Weird Noises Our House Makes: a Parable

The planet earth is our house. When it acts unpredictably (e.g., weird weather, sea level rise, certain plant and animal extinctions, tsunamis, etc.) maybe it’s just nature being random. Maybe it’s nothing we did, are doing, or can do anything about. Maybe, however, it’s caused at least in part by something we are doing or not doing, the least of which may be directly linked to our own myopic stupidity. Maybe the unpredictable behavior of our planet is akin to strange-if-not-bizarre, miscellaneous noises that a house might make. Usually such noises mean nothing, unless they are telling us something.

Maybe Al Gore was right.

Maybe Al Gore was right.

Houses make noises, particularly older ones. Most homeowners have grown accustomed to the noises their houses make, and have largely become desensitized. The root causes for the noises can be people walking around, plumbing, electrical appliances, the wind and the like. Early on a Saturday morning as I type this, I hear the fan inside my laptop, the quiet whoosh of central air-conditioning, the low hum of the refrigerator motor and the ticking of a couple of different clocks. If not blogging about it, I’d be consciously aware of only the absence of sounds from my still-sleeping family.


Some years ago, late one evening when everyone was in bed, I became aware of a different house sound. For about 20 seconds at a time, repetitively every couple of minutes or so, there was a click-bzzzzzzzzt-click sound. The initial click coincided with a brief dimming of the light in our bedroom.

The easy answer was to turn off the light, roll over and go to sleep. That approach (i.e., going to sleep) cures a lot of ills. Only by chance, this approach was not the one I chose on this particular night even though had we discussed it, my wife may have advocated it. Again, for most late night perils and ills, that solve works well enough most of the time.

On about the third cycle, I became consciously aware of this sound, as the lights dimming caught my attention. On one more cycle, I thought to myself that it’s our well pump. By cycle number 5, my brain was more keenly focused on the question of WHY the well pump was cycling repeatedly even though everyone was in bed. The well pump, you see, is triggered by a pressure decline in our household plumbing, which in turn is triggered by the use of water. But on this night, everyone was in bed and no one was using water.


Click-bzzzzzzzzt-click. “What’s causing that”, I wondered out loud. “What’s causing what? Whatever you are talking about, go to sleep” murmured my sleepy wife. “I’ll be back. I need to go see…” was my response. Out of bed, through our main level I walked, only to find everything dark, off and quiet. There it was again, “Click-bzzzzzzzzt-click!” With increasing puzzlement and the beginning of growing concern, I headed down the steps into our just-finished basement. Stepping off the last step onto the carpeted playroom floor, my toes squished into the sodden and saturated carpeting and padding!


CLICK-BZZZZZZZZT-CLICK! While bellowing “Houston, we have a problem! This is no drill!” at the top of my lungs, I splish-splashed my way to the laundry room, situated at the corner of the basement where the well water enters the house. Running through about an inch of water on the floor, I spotted the washing machine supply hose and its hole. Not feeling the back-pressure of the closed washing machine inlet valve (because of the hole), the well pump and pressure tank were performing precisely as designed: delivering fresh groundwater into the household plumbing system, and gradually filling our basement to the tune of roughly 5 gallons per minute.


The rest of the story is less fun and an object lesson in how the Money Pit in which we live can roar in unpredictable ways. Overnight, literally as well as figuratively, we became experts at basement flood cleanup and restoration. Since then for a variety of reasons differing in detail but with the common link being the stupidity of man (me) and never really nature or an “Act of God”, we’ve had the unhappy opportunity to further refine our urban flood control expertise. We own the most gear for this purpose short of Serv-Pro, and are adept at drying out Humpty Dumpty and putting him back together again.


We have learned that carpet padding is the perfect aquifer, that drywall can wick water upward, and mostly, we’ve learned that when a flood occurs, much like when someone has a stroke, minutes matter. Timely action is the best means of limiting risk, cost and challenge, and maximizing the odds of successful restoration.


The planet earth is our collective house and the air conditioner is broken. The basement is flooding. It’s getting warmer and wetter, whether we stay in bed and ignore the circumstance or not. A week does not go by without needs of record worldwide temperature increases, melting ice caps and other evidence of global warming.


Maybe global warming is not our fault and maybe there is nothing we can do. But in case there is something we can do, turning off the light, rolling over and going to sleep, hoping it all will be normal in the morning, is the wrong move. By morning the damage might be done and by then, there is nothing left to do but call the insurance company, stop paying the mortgage and declare bankruptcy. We owe it to our kids and grand-kids to get out of bed, investigate, turn off the water, clean up the mess, wring out the carpet padding, throw the breaker on the air conditioner, etc.


Urban Hydrology and The Holly Tree

I’m the son of a residential realtor.  The whole time I was growing up, I swore I would have nothing to do with that challenging, low-paying and seemingly unethical occupation.  Without going into detail (have the applicable Statues of Limitations all run, since the 1970s?), considerable effort sometimes was undertaken in cosmetically masking major defects associated with homes offered for sale.  The most common type of defect, and sometimes the one easiest to mask, was the wet basement.
flooded house
When in years later my wife and I were shopping for our first home, I was apprehensive and wary about the possibility of inheriting a prior owner’s latent problem of wet basement nature or otherwise.  It is in seller’s self-interest to conceal latent defects and it is in the realtor’s self-interests to say (and not say) whatever was necessary to close the deal.  We came to purchase a raised rancher with an unfinished basement, set into a hill that descends to the rear.  I very carefully inspected the basement wall and floor, particularly on the upgrade side, reasoning that that was the point of its maximum burial and closest proximity to the water table. If there was wet basement, it would be along this wall or floor.

I saw none and the home has been ours since 1992.  More aptly stated, it is the bank’s and they allow us to live here.  Details. mop

For years and through all manner of storms large and small, the basement remained bone dry and we gradually came to perceive that we had ducked the bullet on this common homeowner malady.  Kids came and we finished the basement (carpeting, padding, drywall, etc.), doubling our living space.  The basement stayed dry but for the occasional laundry room mishap attributable to the stupidity of man (me).  Routing of water conditioner discharge line, dry rot of the washing machine supply lines, etc.  Nuisance-level problems that were annoying and frustrating, but nothing that we (now equipped with a big wet-dry vac, fan and room dehumidifier) could not handle if they happened occasionally.
snow pammysnow steve
The “Storm of the Century” left us dry, as did the twice-a-decade blizzard and Hurricane Isabel. Later that year, however, we were mystified and frustrated to see that a rain of average intensity had put 5-to-10 gallons of water onto our basement floor.  We learned that carpet padding is the perfectly transmissive aquifer and cannot be safely dried, and that the basement floor of our home is not level but is slightly tipped to the northeast.  The cost of this education was an insurance claim and the perspective that perhaps we had been wrong about the water-tightness of our home all along.
The hydrogeologist in me wrapped his head around this puzzle. The well-known principle of uniformitarianism teaches that the Present is the Key to the Past, and our past had no wet basement challenges of natural origin. Something had changed, but what?  All of a sudden, we were all kinds of rainwater susceptible in the basement.  The area of the basement wall/floor where it seemed to be coming in (remember we have drywall up and no longer can observe the walls directly short of a major demolition project) seemed directly beneath the front door area.  Standing outside the front door during a deluge revealed that rainwater was not staying in the rooftop guttering in that area but was over-topping the guttering the splashing directly onto the ground right past our threshold.

flood insuranceSo up on a stepladder I went in the next rainstorm,  to carefully inspect our roof-edge rain guttering near the front door.  Sure enough, I saw that the gutter was clogged with the debris from the large holly tree right nearby.  The gutter itself was full of water that was not draining through the clogged downspout. Water was over-topping this guttering, and cascading down the front of the house and saturating the ground immediately outside the foundation, in the exact area where inside we have the water susceptibility.  By hand I scooped out many dead leaves, all with razor-sharp edges and prickers.  Once I had enough of them out, a giant whoosh of water occurred and the guttering dutifully emptied into the downspout.

In the weeks that followed, we undertook a downspout outfall rerouting project courtesy of some corrugated piping bought from Home Depot.   We gradually gained the upper hand on this latent susceptibility, except that the holly tree was doing what hollies do – it was growing.  It towered ever-taller over the roof-line and seasonally and otherwise, generously shed leaves and other debris into the guttering.  Gutter clean-out projects became a regular part of home ownership and when we forgot or became distracted, we remained susceptible to wet basement issues, both small and not so small.


Something more drastic and permanent needed to be done.  So recently, armed with a handsaw, lopping shears and other gardening equipment, I undertook to give the holly a military haircut.  It is possessed of three parallel trunks, each at least 8 inches in diameter.  The one closest to the house now terminates 5 feet about the ground rather than fifteen. Time will tell if my immense sense of sweaty satisfaction is deserved or premature, but I’m cautiously optimistic.


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