Like most homeowners, I have relished reading about the Chicago River flooding Loop basements. Homeowners enjoy stories about basement water woes, especially when the leak is in somebody else's cellar. We delight in hearing about other guys who have to slosh around in boots, haul hoses and try to stop gushing water by slapping on servings of hydraulic cement.
I once believed you could keep water out of a basement. I bought all that business about fixing your window wells and sealing the walls with waterproof paint. I even went through a stage of sump pump adulation.
It took me a few years and a few houses to realize that keeping water out of your basement is to homeowners what snipe hunting is to campers. Namely, it is a delightful adventure that is bound to fail.
There may be temporary victories for the homeowner. But ultimately the water goes where it wants.
A true basement battler, however, never admits defeat. He believes there is always one more step, a new splash pad under the downspout, a little more dirt dumped close to the foundation, one more coat of waterproof sealer, that will guarantee a dry tomorrow.
We can't help it. Battling water is in our blood. Children learn it from their parents. For instance, when I was boy, I was at my father's side as he replaced the basement window wells in our house in St. Joseph, Mo. Until we undertook this project, I had never paid much attention to the window wells. They were just another place to lose a baseball.
But my dad taught me that basement window wells were the first line of defense against insurgent rainwater. He told me that a properly fortified window well was deep, with a gravel bottom and was free of leaves. Later, he introduced me to an advanced form of window-well protection, clear plastic bubbles that cover the wells and keep out moisture.
From him I also learned the basics of the basement inspection drill. As soon as it began to rain, he would march downstairs. After rubbing his hand along the basement walls, he would congratulate himself and members of his basement defense team.
"I think we've got that water beat," dad would say.
The water, however, was bowed but not beaten. It stayed away for a few years, only to emerge in a new spot, the wall of the coal bin, far from the newly secured window wells. We moved.
In our next house we employed state-of-the-art water weaponry. A sump pump. This was a new house and the builder had installed drain tiles under the basement floor. If water got under the house, these tiles funneled it to a catch basin where the sump pump automatically expelled the unwanted water out of a pipe, far, far into the back yard.
The sump pump was a marvel. When it rained, I would go down in the basement and watch it do its stuff.
The trouble was that the pump required electricity. And when big storms hit, they often knock out the power. Especially if the storm is a tornado. And so after a tornado blew past our house in Wichita, Kan., missing it by two blocks, it started to rain. And the water started to gather under the house and was funneled by the drain tiles to the catch basin. And since there was no electricity, the pump didn't work. The water rose. We bailed and bailed. The drain tiles underneath the basement were so efficient that they funneled water to the idle pump for hours after it had stopped raining.
The house my wife and I now live in has some moisture collecting on the basement walls. But the kids pile so much junk in the basement that I rarely get a clear view of a basement wall. That is fine with me.
However, the first house we owned was a real leaker. It had a big back yard and a damp basement. The two were related. Every time it rained hard, waves of water would roll from the backyard and down a set of outdoor steps that connected the basement to the back yard. There was a drain at the bottom of the steps. But it was no match for the flood. The water made a pool. It drained at its own, slow pace.
For months I tried to make the drain more efficient. I tried snaking and gouging. Nothing worked. I switched tactics. Since I couldn't drain the pool, I would try to keep it from seeping through the door and into the basement.
I tried to seal the door. I put in a new threshold. I replaced the sweep on the bottom of the door. I caulked. The water still won, seeping at its leisure.
One thing I didn't think of was the trick the guys in Chicago were using this week. They were trying to stop the onrushing water of the Chicago River by throwing mattresses at it.
It is a technique worth watching.