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Dry out the basement with a sump pump


Ah, there's nothing like a spring shower . . . the way the air gets washed fresh and clean, the way the grass perks up, the way the water fills the basement . . .

Sometimes a basement water problem is just a little thing -- a few trickles down the wall, or water seeping in a crack. Some exterior grading (to make sure water runs away from the house), some crack-filling, may be all it takes to fix it.

But in some cases, water is getting in because rain raises the level of the water table above the level of the basement floor. If you have such a ground-water problem, the solution may be installing a sump pump.

The "sump" is a small hole, or well, dug below the level of the basement floor and lined in plastic. The sump gathers the water that would otherwise collect on the floor and the pump delivers it outside.

Serious water problems may also require installation of drain tile around the perimeter of the basement walls and into the pit. It's an expensive process, and if you have any doubt about needing it, you can install the pump first and see if it takes care of the problem.

There's nothing terribly complicated about installing a sump pump; any reasonably handy homeowner can probably manage it. That is, any reasonably handy homeowner who is strong enough to wield a maul or electric jackhammer.

The first step is to figure out where to put the well. Pick the lowest possible spot in the floor. (If you've been down there bailing every time it rains, you already know where the deepest water is.)

There are four parts to a sump-pump system: the pump, the electrical outlet it plugs into, the well it sits in and the outflow pipe that runs from the pump to the outside. For the pump itself, we like a submersible type with an automatic switch-on device. When the water in the well reaches a certain level, the pump switches itself on, and when the water level falls, it turns itself off.

If there's a plug nearby, that's great. But if you have to have a new plug installed, it's a good idea to get one that's ground-fault protected. The plug should go in first. An electrician will have to install it, whichever type you choose.

The next step is to dig the well. This part is not much fun, but it's slightly easier, and the results are somewhat neater, if you rent an electric jackhammer (the rental place should also have hearing protectors, which you'll definitely need).

The pit should be a little deeper and wider than the well -- usually about 2 1/2 feet deep and about 2 feet wide.

Start by breaking out the concrete in a space about twice as wide as the well itself. Dig down about two inches all across that space. Then dig the hole for the well in the center.

These days, the wells are all plastic. You may have to go to a plumbing supply house to get one, or you can use a shortcut we discovered: an empty, thoroughly washed-out, five-gallon drywall bucket.

The drywall bucket won't have the capacity of a regular sump well, but it's certainly cheaper and requires less digging. In any case, get the well before you start digging, so you can test the hole as you dig.

The plastic well needs to have a couple dozen holes in the bottom and sides, so the water can get in. If the well you're using doesn't have them, use an electric drill and a quarter-inch bit to make the holes.

When the hole is ready, place a layer of landscaping gravel (other gravel may work, but it has to be bigger than the holes) about 2 inches thick in the bottom. Snuggle the bucket into the gravel in the hole and check it with a small level to be sure it's sitting flat. Then fill in around the sides with the gravel. At the top, fill the space around the well (all that "extra" space where you removed concrete) with gravel an inch deep or so.

Mix up new concrete and pour it over the gravel around the well. As it sets up, trowel it to slope down to the edge of the well.

After the concrete sets up, place the pump in the hole. If it has a "float" device that triggers the on-switch, you may have to adjust the arm so it doesn't hit the sides of the well -- especially if you use a drywall bucket.

Some sump pumps come with a plastic hose, but it may not be long enough. We prefer to use rigid PVC drain pipe. Run the pipe from the pump up to the level necessary to get above the ground outside.

This is probably the point at which you have to make a hole in the house. That may be easy in a frame house; if it's brick, concrete or stone, you may want to get professional help.

Turn the pipe and run it outside, making sure the outdoor portion is long enough to get the water well away from the house. If it's not long enough, you may find yourself "recycling" the water you just pumped out.

Plug in the pump and test it to make sure it works. Lift the "float" just long enough to see if it comes on, then pour a few buckets of water in the hole to watch the pump work. (Never run a submersible pump in a dry hole.)

When everything works to your satisfaction, place the cover on the well and forget it. (If you used a drywall bucket, you can fashion a cover for the hole out of plywood).

And finally, some words of caution.

If you've never done anything like this before, you may have questions about equipment or techniques. A good place to get answers is at the home-improvement center or plumbing supply place where you buy the equipment. If you still have doubts, it's probably better to hire a professional to do the job.

Alleviate risks. Don't work in a wet area. If you can, wait for a dry spell to install the sump pump. Never run electric tools while standing in water. If your house has a radon problem you may need a special cover on the well to keep it from being an entry point for radon. If your basement floor is painted and you don't know whether the paint contains lead, have it tested. In some jurisdictions, if it's lead paint, you may have to hire a specialist to remove the concrete.

It's always a good idea to wear a dust mask when working. If you're using a jackhammer, wear appropriate clothing (boots, nothing loose, and watch your pant legs). If you have basement pipes that are insulated with asbestos, do not disturb them in any way while installing the pump. You may have to get a professional evaluation of the asbestos condition before you begin.

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