It never rains, but it pours

And the rain was pouring here on the weekend. Pouring into the Man Cave, which it isn’t meant to. Ugh. But being a basement (and below soil level in part), it is where the rain will end up if you don’t have proper drainage.

Which, with the advent of the spring rains here in the Bay Area, we discovered we hadn’t. Or at least we didn’t.

And I have to apologize before I begin, because unlike most DIY things you see on the internet, in this post we don’t end up with ugly befores and pretty afters to gosh over. In fact, the after does not look significantly different than the before, but it is worthwhile remembering, that DIY isn’t all just pretty pictures. Sometimes it is just sheer grunt hard work. And sometimes it is what goes on underneath that is the important thing, even though it looks exactly the same.

This week, a house emergency once again dragged me away from studio sorting out. And because it was the Man Cave, which is the beloved’s zone, where he will tinker around with all the electronic stereo equipment left behind by the previous owner, it was deemed w-a-y more important than painting my filing cabinet (I ask you: what could possibly be more important than fixing an ugly filing cabinet?).

We suspected we might have a problem a couple of weeks after we moved in, when I demolished some sagging particle board shelves in the Man Cave, so I could move some metal shelving from the garage down there. When I pulled them apart, I found they were wet on the bottom. Particle board does not do well if it is wet, hence the drooping lean of the shelves. Behind the shelves was a small section of dirt wall, that was beneath the steps that go down the side of our place, and is the main outside access from the street to the garden. If that makes sense … it’s probably easiest to show you a picture:

What was behind the shelves: collapsed dirt in Man Cave

Actually we knew it was an issue before then, because our housing inspector, Max, pointed it out to us as something that would need addressing at some point. But when I pulled the shelves out, I could see part of the dirt wall had collapsed and there was a distinct damp smell. I knew I would have to put some sort of retaining wall in there to block it up, and make it look prettier. Structurally, it was not a problem, but it is better not to have dirt washing into your Man Cave each time it rains. Particularly if you want to play electronics in there.

There were no cracks anywhere, it was clear nothing had moved, and that it had been like that since they dug out the Man Cave, so we weren’t particularly worried, particularly as Max said it did not compromise the house foundations.

And then the spring rains arrived, and with the particle board no longer present to suck up the moisture, we suddenly had a puddle in the back of the Man Cave. Water in your basement is not good, and I knew it had to be coming from somewhere. As it only happened when it rained, it wasn’t too hard to surmise that it was a problem with drainage. Water naturally flows downhill, and if your Man Cave is the lowest point, that is where it will end up.

So, I went and had a look at the steps outside to see if there was an obvious issue. This is what I saw:

What a fantastic piece of down spouting. Not.

Who, in their right mind, would attach a down spout to the gutter half way down the roof, and then let it dump the water onto the steps right above your man cave? Surprise surprise, there was a small hole next to the steps, made by the water, that led directly into the Man Cave.

So, in response to my beloved’s gentle, but persistent, nagging (he couldn’t sort out his Man Cave until it was done after all) I put my studio plans to one side, and set to work starting to build a retaining wall down there, as stage one of this operation. To do this I had to dig out all of the debris, and then dig down, so I could put a french drain lower than the Man Cave floor, to encourage the water to go there, instead of puddling on the floor.

It is dark and dank and, well … Man Cave-y in the Man Cave. Digging is hard work, with not a lot of room to move, and especially with compacted damp claggy clay soil. Did I stop to take photos? No.

I just wanted to get it done. So I could get out of there as quickly as possible and back to painting filing cabinets. Which is a w-h-o-l-e lot more fun.

Picture me digging heartily, covered in dirt and muck, and then carting drain rock down in buckets from the top of the house, down the side steps, through the kid’s living room, through Peter’s office and into the Man Cave for the French drain. Dig. Dig. Dig. Up and down, up and down. Errrk.

And then it started raining. Of course it did. Here I am, drain just finished and retaining wall just started with a massive hole in the dirt wall. Uh oh. At first it didn’t seem to make much difference, but soon the rain didn’t just seep oozingly into the Man Cave as it had prior to my retaining wall efforts, it poured in. Literally. Oh. Em. Gee.

I had to do something and fast if we weren’t going to end up with floods of water plus ALL the soil under the steps AND the steps themselves in the Man Cave. Yikes!

I dashed outside and frantically reattached the loose bit of piping to direct the water off the steps, and added an extra bit to it. Then I quickly dug a mini drain all the way down the side of steps, and under the deck to direct the water into the back garden rather than into the Man Cave. I watched it for a bit, to make sure it was running like a little stream, and not merely diverting itself to make dramas further down the house (like running into the guest bedroom), then I went back in to check the Man Cave.

The interim drain

The water slowed from a torrent to a trickle and and then a drip, and then it stopped. Phew! Crisis averted.

As I watched, a large chunk of the dirt wall detached itself and collapsed in a wet gooey heap in the bottom of my retaining wall hole. Eeesh! I sprang back into action, redoubling my efforts to get the wall finished, dashing up and down with buckets of drain rock in between layers of wall, frantically hoping that no more would fall down in the meantime.

Luck was on my side. I managed to get the wall to a height where it wouldn’t matter if the dirt collapsed, and then collapsed exhausted myself. My beloved pressed a large glass of red wine into my hand, and fed me delicious coq-au-vin, before ladling me into bed.

I slept until 9 am the next morning, and discovered that I had sore muscles in places I didn’t even know existed. I spent the day on the couch recovering. Wondering how I had managed to go from contemplating what color my filing cabinet should be, to working on the chain gang, digging holes and carting rock in a dungeon.

The next day was Monday, the sun was shining again, and all seemed well with the world. My plan was to complete the work on the retaining wall on Tuesday, when the beloved would be out of his home office, and I wouldn’t be disrupting him by tromping past with bricks and bucket loads of drain rock.

I was merrily driving down to get some needed stationary supplies for the kids, contemplating the lovely spring day when the weather forecast came on the radio. Rain at midnight; most likely it would set in and rain all week.

Uh oh, I didn’t like the chances of my temporary stream drain holding up for very long. It was clear I was going to have to put in a permanent solution: a proper drain, and pronto!

I abandoned my stationary supply store plans and detoured to the hardware store. Armed with flexible pipe, connectors and weed control fabric, I headed home.

My first job was to deepen and enlarge the existing small temporary drain I had dug.

Digging in progress

It sounds easy. I’ll just dig a drain down the side of our steps. But when you factor in sodden heavy clay soil that sticks to your spade, the rocks you hit and have to remove, and the roots of the vinca, which grows like a weed down the side of the house, I began to feel like I was digging the Grand Canal itself.

Finally it was deep enough. I got out the weed control fabric and lined my hole with it.

Weed control fabric lining the hole

This is to stop any roots getting in and ruining my drain. Then I put a layer of drain rock over the bottom of the hole, on top of the fabric, as a nice bed for my pipe.

A layer of rain rock under the pipe

It is easier for the water to run through the drain rock, than through the clay soil. The plan being that the water would run happily down the hill into the back yard, and not into the Man Cave. Next I laid out all the pipe, and joined it together. I chose solid pipe, not perforated, because I wanted to take that down spout water right away from the foundations, and not have it leach into the soil, and from there into the Man Cave.

Pipe goes in next

Pipe goes in next

After this, I wrapped the pipe in the remaining weed control fabric, to be absolutely certain that no weeds were going to cause a problem for my lovely pipe.

All snuggled up in weed control fabric

Weed control fabric resists root penetration by plants, but has lots of tiny tiny holes in it to allow water to pass through it. After my drain was wrapped up cozily, I added a layer of drain rock down the sides and over the top of the drain pipe package.

Next more drain rock

This is to make a French drain effect around the pipe. The pipe will take care of the down spout water off our roof, but the French drain will take care of any surface water.

Finally after I had done all of this I added another layer of weed control fabric, to stop the roots getting into my drain rock, then backfilled the trench with the soil I had dug out.

All done

See, it looks as if nothing had happened at all! Underneath, though, underneath I know there is a wonderful drain, that will protect the Man Cave (and our foundations) from the rains. Now it can rain all it likes, and I can sleep at night again.

Then, while I was sitting there admiring my hidden handy work, Treadwell came along to do her cat inspection.

Treadwell inspects the new drain

And gives her her purr of approval

The big question is, though, what to do with this space now? I don’t really want to plant anything, because being plants, their roots are going to want to go where the water is, and I dont want to destroy my very important drain. Plus I don’t want to have to water anything down the side there, because I just spent 6 hours of my life making sure that water isn’t going to cause any more problems. It would be perverse to do that, and then start watering on top of it.

At the same time it seems a shame not to finish this space off somehow, since the soil has been dug over and is waiting for it. Somehow I just cant bring myself to leave it to go back to the wild weedy space it was before I dug anything.

So I am thinking mulch. Unless I can find a plant that has non-invasive roots, does not need watering ever, likes full shade and heavy clay soils. And pigs might fly!

But, I am open to suggestions here, people?

Did the forecast rains come? Ah, no. Of course they didn’t, because I put the drain in. If I hadn’t it would be pouring by now.


4 responses to “It never rains, but it pours

  1. Clare,

    That’s flippin’ amazing! I’m not sure what I would put there either … I am sure that there is a plant that would work, though!

    Hope you’re feeling ‘less sore’ and proud as you did quite a big job!! Thanks for sharing it!


  2. Thank you Gina! I am feeling fine again, and none the worse for wear for my drain digging yesterday. I made sure I bent my knees and engaged my core muscles each time I dug! The physical therapist I was going to for pilates told me to ‘soup bowl’ my tummy when using my back (ie imagine my belly button was the middle of a soup bowl to engage my core properly). So imagine me digging thinking ‘soup bowl and soup bowl and soup bowl’ Lol. It’s actually made a huge difference, and – fingers crossed – seems to have helped my back enormously.

    I think I will go and talk to the guys at the local nursery store about plants. I am sure they will have some great ideas as to what I could do there.

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