Tip for Monday

16 01 2012

This post could also easily be titled, Dear Crawl Space: I hate you.

In case you didn’t know.

This afternoon, I headed out to the happiest place on earth, in my book…Michaels.  My parents had given me a gift card there for my birthday (wahoo!), and I had plans to spend it! So after getting some crafty things and stopping at Staples for a new little shredder (the perfect companion for my NeatDesk!), I headed home.

And smelled a weird smell.

At first, I thought it was one of the dogs.  We’ve had a lot of gross things going on with the dogs lately (which I won’t go into for you sanity), so I thought the smell involved them.  But then when I went to turn the heat up because I was a little chilly, I realized that although the thermostat said the furnace was on, the temperature was only 67 degrees. And I keep it at 70.


The furnace has, admittedly, been a wee bit noisy lately, and I was kicking myself for not getting it serviced as I’d originally planned to do in August (tip #1 for you – service your furnace. Apparently, it’s a good idea to do this yearly. I have done this never – learn from me).  I took a little look-see in the hated crawl space, you know, the most logical place for a furnace when you live on land that floods even if the clouds are *thinking* about rain.

It didn’t smell and the furnace looked the same to me – I’m no expert – so I headed back inside and shut the system off to give it a minute.  I tried turning it back on and nothing. Nada. Fabulous.

My mom suggested I get in touch with the heating people tonight so that I could at least get on their list for tomorrow. I knew that my neighbors had really liked the guy who relocated their furnace to the shed (possible in my house only if they jackhammer the concrete floor…and I have a spare $5000).  So I called over there to get his name and number (I know I have it somewhere, but can’t remember where – tip #2 – I’m now putting his number in my phone under “Furnace”). They told me to head on over where we talked about a couple of possibilities and I got the information, and my neighbor (the neighbor who spirited me to the ER about a month ago) came over to see if perhaps it was an issue with the thermostat.

It wasn’t.

I called the furnace guy and his wife said he’d be over within the hour – SWEET. So I quick opened up the crawl space, turned the light on, and threw the dogs upstairs with a bone and the ID channel.

The furnace guy is so nice, and I knew he’d be fair.  That didn’t mean I didn’t pray and stand outside the crawl space with my fingers crossed as he was working under there. It turns out that the fan assembly that pushes the flue gases out was “red-hot” as the furnace guy said, and kaput.  It was all rusted (thank you water in the crawl space), and rather than turning, it was shaking back and forth.  When that isn’t working, the rest of the furnace won’t even come on – a safety feature, I’m assuming, to keep the gases from backing up into the house (which I appreciate, and also explains the smell). So he shut the whole thing down (to keep the fan from possibly catching fire – that was the other reason I looked under the house pretty much right away) and he’ll be able to come tomorrow to replace the part.


It’s not exactly inexpensive (the part is the most expensive one to replace on the entire furnace, of course), but it’s FAR less expensive than replacing the whole thing. So that’s the good news.

And I remembered when I was out there that I have a space heater that my dad got me the last time my furnace went awry. Wahoo.

Since it’s not too terribly cold inside yet (note I said “yet” – it’s going to be bitter outside tonight), I stuck the heater in my bedroom with the door closed to get it all snuggly warm for me and the boys tonight. We’ll get all bundled up and hope for the best, and tomorrow, keep our fingers crossed that the furnace guy can get here first thing!

Never a dull moment, right?

Also, on an unrelated note, I took a blogging hiatus yesterday as a moment of silence, so to speak, because a dear friend lost her mom early yesterday morning. It’s a very tough time for her, particularly since she spent SO much time with her mom in the hospital over the last year, so please send good thoughts to her.


An Update On My Sump Pump

16 12 2009
So much has been going on in the last couple of months that it’s been hard for me to find the time to post!  So I’ll have lots of updates this month on what I’ve been up to.

As you know, my sump pump and crawl space flooding have been a neverending saga.  In August, we thought we’d finally found the solution by installing my sump pump in a plastic garbage can with strategic holes, deep in a hole in my sandy crawl space.  The fall and winter are always the worst times for storms here at the beach, so I thought I was set for the season.  But then, this happened:

The garbage can with my sump pump was crushed by sand

Because of this:


Flooding water. Everywhere.

It's over the bottom of the drainpipe. That's a good four/five inches of water next to the foundation.


The yard is pretty mushy after all this water

We decided the plastic garbage can didn’t work so well after all.  The sump pump was still working, but because the can had been crushed, the space for flooding was smaller so the pump was running constantly.  Good way to burn out the motor.

Our next plan was to use a metal garbage can, still with some holes, but this time also with two by fours screwed inside to help the can keep its shape in case of crushing sand.  “Perfect!” we thought. 

Then, this happened:

Oops. Tipped over.

You can't even see the top of the pump because the water is so deep. I really hate this crawl space.

My poor heater was again in danger!

The can kept it’s shape, but became too buoyant in the water that it ended up just floating away and not draining the water.  For a few weeks, I left the pump sitting on a small piece of tile on its own in the crawl space, just to keep up with whatever water came.  Then, we came up with a new solution – drilling holes lower in the garbage can to allow water to flow in at an earlier point and weight the can down to keep it from floating away.  Additionally, my dad secured two two-by-fours to the can and the floor joists above, which keeps it snug in place.

Last week, we were pounded by yet another storm which caused some of the worst flooding I’ve seen in my yard yet (I still have to figure out better drainage for the yard, but that will wait until next year). 

This is what I was greeted with about 7am

Wow water!

One corner of the yard...

Another corner...

And another corner - the deepest water is of course by the house!

Always fighting mildew here - gotta scrub my shed again!

Waves of water were starting to come up towards the house

Pretty deep over the boots that day, and I sank into the ground everywhere I walked.

But the pump was working! Look at it go!

And water then flooded my driveway, then froze two days later. So now will have to come up with a solution for that too!

When I checked the crawl space, the pump was running and everything was in place.  Unfortunately, there was SO much water that it was just about kissing the bottom of my furnace (who puts a furnace under a house in a place with a high water table?!?).  Fortunately, the rain stopped just as it was getting to critical mass and the pump finally caught up.  It was pumping water out for days and after another storm this past Sunday continues to do the same.  But I’m confident that it’s staying in place and doing it’s job for a change, which is a big relief!  Of course, it’s only mid-December, so we have a ways to go with flooding and storms – now that the ground will be more frozen, the water has nowhere to seep into.  But I console myself with knowing more about sump pumps now than I did a year ago, and being able to solve whatever (hopefully) comes up!

Putting in a Sump and Sump Pump in a Sandy Crawl Space

25 08 2009

Finally, after all of the headaches I’ve had with crawl space flooding and my sump pumps, this past Wednesday was time to permanently install my sump pump.  For me, this was a two-person job, so I was lucky to have help from my parents.

The existing sump pump (the failed one of December storm fame) was sitting in its sump (which is basically a plastic basin that situates the pump at a lower level to help manage surface water).  The sump in my crawl space was to the left of the opening and very small and shallow (yes, I now know what it looks like and where it is!).  As a result, it didn’t handle the water seeping in from underground (particularly from my yard) until flooding was already an issue.  Plus, it was flush in some places and lower than the surrounding sand in other places, which didn’t keep sand and debris out of the sump and protect the pump.  All possible reasons for failure, along with the motor simply burning out.

Because the sump didn’t seem sufficient, and my dad suggested I’d want the pump in a more accessible place because of my general stress over flooding and sump pump failure, we decided to entirely replace the sump and to relocate it to just inside the crawl space (which, now that I’m thinking about it, will be awesome for whenever I need to get the heater serviced).  After choosing the spot to locate the sump, we put together a list of what we’d need – large plastic garbage can (to act as the sump, more on that later), 2-inch arbored hole saw drill bit for cutting holes, weed control fabric, something to tie the fabric to the garbage can, and a small-handled shovel.  This might all sound a bit strange, but all will be revealed. I should also mention at this point that This Old House has a great demo video and instructions for installing a sump pump in a basement, the professional way. We then headed to my local hardware store, which I love almost as much as my local Lowe’s

We decided to use a plastic garbage can instead of the typical sump basin because it would be a little larger, enabling me to have a large lip sitting above the sand, keeping it from pouring into the basin.  Most sump pumps are located in basements, where sand and debris aren’t an issue.  If you read up on sump pumps, one of the main recommendations is not to have them anywhere near sand.  Since I have to have my pump in a sandy crawl space (no one seems to want to do homeowner shows/tips on that little problem), we had to come up with a specialized solution.

We made sure that we could fit the garbage can into the crawl space entrance (which always seems tinier and more claustrophobic in my mind), marked off in the sand how large a hole we would have to dig and took turns digging out the sand.  We thought we’d be able to dig about three feet down and leave only a few inches of the garbage can above the ground, but true to stories I’ve heard from my neighbor, the water table starts about two feet down.  We dug to about that two feet and decided not to go any lower so that water wouldn’t constantly be filling the sump basin and running the pump.

We dug about two feet down to prepare the crawl space for the new sump basin

We dug about two feet down to prepare the crawl space for the new sump basin

The next step was to drill holes in the side of the garbage can, which would allow the water to filter into the basin from underground and start the pump before any significant water seepage into the crawl space happened.  Using a drill with a two-inch arbored hole saw drill bit, my dad drilled a series of holes into the garbage can.  Picture Charlie Brown’s Halloween Costume in “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown,” after he says “I had a little trouble with the scissors.”  He started the holes several inches from the bottom, so that just the slightest bit of water wouldn’t be seeping in and starting up the pump, so make sure if you’re creating your own sump basin, that it fits your needs!

Drilling holes

Sump with holes

Once the holes were finished, it was time to wrap the basin in something so that water would be able to seep through, without allowing any sand to trickle in.  We chose a weed control fabric, similar to this one at Lowe’s, and secured it to the sump basin with stretchy plastic green ties.

Fabric attached!

The ties themselves weren’t that important; we just needed something to hold the fabric to the sump basin until we could install it in the hole we had dug and seal it up with sand, which was our next step.

Once the sump basin was in and sealed up around the outside with sand, it was time to put in the sump pump itself.  We had already unplugged the other failed sump pump (ALWAYS unplug before attempting to install anything!) and we wanted to attach the working pump to the existing piping.  The pipes that were installed with the original pump had been cemented from the outside of the house, so we weren’t able to pull them over to attach to the current pump.  Also, they are connected to my gutters (which was one of the reasons I thought the pump was originally working – water was coming out, but it was from the gutters!). 

Although I had some additional pipes from the new sump pump, we quickly learned that one was 1 1/2″ while the other was  1 1/4″.  I didn’t have a connecting piece of pipe with the two sizes, so that necessitated another quick trip to the hardware store for that.  The pipes are connected to each other and the sump pump with clamps, which keep the pipes secure while water is gushing through them – not the sort of thing you can take a shortcut with unless you want water to be unknowingly sprayed throughout your crawl space!

Connected hoses

The fresh sand underneath these pipes is covering up the old sump pit

The next step was to test the pump to see if it would work.  We’d actually tested the pump in the garbage can before putting any holes in it, because I was concerned that without a swift on-rushing of water, the float that manages the water level and tells the pump when to turn on was rising too slowly to get the pump working.  We used a garden hose to fill up the garbage can with the pump in it, and I learned that the pump works exactly the way it’s supposed to – it’s just my nervous-ness about flooding that would encourage me to start it up before it hit the correct level. 

Whoop, there it is, my sump pump

We repeated this process with the installed sump pump, once it had been plugged in to the underground outlet (instead of running an extension cord to my outside GFI circuit, which is what I had been doing) and the pump again performed beautifully.  The only thing left was to seal up the crawl space again and wait for the first big storm to really test it out. 

It works!

When the December flood happened, the cinder blocks holding back the earth around my crawl space had started to migrate inward, making it difficult to properly cover the crawl space. Add to that the plastic piping and electric cord from the semi-installed sump pump, and I soon had feral cats making their home under my house.  Thanks to a cat repellant and the newly fixed crawl space entrace, I can now correctly seal it up again, cat-less.

Sunday brought the first big storm and I learned that the sump pump works perfectly against flooding, well before the crawl space had flooded beyond my comfort level.  Because of where the pipes come out of the crawl space, it sounds as though someone is shuffling my outside garbage cans around, but I’m happy to put up with strange noises if it means no flooding!

The other concern we had had when installing the pump is that too much water would regularly seep into the sump, when it wasn’t raining hard, and the pump would run its motor constantly.  Fortunately, this hasn’t been the case, but if that happens to you, you can get a cinder block to raise the pump up so that the water has to reach a higher level before the pump turns itself on.

Lessons I Learned from my Sump Pump

25 08 2009
Picture this – it’s a cold December night at the beach, where it’s pouring rain instead of snowing.  In a perfect-storm-like series of events, first the sump pump protecting my crawl space (and therefore, my heater) fails.  Then, so does my neighbor’s in the connecting crawl space.  Over five inches of rain falls in the space of a few hours, saturating the already straining coastal water table and creating first a flood in my backyard (which is an all-too-regular occurrence ’round these parts), and then, a flood in my crawl space. 12 inches of water. Then 18.  Then, goodbye heater.
Just before I realized how bad the crawl space flooding was, I snapped this picture in my backyard

Just before I realized how bad the crawl space was, I snapped this picture of the water in my yard

In a last ditch effort to find a stroke of luck and magically fix my problem, I crawled into the tiny crawl space, with my pajama pants tucked into my snow boots and a flashlight between my teeth.  Soon, I was kneeling in 18 inches of cold, dirty water in the dark, shaking, praying and feeling around for where the sump pump might be.  No luck.  I was kicking myself for not paying closer attention during my home inspection and actually getting into the crawl space to see a) where the sump pump was located and b) what the heck a sump pump even looked like!  That night, I didn’t even know how to spell sump pump – I thought it was “sum” pump.  I was totally clueless, soaking wet, and miserable.  And I had no heat. 

I hunted around for the instruction manual to the sump pump, which I thought the previous owner had left me.  Eureka! She had.  I could tell from the cover what the pump should look like, but I knew I hadn’t seen anything like that in the crawl space.  Then, I saw a clear warning – do NOT attempt to fix your sump pump while it is still plugged in.  Ah yes, water and electricity aren’t such a good mix.  I figured it was a lost cause, and then remembered that my dad should know where the sump pump was, at least, and maybe have some suggestions for me.  So panicked and tearful, I called him at 12am, knowing that he wouldn’t likely get back to sleep that night.  But I was at my wits end!

With no hardware stores open, the rain still coming down, and no sunlight, there was nothing we could do.  My dad promised to drive the two hours south the next morning and suggested I get some sleep.  After changing into warm and dry clothes, I first hovered by the crawl space to see if maybe, just maybe, the sump pump would kick in.  Nope.  Then, I hovered around my thermostat, watching the numbers slowly drop.  I finally forced myself to go to bed for a couple of hours, afraid of what the morning might bring.

The next day was sunny and cold, as I headed back into the crawl space

The next day was sunny and cold, as I headed back into the crawl space

Super Dad arrived early, and hit the hardware store to get a new sump pump and hoses. We set up the pump to get rid of the standing water, and I found out what a correctly working pump should look and sound like. Phew.  A few hours later, the water had receeded but my heater was still a lost cause.  I was scheduled to head up to my parents’ house the next day, so I scheduled the heater guy to come out when the water was gone and braced myself for an expensive afternoon.  Since I would have a few days away, I bought a space heater to warm up my living room and watched miserably as the temperature continued to drop one degree at a time. 

This is what I had been sloshing around in the previous night, but it had receded

This is what I had been sloshing around in the previous night, but it had receded

It turned out I was one lucky girl though – despite the heater repairman quoting me some high priced replacements and discussing the possibility of moving the heater into my shed (which is where it should always have been in my opinion), after a few days, the heater dried itself out and was working again.  Hallelujah!

I was very lucky - see the label on the heater in the background? The water had risen to halfway up that label.

I was very lucky - see the label on the heater in the background? The water had risen to halfway up that label.

The temporary sump pump and hoses would stay there until nicer weather would allow us to install a more permanent solution.  Over the next few months, I would learn more than I ever wanted to know about sump pumps – every time it rained, I had to babysit the pump, which never seemed to start when it was supposed to.  Eventually, we figured out that the pump wasn’t working well because of the sand and debris getting sucked into the pump, so I replaced it with another one.  By this time, I was so neurotic about any water in my crawl space, that I continued to babysit the pump and start it up whenever I thought the level was too high (so basically any time it rained).  I had no more heater incidents, and the summer months proved to be mostly crawl-space-flood free (though not backyard flood free).

My current sump pump (prior to final installation) does its job!

My current sump pump (prior to final installation) does its job!

All of this taught me some extremely important lessons about homeownership:

1) Whether you are interested in electronics/appliances/anything-in-your-home or not, you should both know where it is and how it works. From the first day you live there.  Even if you have someone else living with you and you think they know all about it, I think it’s Murphy’s Law that it WILL fail the one time they are not there and unreachable.  Had I known about sump pumps, the location of mine and how it worked, I would have been able to tell much earlier that it had failed and may have avoided both the flood and the late night call to my poor dad.  And had I known that my neighbor’s crawl space was connected to mine, I would have talked to him a lot sooner about keeping an eye on the flooding during that storm.

2) Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I didn’t want to seem stupid in front of my home inspector and my dad, so I didn’t ask them about sump pumps, or take him up on his offer to see where mine was.  Which brings me to point 3…

3) Don’t be afraid to get dirty.  If you’re afraid to get dirty early on, you will definitely get dirty later on.  If I’d crawled into my scary, dirty crawl space on the day of my inspection, I would have known exactly where the sump pump was.  But I didn’t want to get dirty (I was wearing white pants, so that was mistake number 2), so I didn’t bother.  Which led directly to me kneeling in cold, dirty floodwater.  I was dirty, wet and miserable anyway, but in much worse shape and almost out a heater.

4) Get the neighborhood gossip.  This might sound funny, but especially in my neighborhood, everyone knows everyone else’s business (and yes, I hate that, but that’s a story for another post).  But when I moved in, I learned fairly quickly that the previous owner of my home had recently had to replace the heater because of crawl-space flooding.  That should have been clue #1 that it could happen again and was something I should know how to deal with.  When your neighbors tell you homeownership stories, listen to them.  It might save you later.

I’m now *almost* at the point where I can look back on that night and laugh (mostly because it only cost me the sump pump and some hoses and clamps, and not a new heater).  But more than just being an anecdote in my tales of homeownership woe, it was a night of lessons for me, which I haven’t since taken for granted!