little pump hooked to a 12-volt battery that pumps water out, that gets in. So a very simple system.
RS: Yeah, yeah. That’s about right.
BO: Okay, what else can go wrong?
TM: Well, a lot of times, we’ll find sump baskets that either don’t have a lid or there’s a cover, but it’s just loose. And you can see right into the pump, and so you need to make sure that that lid is supposed to be screwed down, right, Reuben? And it should also be air tight because you don’t want that moisture from the sump basket evaporating and coming back into the house.
RS: Radon gases.
TM: Exactly, and you also don’t want radon coming back up into the house from the sump basket, so that lid should be screwed down and air tight. And I’d say most of them probably aren’t, right?
RS: Yeah, yeah, that sounds about right. And then what happens if it’s just loose? What if it’s mostly air tight and it’s just kind of there? What’s the big concern, Tess?
TM: You could have someone fall into it or a small child. What I tend to find is objects floating in sump baskets.
RS: What have you found?
TM: Probably the creepiest thing I’ve ever found at a home inspection was in a crawl space, and in the far corner of this crawl space, was a sump basket. And the lid was loose on that, and so I was able to just pop that off and look inside and floating in about 10 inches of water was this mouldy baby doll laying face down in the water. [chuckle]
RS: Oh, I remember that, Tess. That was one of our top photos of the year, I think. That made our top 20 list, and I save all those top 20 things on our website. If you go to the gallery section, go to structuretech1.com, and you go to galleries, and you go to inspection defects. I have that photo here, of that baby doll floating in the sump basket. I don’t know, if you don’t wanna sleep tonight.
TM: It was a pretty disturbing image and it really freaked out the buyer that was with me that day.
BO: Wow. Reuben, have you ever blogged about this topic? Have you blogged about how to set up that secondary pump just in case people wanna refer back to instructions?
RS: I don’t have a YouTube video that I created showing step-by-step how to install it, but I do discuss it. I talk about some different brands. I think Watchdog is probably the one that we’re most familiar with, they seem to have about 90% of them out there. I’ll tell you, it doesn’t have to be a battery-powered pump. You can actually get a water-powered pump. And I had installed one of those in my last home, where it uses the municipal water pressure to power the pump. And so they’re not very efficient, for every one gallon of water that runs through the pump from your municipal water supply, it might remove half a gallon from your sump basket, but they do work, and you never have to worry about a battery or anything else as long as you got water coming into your home. It’s a decent option, they’re just slow. And if you’re on a well, it means that you’re relying on power to operate your well pump. These just aren’t an option. You need to be on municipal water supply to install a water-powered pump, but it’s an option.
BO: Alright, so we’ve got the water being drained to the sump basket. Now, we’re maintaining the basket properly, it’s going to the exterior. Is there anything else you need to be aware of during the seasons that might cause a problem for you?
RS: Well, you say that the water is gonna go to the exterior. I guess that’s the last part of this is, what do you do with that water once it gets to the outside? We find a couple of different problems. Number one is, what do you do with that discharge pipe? Do you run it right next to your home so it short circuits and comes back? Or do you have a nice long one and run it out into the yard? That’s certainly what you want. But then, what does that pipe look like? You can buy these corrugated pipes for 10 bucks for a 25-foot pipe, and you run it way out into the yard. And that’s wonderful, but what do you do every time you mow the lawn? You gotta move it, do you put it back, and then what happens in the winter time? Now, that’s a huge one. And there’s this idea that some pumps don’t run in the winter and they mostly don’t run in the winter, but it’s only mostly. They still will run periodically. And I experienced that myself.
TM: What happened?
RS: I came downstairs, first thing in the morning, 5:00 AM or whenever, I came down, I go sit at my computer, and I hear this buzzing noise, just this whirring noise on the other side of the basement, I didn’t pay any attention to it. But after about a half hour of sitting down there, I started worrying, “What the heck is that noise?” And I started waking up, I go in the basement and check it out, and it’s my sump pump. It had been running all night, I suspect.
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: Non-stop, trying to pump water out of my sump basket, but I’ve got one of those corrugated pipes on the outside of my home. It’s the dead of winter, it’s filled with ice, and the water is not going anywhere. So the pump never shut off. So I don’t know how many years it took off the life of my sump pump. I did end up having to replace by sump pump before I sold that house, it did run out. And the fix there is, don’t have a corrugated pipe on the outside of your house in the dead of winter. If you got a corrugated pipe, you need to disconnect it in the fall. That’s an important fall maintenance thing.
TM: And if you have pesky squirrels or chipmunks around, maybe you should also think about putting something on the end of that corrugated pipe so they don’t store all of their acorns in there, too, right?
RS: Oh yeah, good idea, absolutely.
TM: That actually happened to my parents.
RS: Are you serious?
TM: The pump wasn’t working and it was full of hundreds of acorns. [chuckle]
RS: Oh my gosh, that’s awesome. It’d be cool to see it once a pump actually kicks on, it just blows them all out of there, right?
TM: I wish, but that pipe was so long and that pump was not strong enough.
RS: Oh. It just…
TM: Those chipmunks won.
RS: Clogged it, okay.
BO: Alright, so that’s the simple fix. You can manage the water at the exterior. If it happens to leak in, make sure you’ve got a system to manage it and get it out where it belongs. And then if you’re in a cold climate like we are, make sure you have the right kind of material so that doesn’t get frozen or backup or any other sorts of problems that had happened. Reuben, I’m sure this is something that has been addressed on the blog. Can you tell everybody how to find all these great pearls and tips for home ownership?
RS: Well, you can find the blog, that’s really where all the information is. If you do a Google search for a “home inspection blog”, it should be the first thing that comes up. If you wanna be really sure, you could type in “Structure Tech Blog”. Our website is structuretech1.com.
BO: Awesome, great. Clearly, it’s important that anybody in a real estate transaction consider a home inspection. It’s super important that you find a qualified home inspection expert to come out and do a thorough evaluation of the real estate you’re considering. Thanks for joining us, we’ll catch you next time.
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