So what exactly happened in the basement, anyway?

Submitted by Ben on Wed, 08/20/2008 - 09:33

I was hoping to wait to post about the basement until the situation was resolved, but since it's been two weeks now and I still have no idea when that will be, I figured I should go ahead and post something.

Here's what we do know: At about 4 AM on August 6, our first night in the new house, the city sewer backed up into our basement.  The previous owners had unplugged the sump pump when they moved out, so I ran down (barefoot, in ankle-deep water) to plug it in, and I found that the water was coming very fast out of the toilet.  It got into the water heater and put out the pilot light.  It got into the air intake for the air conditioner / furnace.  It got the first few inches of all the pallets and old windows and other things the previous owners had left, and the lowermost wood panels of the interior wall.

By around 6:00 the water had stopped coming in and the pump finished pumping all the water out into the street.  Dad took the whole gang (himself, Mom, Jessie, Jessie's mom, and Jessie's brother Josh) out to breakfast, and then we went to Sutherlands to get a shop vac and a dehumidifier and some other gear.  Jessie and I sent the families home, and we spent most of two days cleaning up the sewage.  I asked our realtor whether we should clean it up ourselves, and he said yes, that was the best course of action.

I have to say that a basement full of sewage is not nearly as nasty as you're probably thinking, but it will be a while before I can face chocolate pudding again.  Anyhow, we got it all cleaned up to our satisfaction before leaving for the weekend.  We returned on Sunday the 10th to find that it had flooded again!  (Although we didn't see it come out the toilet this time, there was evidence that it had.)  This time we did not bother cleaning it up as thoroughly.  Instead we called the insurance agent (something we should have done the first time) and a plumber. 

We have now called two plumbers, and they have both taken a look and promised to come back later with more equipment.  Apparently it is unclear whether there is a shutoff valve to prevent sewer backups, and if so, whether the toilet is installed upstream or downstream from it.  If the toilet is upstream, we need to either replace the valve or have one put in; if downstream we will probably have to plug the toilet.

The insurance will take care of a professional cleaning, but only after the plumbing work is done; also the rental of industrial-size dehumidifiers to keep the basement dry in the meantime, and the duct cleaning and water-heater maintenance, and repainting the floor and walls.  Our realtor badgered the city into taking some responsibility for the plumbing repair, but they want to see an estimate, and we haven't yet got one to show them.

Here's what we don't know:

  • Why did this not happen before we moved in?  If it had, the previous owners would not have been able to show the house.  Is there a valve that was working previously, and has since clogged up?  Or does it have to do with the city switching us over to a different sewer main shortly before we moved in?
  • Will we get to keep the downstairs toilet, which is very convenient for cleaning purposes?
  • When will this all be resolved?
  • How much will it cost?

I want to emphasize that the upstairs is still very nice.  The basement just smells like a basement.  The situation is under control as long as we don't get another heavy rain.  The main problem is the stress of knowing the problem is unresolved and we're totally at the mercy of the plumbers.