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Spare Parts: Colder than a well digger’s ankle

By Ernie Copper

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Water is not usually a biker’s best friend on the road. It’s even less of a friend in the garage, especially if that garage is a humble pre-depression era two-car variety that has been packed full of things that weren’t even invented when the garage was built. In spite of its humble origins, my garage did have a pit when I bought my house. Pits were once popular in garages to help carry out basic car maintenance such as oil changes and chassis lubes, but fell out of favor when suing people for personal injury came into vogue. As a smart and responsible home owner, I filled my pit in with dirt and cut some pieces of wood to fit nice and flush with the concrete floor.

Every once in awhile, I would notice a sort of squishy sound from beneath those boards after a heavy rain or thaw, but never thought much about it. Eventually I decided on a more permanent and attractive solution to the pit and removed the boards, replacing them with 6” of concrete, poured and finished to match the existing garage floor. It looked great and, naturally, not long after that is when the trouble started. Groundwater and run-off water began to infiltrate my garage! It started off as a small puddle here and there, no big deal, but as the neighborhood changed due to additional driveways, the loss of a tree here and there and run-off, the issue became significant. As in at its worst, you needed a pair of boots to get into the garage!

The front half of the garage was the worst, since it was a little lower than the back, so I moved the bikes and other important items to higher ground as a temporary solution. First, I tried digging a French drain on the uphill side of the garage, hoping to catch the water and divert it before it made its way inside. That worked pretty well until a particularly heavy snow was melted by an unusually heavy rainfall that was just too much for my stopgap system to take. I was being flooded out of the garage and even though I knew that was a temporary condition, I couldn’t bear the thought of my prized bikes, tools and mini fridge being adrift in the structure that was intended to protect them from such elements.

I had to try something and try it quickly and from my short list of available options, I chose to dig a sump pit and install a pump. First, I had to pick the lowest spot in the garage to minimize the impact on my useable floor space. A typical sump crock looks quite a bit like your average plastic garbage can and it works on the principle of creating an intentional low spot for the water to flow into from a series of holes at various levels in the crock. Once it reaches a predetermined level, a small electric sump pump kicks on, and pumps out the water to a discharge tube outside the affected building and sends it downhill, solving your problem and passing it on to the next guy down the hill, which in my case is a drainage ditch.

The worst part of installing the sump system is digging a pit, which in this case required breaking out about 10 sq. ft. of concrete with a sledge before I could even begin to dig. Breaking out concrete that is underwater when the temperature is hovering near freezing is not pleasant and brings new meaning to the old phrase “Colder than a well digger’s ankle” (and other anatomical features north of that). By the time I got it all broken out neatly, I was soaked and frozen, but there was lots of digging left to do. With a spud bar and shovel, I went at it with a vengeance and my progress was rewarded by the water rushing into the hole from the rest of the garage a little quicker than I dug it out. Eventually, I had a nice oversized hole to place the plastic crock into and I filled around the outside of it with a considerable amount of gravel. After drilling a hole for the discharge pipe, I put the pump in the bottom of the crock, hooked it all up, plugged it in and smiled as it ran until my garage was empty. Success!

Aside from a trashcan-sized spot in the front corner of my garage, there are no adverse effects from this solution. This spring I’m happy to report that I am high and dry with nary a drop making its way in from beneath, above or alongside of my garage. A dry garage is a wonderful thing and at least for now, I’ve disproven the old adage that “when it’s man vs. water, water always wins.”

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