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The Rains And Sprains Were Conquered By My Drains


By Ron Simpson

Living in the wilds of The West has a steep learning curve if you come from the mid-south. My wife and I moved to Missoula, Montana back in ‘84 after living in Oklahoma from grade school through college. In ‘91 we were finally able to buy our "cabin in the pines". Our new log home was only 17 years old when we moved in. But the beloved gentleman who sold it was 83 years old and unwilling to maintain the home and ten acres.

Fancying myself something of a do-it-yourselfer and being reasonably intelligent, I was sure that the home had a sound base and presented mountainous possibilities for remodeling and fix-up. How could I have foreseen the horror of the uncountable "cost effective" changes that Joe had already made to the entire home? My home improvement thriller based on these unending adventures will be on bookstore shelves soon. It’s sort of a Stephen King-ish how-to tale.

Before buying, I had checked the slabs of the home and garage and found them solid and without cracks. Montana is subject to minor earthquakes and I figured if no damage had occurred after 17 years, then I was safe. But in the spring of ‘96, a long crack appeared in the basement floor. It went from wall-to-wall, though it was very thin with no separation. Having had several tremors around this time, I reasoned that this hairline fracture was caused by the quakes. The home is situated on a flattened ridge with a gentle 3% grade extending a couple of hundred yards above the home. The land is forested with thinned, old growth Ponderosas and underbrush, with no visible water run-off.

In the spring of 1997 the crack widened and water started to seep in. I came home from work one day to find about a quarter inch of water standing in the basement, saturating the carpet, bottom of the drywall, my bookcases and everything else. The basement, of course, was carefully finished, with only the floor and laundry room yet to be completed. We dragged everything out. I bought a second shop vac and sucked the basement dry, along with our savings account. (Tip: A full 20-gallon wet-dry vacuum is very heavy, especially up a flight of stairs and out the back door.) The problem abated along with the spring rains, though I felt deep inside that this was only the beginning.

I began doing research. No one in Montana seemed to know anything, except which flies the trout were biting. This did not strike me as unusual. Our insurance company told us they did not cover floods but would cover a burst pipe. I was unable to burst any pipes, even with the large hammer I had available. We did not replace carpets or anything else and left the basement mostly bare, though with a very clean floor. Praying that this was an isolated event, we did nothing, and winter arrived again. When the spring of ’98 arrived, the ground was still frozen but the air warmed up and started to melt the 3 feet of snow around our house. And at the same time the rain poured down. The crack became the San Andreas Fault’s little brother and gallons of water spewed into the basement. We considered starting our own bottled water business but felt we would be less than truthful in calling it Mountain Spring Water, especially after it passed through a shop vac, though I understand that this does not concern many of the bottled water companies. We bought a fast electric pump to empty the shop vacs as we felt that further back surgery was more expensive. This went on for more than a week. Every day we would come home, pump out the basement and turn on the fans. Some days we never left, just kept sucking, pumping, and fanning. At the same time, half of the basements in Missoula were flooded so we had plenty of company, but did not know it at the time, as everyone was too busy sucking and pumping to call and talk about it, and too exhausted at work to bring it up.

What had happened was this: Much of Montana is an ancient seabed. In the western mountains where we live, there is glacial clay beneath a rock and soil layer. When the weather warms too fast in the spring, all of the soil water, surface water and melted snow cannot penetrate the still-frozen clay so it runs subsurface on top of the clay until it hits something and is diverted. In this case, the diversion was the eastern wall of our basement, which faces the uphill part of our property. The point of least resistance was where the clay had originally been dug up to build the foundation. Water was forced below the foundation slab under incredible pressure; the hydraulic pressure cracked the concrete, and up came the water, our own springtime geyser. I was able to contact the builder’s brother who lives in the area and discovered that "no one" ever puts in French drains (footing drains) in Montana because they are unnecessary. Although the new house down the hill had a full contingent of French drains, his basement and garage flooded anyway. His house was an even better design than mine, but the water ran in from above grade. He was thrilled.

A contractor came out and informed me that I would have to surround the house on three sides with a French drainage system or it would be a waste of time. For this service, he would charge a small fee of five thousand dollars, which I did not have. I told him that, according to the builder, "no one" in Montana puts in French drains. He then revealed the heretofore secret information that only professionals in Montana have French drain information. Guess that leaves out the builders.

In my infinite wisdom of hydraulics and physics, and in the spirit of "Joe’s cost containment" I asked the contractor to do only the uphill side and extend the drain ten feet past the eastern uphill corner of the house. I insisted on dual trap pipes buried in 1-2 inch round river rock. He was to dig down 2 feet below the bottom of the slab, along the entire east wall (which I would reseal) and cover all the river rock with soil. I was able to haggle him down to $800. The highlight came when the backhoe hit the top of the clay: water shot 20 feet in the air and soaked the entire crew. Apparently only professionals have drain information.

My bet on this "do the uphill side only" approach has worked great, and while others are having back surgery from carrying older model shop vacs full of water, I sit at the end of my drain pipe each spring and watch the water run away from my basement and down toward my neighbor’s house. Even the ever-present damp feel in the basement is better, and the crack more or less healed itself.

I noticed the other day, while wandering in a trance at Home Depot, that all of the new, larger shop vacs have hose attachments at the bottom of the bucket. I pointed this out to my wife and she replied, "Great, throw that in my face!" It is for this reason that I suspect the shop vac manufacturers are secretly assisting our government in engineering global warming so their products will be needed to swamp out the flooded basements every spring. A French drain is cheaper psychologically and financially, but every do-it-yourselfer needs two or three shop vacs anyway.





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Copyright © 2001  Ron Simpson
Used With Permission Of The Author.

June 18, 2001
Edited By Bruce W. Maki