This Old House-Part 1

This Old House-Part 1


Our winter in Madison, Wisconsin started off mild, with above average temperatures and below average snow until January. 

In January and February, we had more than three feet of snow and the polar vortex, with record-setting low temperature.  Between the end of February and the middle of March, we had intermittent temperatures above freezing and several rain storms on top of the snow and ice.

This year’s extremes have stressed many systems that ordinarily operate well under typical conditions.  City streets seem to have more potholes.  Buildings and roads in southern Wisconsin in March flooded with a rapid thaw—snow melt, rain storms, and ice-clogged streams and rivers all contributing to problems.   My house had water issues, too.

I got good lessons in applied problem solving as we struggled to (1) understand why rain storms in late February and early March this year led to water in our basement and (2) what to do next. In Part 1 of this three-part post, I’ll describe the problem.  In Part 2, I’ll tell you what we did.  In Part 3, I’ll connect the basement water saga to my day job—lessons in systems thinking and use of the Plan-Do-Study-Act test cycle.

What before Why:  Go See

A rain storm in late February caught me by surprise; we had had no water in the basement adjacent to our driveway for many years but now had lots of water covering the floor.  I was home alone that first rainy weekend and mopped and dried things out.  I thought that the high mounds of snow around our house and driveway topped by rain created an unusual event, unlikely to recur.   No countermeasures taken.

Ten days later, we had more rain and another flow of water into the basement. What was up?

We deployed a set of absorbent berms to contain the water in the vulnerable corner of the basement and started using our wet-dry shop vac to suck up the water quickly.   

While we speculated about many possible causes, I’ve coached teams to start detective work with observations before getting too wedded to a specific theory. Human minds like to jump to causal stories that may not yield effective fixes.  ‘Go See’ and advice to ‘Understand What before Why’ can temper tendencies to rush to inapt conclusions and wasted effort.  Here was an opportunity to try to follow my own advice.

During the second rain event that caused water in the basement, I saw water dripping over the edge of the gutters, putting water adjacent to our foundation. This flow differed from the usual flow directed away from the foundation through the gutters and downspouts.

The next day when I climbed carefully up on the roof, I saw that our architecturally distinct built-in gutters—wide and shallow—were completely filled with ice; the drain holes from the gutters to the downspouts were frozen shut, too.   That was a surprise—in past winters, our R60 attic crawlspace insulation, relatively tight roof construction and typical slow melting of snow during late winter and early spring had never led to so much ice build-up.   The ice build-up explained why the water came over the edge of the gutters.

I also noticed that our driveway, with several sections replaced in August 2018, does not now slope consistently from back of the lot to the street.  I found a ¼ inch high lip between driveway sections adjacent to the leaking foundation wall that prevented easy flow down the driveway. There was a little bit of pooling of water between an old and new driveway section, too.  Maybe that pool accounted for some water sneaking toward the foundation from the driveway.

At the northwest corner of the foundation where we had the water problem, there is a small area of soil right underneath a couple of downspouts.   In the second big late winter rain, I observed the corner downspout leaking directly into this area, adding more moisture near our foundation on a mound of snow.   Another possible source of water.  

A couple of days later, I consulted with the basement contractor we had used two years ago to install a sump-pump and drain system in a crawl space in a new section of the house.  We agreed to install a similar system in the old part of the basement.   It looked like that might catch water at the foundation and prevent water flowing into our main basement area in the future.   Project scheduled for May.

A few days after the contractor consultation, we had a third heavy rain.  Water again entered the basement.  This time, we pulled a storage rack away from the foundation wall and found a primary entry point:  water coming through a legacy crack in the foundation, at a rate of several gallons an hour at peak flow.  We vacuumed up gallons of water that otherwise would have run toward our furnace, stored furniture and clothes, and on to my office in an adjacent new part of the basement.

The legacy crack had been dry for years.  What had changed?  

A time constraint

The night of the third rain event, we were 14 days away from the start of a long-planned ten-day family trip on March 28.

Either we canceled this family trip or we needed at least a temporary solution until the contractor could come in May.

What could we do?

Part 2 of this post will continue the story and describe what we did.



This Old House-Part 2:  Actions

This Old House-Part 2: Actions

Regression to the mean

Regression to the mean