A (very long) post about drainage

Water will do what water wants to do. Water is a formidable adversary. Water seems to like our basement. Yes. We have issues with water.

After a good rain, our backyard used to look like this:

Puddle

If you are familiar with Brooklyn brownstones, you know that they were typically built over a stone cellar. You may also know that brownstones typically have only one downspout. That means that the whole roof drains to just one area. Not only our roof, but all of our neighbors’ roofs do the same. Some people have connected their downspouts to the sewer line, but most have not. This means that a whole lot of water ends up pudling in the back yards – and water being water, it will follow the path of least resistance to go someplace else (which in our experience leads straight to our cellar).

There are a few things you can do to gently persuade water to go the other way: you can improve the grading so that it slopes away from the house, for example. But given the volume of water our backyard collects, that in itself is not the solution. We needed to do more. The easiest solution is to do something like a French drain: dig a hole, line it with landscaping fabric. Place a PVC pipe, with holes drilled into the sides, into the hole. Fill the hole with gravel. Cover with landscape fabric and the surface material of your choice. Add a drain cover to the pipe. Voilá. You have made a drain.

Last spring, I dug a test drain. It was about 2 1/2 feet deep and about 18 inches wide. It improved the moisture situation in the basement by about 75%. If one drain is good, 3 more would be much, much better!

Test Drain

Armed with a brand new sledge-hammer, shovels and the enthusiasm of people who just don’t know any better, we set out to dig one blissful Saturday afternoon in July. Not 30 minutes in, this happened:

Thumb

In our eager enthusiasm, the rhythm of drop chunk of concrete/pick up chunk of concrete fell out of sync and I ended up with the raddest manicure in all of Brooklyn (I also didn’t do a damn thing for the rest of the drainage project, because I had a boo-boo).

With me out of commission, the Mr pushed on. The first thing we learned is that our backyard is made up mostly of rocks. This sort of makes sense, since these seem to be left over rocks from the foundation. I suppose whatever didn’t get used, just got left behind and eventually buried. This is a small sample of the huge pile of rocks we dug up:

Backyard rocks

The plan was to dig 3 separate holes, but they quickly morphed into more of a trench because we had to un-earth SO.MANY.ROCKS! We found this super giant rock, which could have been an awesome addition to our landscaping, but too damn heavy to move.

Giant Rock

This is the mess we made, put into perspective.

Big Mess

Making the drains is quite simple: Dig a hold about 3 feet deep and line it with landscape fabric. Place a couple of inches of pebbles at the bottom. Take a PVC pipe and drill holes all up and down the sides (we used a 3 inch pipe), and place the pipe vertically into the pebbles. Fill the rest of the hole with pebbles/gravel, then cover with landscape fabric.

Drain schematic 1

Place whatever surface material on top (soil, pavers, etc), and put a drain cover on the pipe. Ta-da! You’re done.

Drain schematic2

This is what the test drain looked like, half way done:

Screen shot 2014-10-15 at 4.29.32 PM

Test drain almost finished:

TestDrain in Progress

Instead of gravel, we crushed up the concrete we removed to dig the drains. That solved two problems: what to do with the concrete, and having to buy gravel and then carry it through the house to the back yard. Also, it’s immensely satisfying to bust up things with a heavy sledge-hammer (so long as you are careful not to smash your thumb).

The drainage project has been finished for a few months, and our basement has been dry ever since. Unlike many of the projects we take on, this one was relatively quick and simple – but it was hard work (I’m told…)

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