Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Grotto

By Rob Watson

    When Wife and I inspected our building, before buying it, the basement was dry. However, there were water stains on the walls running from cracks in the walls. When I ask about them, the response was something about a flood in Town back in the 1950’s.
    This should be a lesson to you (and me) when buying a building/ house. Never believe the real estate agent or the previous owner. When I asked about water stains on the ceiling of the main floor the answer was “My daughter left the water running upstairs and flooded the place.”
    The truth was plumbing for both bathrooms, the kitchen, and the air conditioner leaked. The huge glass door to the upstairs patio was improperly installed. When the wind and rain is (notice present tense) from the west, water pours in over the door frame. After I removed all the outside wood, replaced it, insulated the cavities  around the frame and re-caulked it all, we just get a slow drip. Before, it was a fair simulation of Niagara Falls. I also tore parts of the ceiling from the main floor, found the plumbing leaks and repaired them, mostly.
     In the spring of 2007, this part of State got an unusual amount of rain. The ground became saturated and the creeks flooded. Dry Coon Creek, which is usually dry, had about 4 feet of water in it. The flood and pictures of my ranch (where the pumpkin patch is now) actually made national news. Water began to bubble through cracks in the floor and walls of the basement here at our building. The water never got more than an inch deep. I went to the trash dump and got 30 or so freight pallets, and put all our stuff on them. Eventually the water stopped bubbling up through the floor. But things still did not dry out. There was still an inch of water on parts of the floor.
    Now, I am an easy going guy. I don’t let things bother me... until they get entirely out of hand. I was not bothered all that much by the inch of water until I notice 16 banana boxes full of my stuff was soaking wet and the boxes had collapsed into a pile of mush.
    Close inspection showed these boxes were touching the basement wall in the southwest corner of the building. Water was slowly seeping through the cracks in the wall. Water was also flowing from the stairwell. Now I was irritated. The floor has two cased wells drilled in it and I could see the ground water had receded more than a foot below the floor. The main part of the floor was dry, the cracks that had bubbled water during the flood were dry and water was coming through the walls!! Now, as a student of Geology, I know a fair amount about hydrology and this did not make logical sense.
    One theory held that there were springs under the city and the corner of our building was set on one. Our building was built in 1934 during, what they call here, The Dust Bowl. So, the spring would have been dry when the building was built. It could also dry out from time to time during dry periods. Another guess held that there was an underground stream...
    Things that defy logic really bother me. I tore down the interior wall of the stairwell and found a concrete bench cast against the wall of the extreme southwest corner of the basement wall. This wall faces the street. (important information to be used later). Water was bubbling from a crack at the top of this bench. A significant amount of work with a hammer and chisel increased the flow. I borrowed an air driven drill and began to enlarge the hole. It eventually got to be about 3/4 inch high, a foot long and 8 inches deep.  I went to the building supply store in Big Town and found a patch cement that was made for basement walls that leaked water. It says it could be applied even in wet conditions and would expand to fill the hole. “Ha!” says I. “This should be easy to fix.”
    The directions said mix the cement with water and apply to the leaking wall. It even gave me a whole 3 minutes from the time I pored in the water until the patch was completely finished. (after 3 minutes it got hard fast... like 3 seconds after). The water flowing through the hole simply washed the patch materials out of the hole. I would dab a wad of patch in place and watch it wash away as I hurried to get another wad. The materials left in the mixing bowl hardened around my putty knife and I had to use a hammer to break it out.
    The second try worked no better than the first. I tried to hold the patch material in place with a board. It still got washed out before it hardened. I kept the hammer handy to release my putty knife again.
    This process may be hard to visualize, so you will have to take my word for the fact that a movie of it would make a prize winning “Funniest Home Video”.
    Plan B formed as a way to drain off the water into the sump pump. Remember the bench? I got the air hammer and cut a groove in the top of the concrete bench. This groove was an inch wide, an inch deep and ran the entire 3 feet of the bench. At the end of the groove I tarred in a plastic pipe fitting such that the water ran down the groove through the fitting and into a bucket. This is when I learned the water flowed  at a rate of 5 gallons per hour. I cut a hole in the bucket, installed another plastic fitting and ran a water hose from there to the sump pump. Dry wall and floor, right? Well, not quite yet.
    The simple solution was to show (remember the wall was facing the street) that the water was leaking from the city water main. Wife called the city maintenance chief. He came by and brought his water test kit. We took a sample of the water and he  tested it for chlorine. No Chlorine. He also took out his handy dandy sound detector and heard nothing. Being a nice guy, he inspected the water main in the man hole in front of  our building... Dry. He inspected the three water meters nearest the building... dry. He even replaced our water meter. All after firmly declaring the water was not from the city main because there was no chlorine and no sound.
     This water was coming from somewhere and I was determined to find it. The top of the bench was about 5 feet below ground surface. I went outside  beside the leak and drilled a hole 8 feet down. Dry. I moved to the corner of the building, no more than 2 feet from the leak. Dry. I went to the front of the building in the window well and drilled down to floor level. Dry. While I was drilling this hole I banged one of the windows panes and it broke out. Another pane just cracked. You should remember this last hole.
    Well it must be a miracle. Wife suggested we build a grotto. We could put in a little statue of the Blessed Virgin, brick it all up and form a pool for people to get their holy water, have a little box for donations... Alternately we could seal all the leaks in the walls and floor and make an indoor pool. Maybe even charge admission and teach water walking and swimming. Wife taught water walking for the YMCA in another state, when we lived there.
    For a while the groove-bucket-hose fix worked to keep the floor dry. Then the wall began to leak faster and the groove above the bench slowed to a drip. I got out my trusty rusty sledge and chisel and proceeded to break a hole in the floor and dig down. This hole was about a foot square and two feet deep. It immediately filled with water. I dashed over to Big Town and bought another sump pump. I built little dams of tar and bricks to direct the water from the leaks in the wall into this new sump hole.
    This spring was wet again. Remember the window well where I drilled? It filled with water and began to flow in through the broken window. Oh, remember the leak patch material? I used some of the leftovers to build little flow control dams for this new water. This stuff really stuck to the wet cement floor. It almost worked too. It kept the majority of the water going into the new sump hole but water would wick over it and part of the floor stayed wet.
    It is fair to say Wife took a dim view of my intermittent prolonged inactivity regarding the water leaks in the basement. She insisted it was all the city’s fault and they should come fix it. Much as it hurts to say: She was right.
     I tried setting up a siphon to get the water from the window well down into the sump pump. I could sit and watch the siphon work for hours and it functioned flawlessly. Go do something else and it would quit siphoning... water flowed over the window  and all over the floor, again.
     A few weeks of this got me into a “do something” mood. I decided to dig out the window well and put in a third sump pump. For reference, the window well is 2 feet by 4 feet and 6 feet deep. I would dig the mud into buckets and push them up to the surface. Wife would dump the mud into large trash cans in the back of our pickup. As the hole got larger the water got deeper and Wife went inside to siphon some of it out. As the water got lower I heard a sound like, forgive the expression, someone pissing in a toilet. I got some light on the subject and saw a stream of water flowing into the now nearly empty hole. I sent Shirley for a bottle and the phone, to call the City Maintenance Supervisor. This time, the test indicated chlorine and the sound detector indicated a leak. Why not the first time? Well, I don’t know. If you read this carefully you will  see there is a lot that goes unexplained.
    Last week Wife and I drove to Wyoming to hunt up some of Wife’s relatives, see our doctors, and visit friends. Our fine City dug up the street, a hole 4 feet by 25 feet, 6 feet deep, repaired two leaks in the water main (that was laid in 1886) and repaired the street after also putting in a new water pipe to our water meter. Friends report the action was spectacular. Photos, which have been promised to me, show a fountain from the water main arching more than 30 feet into the air, over the electrical power lines and onto the top of our  store. After three years, the floor and walls are dry, the sump holes are empty and my next task is to remove all the water flow dams from the floor. If anyone is interested, I have an unused sump pump, some basement wall patch, and  a small statue of the Virgin Mary available.

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