Fire and Ice: All I want for Christmas is a Sump Pump!

IMG_1544 willow tree ice

Willow tree “pruned” by the ice storm

It’s been a horrid two weeks week weather-wise in Southern Ontario. First we had a hard freeze, making it unusually cold for this time of the year, then we had a heavy snowstorm, which dumped about 30 cm of snow on us over a period of two days and now, over this past weekend, we had a major ice storm, which coated every branch and twig with 20-40 mm of ice. When I got up on Sunday morning and went outside I could hear large branches snapping throughout the neighbourhood. The wind was wafting through the woods in little gusts and you could hear the trees groaning as they swayed ponderously, unable to snap back resiliently against the forces being imposed on them.

All of which reminds one of change and how nature builds resilient ecosystems by continually stressing them. Many forests use fire and insect attack to do this and technically the forests of Southern Ontario are a wind-burst ecology; that is, they rely on microbursts of wind during storms to clear open patches into which new growth can come. But the weekend storm was a sharp reminder that they are also an ice storm ecology, using freezing rain as a giant pruning tool.

But enough of ecology for the moment: I was particularly aware of the weather because our house’s sump pump had stopped working; or rather it wouldn’t stop working – it was pumping but the water level wasn’t going down. The motor was getting hot, as they are not designed to run continually. Most Canadian houses have an internal pump that sits in a small sump in the basement and pumps out the ground water that flows into the lower levels, particularly during the spring thaw. They have a float, rather like those that one finds in toilet tanks, except that it works the other way around; when the water level in the sump gets high the pump runs until it drops below a certain level. The water is pumped outside, either into a storm drain or into the garden. About two years ago I had had to change our discharge to flow into the garden and it had worked fine but now the water wasn’t flowing…

“Root” Cause Analysis

Our sump is on a corner of the house and we get roots coming through the wall from the giant willow on our front lawn. After pumping out the sump with a small portable pump to lower the water level and carrying it away in buckets, I looked into the sump and saw the suction end of the sump pump covered in fine roots. Were they the source of the blockage? After 30 minutes of hard work (it’s a tight, almost inaccessible, space) I had cleared all the roots that I could see and tried the pump again. Nothing doing; the water just swirled around in the bottom of the sump. But in that process I noticed bits of plastic and other debris coming off the pump. Perhaps the roots were inside the pump? Maybe the pump’s impellors had stripped? I would have to take the pump out to look at it…

This was a major job; the pump was cast-iron with a brass non-return valve but everything else was ABS (plastic) pipe with glued joints. One has to cut the pipe with a saw with one hand, while lying on one’s side in a tight space…This required a trip to the hardware store to buy an electric reciprocating saw (I have always wanted one); one hundred dollars later it was mine. After much effort I cut the pipe and pulled out the pump. It was in bad shape, covered in rust and scale, having been in the sump for about 15 years. I decided I was going to need a new pump…This required research on pumps, the quality of which, like that of so many appliances these days, has gone down over the years. Eventually I went to my local plumbing supply store, where some very helpful people guided me through what I would need to finish the job. Just over two hundred dollars later I headed for home with a new sump pump, non-return valve, ABS pipe and fittings and pipe glue…

I won’t tell you how long it took to install everything while lying on my side in a tight space, with glue dripping down my fingers, nor how I had to interrupt my labours to pump the sump manually and carry the water away in buckets… But at last the job was done and I turned on the pump only to find nothing happened. The water just swirled around the bottom of the sump: the outlet pipe was clearly blocked, probably frozen…maybe I should have started there in the first place…

IMG_1536 pipe frozen

The pipe was frozen as it exited the wall

Now I had to go outside, clear the 30 cm of snow from the discharge pipe and direct a hairdryer on the pipe just as it comes out of the wall. After 20 minutes I switched on the sump pump again…Nothing doing. Now I took my new saw and cut the pipe near where it comes out of the wall – it was choked with ice. After a visit to yet another hardware store to get some ABS “Y” joints I poured very hot water down the pipe from the outside. Success! The pipe cleared and the sump pump pumped. Now all I had to do was to construct an insulating box on the outside of the house that would stop the outlet pipe from freezing as it came out through the wall. Fifty dollars later I emerged from yet another store with all the materials to do the job. I spent a whole morning cutting and fitting polystyrene slabs, glueing them inside (it was too cold for the glue to work outside) and then spraying in insulating foam and reconnecting the whole system with easily-removable, flexible joints. 

On Sunday we has no power for ten hours as the ice storm created “catastrophic damage” to the Ontario power grid. By the time power returned the sump pump was covered in two feet of water; to my relief it cleared it all in thirty seconds. So now we have a new sump pump (and one old one that may still work), a clear insulated pipe (to be tested during the next really cold snap) and I have a new electric reciprocating saw (which may help me cut up all the fallen branches from the ice storm). I think of all the money I saved by not calling in a plumber, and the pipe glue is coming off my fingers quite quickly now… Wonderful! May all your Christmases and Holiday Seasons but just as joyful but with a little less hard work and better weather!

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5 Responses to Fire and Ice: All I want for Christmas is a Sump Pump!

  1. JIm Taggart says:

    I feel your pain, David. Before my wife, kids and I moved to Ottawa in 2000, we lived in rural New Brunswick for five years. We, along with thousands on others, were smacked by the 1998 ice storm. When we lost our power, we ended up bailing by hand the water emerging into the basement because our sump pump had died and we didn’t have a gas powered generator.

    Fast forward: our problem was greatly worsened due to a rain-sodden, snow-clogged outlet pipe by the road, 50 years from our house. At my urging, the provincial road crew finally arrived with a backhoe to pull away the snow from the ditch. By the time I walked back to the house the water had drained away. Though it was a mess to clean up.

    That was our first and last experience living in the country. I’ll take the suburbs, thanks.

    Merry Christmas….Jim

  2. andy says:

    During winter months a good idea is to pump the sump water to your sewer amd avoid potential agravation. This problem you “solved” could recur.

  3. warren says:

    …through the years, the pump became rigid and stiff,
    frozen and root rot took hold, becoming bureaucratic
    in nature: Thus, immediate renewal became apparent!
    Good King David applied the New Ecology of Leadership,
    moving into the wilderness, and experimenting and relying
    on community for new parts, procedures and tasks, in order
    to plant a new seed of rejuvenation! Concentrating on why
    and how, coming down to the ground level, and using logic,
    reason, power, and his own intuition to guide the elephant
    into a process of value! Within the context of time and
    space, looking through a new lens, perceiving and learning
    at the front line, new contextual applications taking longer
    than once thought, but succeeding through his own empowerment
    and leadership skills!

    King David now returned to his holiday feast, with new learned
    processes which had already been apparent in his book, but now
    tried and tested, with successful results in hand! As he took
    a drum stick, after carving the roast beast, and offering to his
    family and friends, he looked at his offspring at the table. He
    wondered if one or all would eventually would take up his leadership
    of his Kingdom though the New Ecology of Leadership, and if the example
    he set with the notorious sump pump and his book and world wide lectures
    would be enough to set the example!

    One of the grand children spoke up, and said, “Grandpa, I started reading
    your book on Leadership! I think its a good book because it showed you how
    to go about fixing the sump pump”!

    King David smiled, and realized all was well……


    Merry Christmas David 🙂

  4. warren says:

    Advice on sump pump:

    Having been in the cleaning business for over 25 years, the staff
    and myself have cleaned up thousands of sewer back ups, floods,
    water damages and the like. We have cleaned out basements that have
    had 5 feet of raw sewage in them! Here is some advice for what it is
    worth David, without prejudice:

    1) The ‘city’ will tell you that the storm drainage is not connected
    to the sewage lines. This may be true or not. I know where we are, in
    certain areas they connect, because years ago they were built this way.
    This might or might not be a problem where you live.

    2) Talk to a certified company (probably plumbing or engineer) who will
    analyze your plumbing/sewage/sump pump/drainage/weeping tile etc/ entire
    system…for potentially putting in ‘stop doors’ in the system to prevent
    sewage and other from backing up, or coming in through the shower hole, the
    laundry room drain hole, and toilets in the event of severe flooding

    3) Sump pumps never work when they need to. Why? They should be run/tested
    every 3 months to make sure they are working. ‘No one’ ever does this, but
    they should. Problem is, even when they are working, the power goes out.
    Back up generator? Ok, but this needs to be tested on a regular basis too,
    and people seldom do.

    4)Trees/roots in system. Can be inspected with certified people with long
    hose type camera…but costs some money to do so.

    5) Plugged system…is it on your side or on the city side of the lines?
    Hard to prove…and even if you do, city will say they are not responsible
    for a plugged line because someone flushed something inappropriate down
    their toilet, of some kid through a ball in the system. Suing the city is
    not easy.

    6) Insurance. Make sure you have proper insurance covering all aspects of
    sewer/flood/water etc damage. Where I live, the deductible is an automatic
    $1000 pretty well for sewage back ups, because we have so many in our area.
    Extra insurance riders, if available, and can afford them get them. Go through the policy line by line with broker and make sure everything is

    7) Away for holidays. Check insurance policy on how often home has to be
    checked when away for holidays. Some policies say the home has to be checked
    every 48 hours, or no coverage.

    8) Plan of attach in case basement floods. What will you do if you do get
    1 or 2 feet of water in the basement? Are there items in your basement that
    should never be on the floor in case this happens, or in protected water
    proof tote boxes? (ie pictures of kids and family stored in cardboard boxes
    on the floor in a closet in basement will be totally ruined if a flood occurs or a fire occurs)

    9) Sentimental Value Items are not covered by insurance. That is, if you have
    a sentimental book/picture that is worth everything to you, for insurance
    purposes it is worth nothing or little, or the value of the book itself.

    10) Antiques. Usually require extra insurance and have to be identified and
    separately insured.

    11) Make a video or take a minimum of 200 pictures and list all the contents
    in your house. Put the video/pictures in some safe place away from the
    house if possible (list contents etc). If a major disaster happens and you
    have a video/pictures/lists of all your belongings and home before the disaster, the claim will go very smooth. If not, you will have to make a list
    after the disaster anyway, and you will not be paid for this by insurance.

    12) Do not listen to what a neighbour says. Check your insurance with the broker, and check out everything I have said here with EXPERTS in the field.

    13) When talking to ‘EXPERTS’ for advice, make sure you are talking with people who have been in the field, or business, or industry for more than
    20 years, and it does not hurt to go up the ladder and talk with Occupational
    Health and the like for further concerns to check if what people are saying
    is true.

    14) Never throw anything out until you have PROVED to the insurance what you
    had…if possible and everything is not destroyed beyond recognition.
    Evidence is crucial

    15) Money/jewelry etc is only insured up to a certain point, in some cases
    no more than $1000 dollars. Check your insurance policy.

    16) Shut your water main off when going on holidays.

    Warren 🙂

  5. Jay says:

    We got some of that weather down here in Maine. Luckily, we maintained power. When I first moved into this house, the basement was dry. After one storm, I had a foot of water down there. Now I’ve got two pumps tied into one discharge pipe. Looking forward to seeing it work.