Thursday, October 6, 2011

In which our basement floods

Have I told you guys about our Annual Basement Flood? I think I have mentioned it in passing in other stories, but I have not told you the Flood Story in its entirety.

We have an old house.

We have an old house with old plumbing in a city where the city officials are reluctant to release the overfull storm sewers into the lake because of some stupid reason like the storm sewers are combined with the regular sewers (really good planning a few decades ago, hey?) and they don't want to put poop in the lake. I say, put the poop in the lake rather than in my basement.

But we discovered ten days after we closed on the house but three weeks before we moved in that the sewer drain in the basement backs up when it floods outside. Not enough to fill the basement, thank goodness, but enough to wander over to the rec room, the 20% of the basement that is finished, with a carpet, and soak the carpet.

The cement floor remains dry.

How lucky are we?

So. Flood Number One.

We had closed on the house and were moving in gradually from Primo's apartment. My stuff was in storage. On a Saturday early in June, we had horrible rain. Primo was out of town for the entire week. I went to the house on Monday to take a load of breakables and to continue cleaning the house, which looked clean to the naked eye but to the eye with glasses, it was gross. We bought the house from a bachelor who 1. never covered his food when he warmed it in the microwave and 2. removed his shirt to sit in bed with his back against the wall instead of the headboard. I would also guess that cleaning the baseboards and the tub had not been a priority for him.

When I walked down the stairs into the basement, I heard one of those sounds that you really never want to hear in your life: what carpet sounds like when it has been wet for two days in 90 degree heat.

The good part about all this was that Primo and I had hated the basement carpet when we looked at the house, but didn't think replacing a perfectly good, one year old carpet just because we thought it was ugly was a prudent use of our limited resources. We were going to be Very Brave and endure the ugly carpet. Such are the burdens we bear but such is our nobility that we bore them with nothing but a sigh.

The carpet was unsalvageable. Such is usually the case with hot, wet carpet.

So I called the insurance company (I had gotten the sewer backup rider just three weeks before oh I am brilliant) and I had the contractor who was already doing some minor things for us take the carpet out of the basement. I started calling carpet stores to get estimates on the red plaid carpet Primo and I had really liked in another house.

Then I called Primo.

Who freaked out.

Because that's what Primo does in a crisis.

Well, in a crisis that does not have to be addressed immediately. If it is a RIGHT NOW crisis, he is perfect. There was that afternoon last month when he casually strolled into the kitchen and asked for the fire extinguisher.

But why? I asked.

Oh because the gas grill was on fire and he needed to put it out before the garage caught on fire or before the grill melted.

Those were some of the best steaks we've ever had. Sear your steak on a grill that's literally flaming hot and you get a darn good steak.

But in a crisis that can be handled in steps, he goes into full freakout. Freakout + Distance = Extra Freakout and I had to remind him that I had run my own life and had owned my own house quite well before he and I ever crossed paths and I thought I could handle arranging to have a destroyed carpet removed from the basement.

We had the particle wood (don't be so cheap when you are remodeling a house) door frames replaced with oak, which was very wise because oak will expand and then shrink back when it floods. Particle board will not. This is very important if you are going to have a flood every year, as we do. We got a new red plaid carpet that we love and is heavy-duty industrial, made for commercial bar use, which means that it, too, is perfect for an annual flood. And I refinished the basement stairs, which are maple, rather than covering them with carpet. It is a crime, people, a crime to cover beautiful wood floors and stairs with carpet.

The next year, again in June, Primo came home at about 2 a.m. one night and woke me up, which he is usually very careful not to do. It was time for Flood Number Two.

"Get up," he announced flatly. "The basement is flooding."

Flooding on nasty carpet before we moved in was one thing. But flooding on our almost-new carpet that had a stereo, a TV, and a sofa on it was something else. I ran downstairs to survey the situation. Ran back upstairs and grabbed all our bath towels, then threw them on the carpet to blot up the water, which again, was not flowing to the bare cement but onto the carpeted section. The small carpeted section.

"What are you doing?" Primo shouted. "Those are the Good Towels!"

I replied that it was easier to wash and/or replace towels than it was to replace a carpet.

We sopped up the water as best we could, left the towels in the laundry room sink, and went to bed. First thing in the morning, I called the insurance company and an adjuster was there in three hours. I love you, USAA.

He looked at our basement, looked at the rug, the drywall, the doorframes, and told us that he could get some big fans to dry the carpet or we could do it ourselves.

As we had just filed a $2,500 claim 12 months prior, and as the cost of the fans would just reach our deductible, and as the customer service person at USAA assured me that if we did get black mold in our drywall or under the carpet later that that would be covered, and as the adjuster pointed out that he had a call to make at a warehouse where the roof had fallen in from the rain and there was about $2 million of water damage, we decided we could do this ourselves.

As instructed, we got a carpet cleaner from the hardware store, two fans, and a bunch of plastic sheeting and duct tape.

By the time we picked all that stuff up, my mom had arrived for her annual visit.

Oh yes - part of the Annual Basement Flood is that it must coincide with moving, company, or an out of town trip.

My mother blessherheart spent three hours sucking water up from that carpet. Primo also used the opportunity to buy himself a wet vac because you know there are so many times when you need one and then you don't have one so why not just buy one? Primo used the wetvac. Once we had sucked about five gallons of dirty water out of the carpet - how can a carpet that is vacuumed weekly get so dirty in just one year? - Primo used his crack engineering skills to create an airtight room that he then populated with two dehumidifiers and two fans.

He had to leave a tiny little space at the edge of both sealed doors so the cats had a way to get to their litter box. Then we had to teach the cats how to push the flap of plastic sheeting away from the wall and go on through to the furnace room where the litter box resides.

I don't know why we just didn't move the litter box upstairs. Maybe we thought it would be easier to teach the cats how to go through plastic sheeting than to learn a new location for the box.

The Pretty Cat, however, is not taking to this pushing through the plastic sheeting stuff. She doesn't like it at all. Primo has to pick her up and force her through as she ducks her head and claws at him. Noooooo!

The Smart Cat breezes through.

What finally convinces the Pretty Cat is when Primo turns on the dehumidifier by the furnace room door. Pretty Cat looooves noise. When I turn on the vacuum cleaner, she runs into the room to supervise. When the guys came to clean out the laterals to the main sewer with their noisy machine, she sat right next to the machine and purred. Pretty Cat loves noise so much she would marry it. The noise of the dehumidifier lured her through the flap. She sat next to that dehumidifier for hours. It was her kitty sauna.

We left the fans and the dehumidifier for three days. Everything dried. Done, we thought, as we mentally dusted our hands together.

We didn't want this to happen again. We called the sewer cleaning guys - the ones with the noisy machine - and had them run the line through the pipe. I asked them how frequently this should be done.

Me: When should we have our lines cleaned again?

Plumber: You're going to hate me for sayin' dis, but ya know, it could be two years, it could be five years. Da best ting to do is to wait until it floods again and den ya know how long ya need to go before ya clean.

Me: I think I'll have you guys come back in three years.

That was 2009. Then came Flood Number Three.

Last summer, we made it through June without a flood. We thought Yay! Our flooding days are over and the Hundred-Year Floods that we've had two years in a row are going to go back to being once every hundred years and we'll be dead before the next one.

In late July, two nights before we were going to the lake cottage and on the night that Primo's best friend from high school, Tyler, and his family were at our house for supper, as we were giving them a house tour and were on the second floor, we heard the Flood Frog beeping.

The Flood Frog is a little gizmo that Primo bought on that I thought was just another stupid waste of money but I guess I was wrong. The Flood Frog is a little plastic frog that has a sensor embedded in the bottom that beeps if it gets wet. We have it resting right next to the sewer drain in the furnace room. If water starts to back up from the drain, we know immediately.

Knowing doesn't help prevent the problem, but it does give you more time to worry about it.

It had been raining for the past several days, so we had prepared. The city engineer had told us about a device that blocked the sewer drain, an idea that was great in theory but ignores the fact that water is more determined than cement. Because of all the corrosion and dirt in our drain, we couldn't find a device to fit, so we improvised and stuffed rags down the opening.


Do not do this unless you want to find the tiny cracks in your basement floor, most of which are underneath the carpet, and which serve as the egress for the water that cannot get out of the sewer drain.

We heard the Flood Frog beep and ran to the basement, Tyler, his wife, and their three small kids behind us.

Not only did we have wet carpet right by the door to the furnace room, we also had wet carpet at the far end of the rec room.

Primo started cursing a blue streak. I always think of that line from A Christmas Story, where the narrator talks about how his father wove a tapestry of profanity that hovers over Lake Erie to this day. Primo was weaving his own tapestry.

1. Third year in a darn row that our basement floods.
2. In our attempt to prevent such flooding, we have made it worse.
3. We are leaving town in two days.

He had reason, I think.

Tyler drew himself up and said that he would appreciate it if Primo would not cuss around the kids.

Primo glared at him.

My opinion on this sort of thing is perhaps you could just remove your children from the situation. That's just me. Or maybe teach them that sometimes grownups say things that children are not supposed to say. I don't have kids, so I don't have a dog in this fight, but I would think it would be more rational to prepare children to live in the real world than to expect any adult who comes into contact with your children to walk on eggshells.

Primo and I have this down to a science by now. I have the hardware store on speed dial. I called them immediately and reserved the last available water sucking carpet cleaner. Primo got out the wet vac while I went to pick up the carpet cleaner. Primo directed Tyler to help him move the sofa. I got back and we started sucking water. One of the kids even helped. He thought it was fun. I was glad to have his help.

Once we had sucked up all the water we could, Primo set up the dehumidifiers and the fans and taped the plastic over the doors.

And then we ate supper.

Very late.

There was much wine involved.