#5 – ‘Why I Will Never Be The Host Of This Old House.’
(Originally published 12/12/08.)
On Monday afternoon, I arrived home from work just after the freezing rain had begun. I made a point to leave the office early that day, as a snowstorm of apocalyptic (ie: typically Midwestern) proportions was on deck to ravage and pummel the county with its fluffy payload. Also, as a preemptive strike, I took the next day off as well, because I’m allergic to snow and have no interest in knowing what it feels like to die in a car accident.
As I stepped into my house and tossed my keys into the Key Bowl (every house should have one), I took a deep breath and relaxed, feeling relieved that I had nothing more to do during the first big snowstorm of the season than to sit in my flannel pajamas, sip hot chocolate, watch The Price Is Right and take a nine-hour nap.
I exhaled just as quickly, you see, for my house smelled disgusting.
I tilted my head in a futile attempt to understand why my home smelled so…gamey. It was as if a grizzly bear had, for whatever reason, picked the lock and wandered in hours earlier, rubbing himself on my furniture and pawing through my carefully-straightened stack of Rolling Stone magazines, only to show himself out just before I had arrived. Usually, my place would waft forth the aroma of a scented candle, or one of the many homemade breads that the Missus makes for absolutely no reason. Not today.
Naturally, I blamed the cats. They can be particularly foul beasts at times, and on occasion, their litter box funk tends to seep up through the basement and out the vents, bathing the condo with the all-too-familiar scent of feline feces until we clean it out. I silently chastised them and continued on with my upcoming Afternoon of Relaxation, with no intention whatsoever of changing the litter boxes on such a joyous and peaceful day.
For about, I don’t know, an hour or so, I ignored the fact that my house smelled like a State Fair, until I first heard the sump pump fire up. The freezing rain outside was getting bad, and it wasn’t until I heard the whoosh of the pump downstairs that I began to make the connection that I should probably check to see if my storage bins were floating around down there. I bounded down the steps, peeked around the corner and saw nothing but a dry floor and clean litter boxes. I was perplexed, as the full force of the musty scent hit my nostrils like a racist joke, instantly reminding me of our old apartment, which suffered from mold and flooding issues on a bi-weekly basis.
Now that we live up in an elevated region of the county (the Hills, bitch!), our basement is bone dry. We’ve never had a problem with flooding or leaking, so the unmistakable smell of dankness had me scratching my head in confusion. It doesn’t take much, but I was fairly stumped. This Snipe Hunt was cutting into my afternoon Talk Show block, however, so I gave up the search and went back upstairs. My Swiss Miss and Rachel Ray were calling to me.
It was about 10 minutes before the Missus came home when I heard the dishwasher start up. I found this to be quite perplexing, as I didn’t start the dishwasher, nor do we have a dishwasher that runs on a set timer, for those do no exist on this planet. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “Is this what happens every afternoon at my house? Phantom flooding and dish washing? I’d better make a note to never take a day off ever again; this place is starting to freak me out.”
Then, much like the Urban Legend about the babysitter, I realized that the sound of spraying and sloshing water wasn’t coming from the dishwasher, but from the basement. “The calls are coming from inside the house!”
I ran back down into the basement, this time actually turning on lights and walking around and whatnot. I saw the sump pump, sitting idly and unassuming, surrounded by walls, carpet and a lifetime of possessions that were completed saturated and soaked with water. When I turned my back on the pump, it probably gave me the finger, too.
By this point, the Missus was home, who I instructed to bring down as many towels as possible while I pulled back the carpet and got everything away from the sump pump. We sopped up all of the water, cranked the dehumidifier next to the wet carpet and stared into the pit of the pump, wondering just what was going on while we were away.
“I think we have a loose pipe or something,” I said. “Look, there’s water all over the walls and everything; I wonder how that happened.”
I then had the brilliant idea to trip the sump pump into working, so I could see exactly what was going on. Fishing out a golf club (7 iron, methinks), I stuck it into the pit and pulled up on the tanker ball, springing the pump into violent action.
Instantly, a six-foot geyser of water exploded from all directions inside the pit, drenching not only myself, but everything within a hefty radius from the corner of the basement. The Missus screamed, the cats scattered and I watched in soaked horror as gallons of water cascaded onto the walls, floor, ceiling and most notably, directly onto the outlet in which the sump pump was plugged in.
As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, the pipe outside of the house had frozen due to the freezing rain, clogging the sump pump tube and preventing it from shooting the water outside of the house. Because of this, the built up pressure blew the pipes apart, creating the Fountain Show and subsequently eventual electrical fire in the basement of CDP Headquarters.
So we tightened the pipe, cleaned up the pool of water (again), and I began to suit myself up for a trip outside of the house and under my deck, to disconnect the frozen pipe and save my home from destruction. Some day off this turned out to be.
We live in a chain of condos, so walking around to the back of the house requires a trip more or less down the street and around the corner, and amidst one of the worst snowstorms of the last three years, it was not something I was looking forward to. I blindly stumbled through the pitch-black backyards of the Wyndham Hills subdivision, sinking into two-foot drifts at random intervals and trying to remember which deck was ours. Dogs barked at me; I wasn’t happy.
I dropped to my knees and dug the sump pump tube out from under a foot of snow, and it was indeed frozen solid. The landscaping crews must have decided that it was getting in their way this Summer, and they coiled it up under the deck instead of unfurling it like, you know, a functioning tube that directs water away from your home should. After about 15 minutes of unscrewing, twisting, grunting, falling over and swearing, I had the tube disconnected from the house and ready to bring back to the garage for a full night’s thawing.
Before that, however, we needed to make sure that the sump pump was now functioning properly and the pipes had been adequately tightened by my girlish hands and debatable wrist strength. So I yelled to the Missus to run down to the basement and plug the sump pump back in (we unplugged it so the house wouldn’t burn down). As the sump pump had been running for hours, trying feverishly to dispel the clog for the bulk of the day, the pit was full of steaming, vibrating, near-boiling water.
Much like a scene directly from The 3 Stooges, I happened to be outside and looking directly into the eye of the sump pump hole at the exact moment she plugged it back in, spraying me down with three gallons of two hundred-degree water in a sub-zero snowstorm. I fell back, lost my screwdriver in the snow (I’ll retrieve it in June) and clutched the length of frozen tubing with equal parts anger, confusion and sadness.
“It’s fixed!” I yelled to the Missus. “Call an ambulance!“
Afterwards, we surveyed the damage, which amounted to nothing more than a slightly wet basement. You’d think that my pride would have been the only major casualty, what with the pipes exploding all over me due to sheer ignorance, or the embarrassing scene out in the snow on my hands and knees. However, I felt good. As far as Home Ownership 101 is concerned, this seemed like a Level 1 issue, and I (eventually) handled it with a certain amount of poise and grace (and wet pants and frozen hands). Maybe because of this, I’ll be more prepared when a Level 2 issue decides to show up. I always thought that buying a condo gave you a happy medium between responsible financial equity and not having to fix things when they break, but when the pipes explode in your basement during a blinding snowstorm, you’re pretty much on your own, regardless of how inept you are at fixing stuff.