Down in the Sumps

Today felt like remodel whack-a-mole. A more methodical approach is theoretically possible, but in reality our priorities change with the weather--quite literally. Clear days trigger a move to outdoor work, and last week's cold snap really brought home the urgency of the need to seal all the air gaps in the place.

This house is a sieve, and to make matters worse it is heated inefficiently with a mix of electric wallmount blowers and random plug-in space heaters which have led to jawdropping electricity bills. The walls and attic are nominally insulated (to varying degrees of R-value), but most of the crawlspace is not. Pulling the subfloor and remedying that is a job for summertime. But even more important than insulating is sealing air leaks.

Where to begin? There are small gaps everywhere--doors, windows, floors, baseboard... As I sat on the saggy couch contemplating this conundrum, I felt drafts like icy daggers emanating from the cold fireplace. We haven't used it yet, will eventually have it professionally assessed but haven't got around to it. Meanwhile, the opening is covered by a piece of plywood. Not perfect, but that wasn't the main draft source; it was the unfinished edges where wall and ceiling sheetrock meet brick chimney, an eighth (or more) of an inch gap running about 22 feet in length for a total of 33 square inches-- equal to a hole almost big enough to stick your head through--just sucking the heat from living room into the adjacent unheated garage.

That should've been an obvious place to start, but--sailing metaphors dead ahead!--this is a storm on all fronts, our creaky cabin a leaky boat tempest-tossed, with our attention divided between reefing the sails, bailing out, and steering for port. But if I had it to do over again, I would've made air-sealing a higher priority from day one.

It's a look!

After foaming downstairs, I went up in the attic, where I could still see through a couple of light cracks into the living room below. Foamed those good then layered in a bisected roll of R-15 over a void beside the brickwork where the blown-in could find no purchase.

That was the day's first mole. I had planned to drywall the remaining unfinished kitchen wall, but Sarah looked like she was having fun digging swales and mounding up hugels in the backyard, plus the outdoors beckoned in general so I opted to do more exploration of the drainage system. One boggy spot in particular intrigued me. It was in the path of the curtain drain, overgrown with blackberries, which I'm convinced are sentient. If you've ever tried to remove them, you know how their thorny vines can wrap around you like the tentacles of an enraged octopus.

These weren't that bad but I also wasn't about to give 'em a chance. The rusty shears I picked up at Around Again salvage in Sequim needed just a spritz of penetrating lubricant to unlock their potential and I unleashed the scissoring blades with a vengeance.

But it was nothing personal, and the real reason I chop 'em into arm's-length sections is so they don't get tangled in transport. Even with the blackberries gone (really just temporarily beaten back), the situation was still obscure. The water collecting here might be shallow, but the mystery is deep: What is here? Who built it? How does it work?

Topside, the curtain drain looks like a little stony creek. It's really quaint and the more time I spend with it the more I see the excess water here as a feature, not a bug. It is, after all, the most precious substance. And here it is just trickling by, crystal clear life-sustaining rainwater runoff. What's not to love?

We've been sussing out the system bit by bit, and the last missing link was this saturated bend in the stone-filled trench, where a thick mat of decaying plant matter covers everything, autumn's brown leaves preserved submerged in very cold standing water, like timber at the bottom of Lake Superior.

I rake along the ersatz streambed then suddenly sink into a low spot and almost flood my high rubber boots with the now muddy water, sediment disturbed by my steps. At first I thought it was just a soft spot but then I felt the stiff round rim of a sump. Mucking out mud and leaves uncovered both an inlet and an outlet pipe. We were literally connecting the dots--if you admit that a sump is a kind of dot, which it does sort of resemble.

In a nutshell, there's three pipes, three sumps, and one pump (out of order) to rule them all. It might seem weird that it took this long to ascertain these simple facts, but you have to remember that most of this stuff was underwater and/or covered by weeds, debris, and layer upon layer of fallen leaves.

Water! It's a lifelong obsession with me. When I was 2 (they tell me), I almost drowned. My parents found me floating facedown in a little creek. It almost ruined their picnic and my mother worried I'd fear water as a result but the opposite was true and I couldn't get enough. Beach, bathtub, or backyard. Pools, sprinklers, or a gutter in the rain.
I have such fond memories of childhood, can remember specific states of mind when I was wild-eyed with curiosity and experimentation that often verged on the catastrophic. Let's just say it was safer for the world at large when I played with water instead of fire.

One thing I liked to do was run a garden hose and push it into the ground. It was practically scientific. Hydraulic force is not to be fucked with. The water softened the sandy south shore Long Island soil, which burbled to the surface and squirted out from around the probing hose, a beguiling color and texture of beige grains and quartz sparkles spinning and swirling out of the hole. Under the right conditions, you'd be surprised how deep you can shove a hose into the ground.

Recalling the precedent of those happy experiments, I applied the same method to clearing a partly obstructed 60-foot section of pipe which was draining slowly. If you're familiar with the expression pushing rope, this was that. Using a small electric pump to build up head pressure, I fed three connected lengths of garden hose into the inlet. It worked! The water coming out of the other end turned brown as sediment and debris was pushed out, and afterwards the passive flow was markedly improved. (I used our trash pump to drain the receiving sump.)

I didn't quite get the hose to go all the way. Marking it with tape, I pulled it back out and saw I had come within ten feet of the end before it bound up. I ran a plumbing snake into the pipe outfall and felt no blockage, so I probably just hit the limit of how far you can shove a hose into a 4" pipe before it binds up, though certainly this calls for further research. Maybe I will shrink myself down and pilot a miniaturized submarine through the pipe and zap the blockages with lasers--because that is something I saw in a movie.

But not today, as there were other moles to whack. Here a mole, there a mole, everywhere a mole mole.

But when I went inside for a tool I got jumped by Sunny, who if you leave him alone too long gets a little needy and leaps on your back when you least expect it. So I took the hint and had a little liedown with him in the bedroom, where the first direct sun of the year peeked through the trees and onto the bed, where Sunny tried his best to worm his way into the sleeve of my heated jacket before curling up under my arm.

It was bliss but I felt the need to take advantage of the weather and paint the exterior window trim I installed yesterday, and then onto the roof to seal chimney flashing where ancient caulk had degraded and crumbled.

That didn't take long and I couldn't resist returning to the newly uncovered sump to cut and dig a parallel channel to help move the standing water along towards it. It was a necessary and useful thing thing to do, but also it was just playing in mud.

I could've continued until dark but Sarah wisely suggested we go to the Big Water across the street. It never disappoints.



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