It’s called a crawl space for a reason. Crawling is the only way you can get around when you are down there. You move on your hands and knees at best, more often on your stomach or your back, propelled along by digging your elbows into the ground.
I spent pretty much all day in the crawl space under The Project last weekend. You remember The Project, that never-to-be-finished addition to my house that I started some six years ago, which has been 90 percent complete for the last two years.
The reason I was down in my crawl space last weekend is this: the sump pump I installed when we laid the foundation had stopped working. My guess is it stopped working because it developed a leak, took on water, and shorted out. Or maybe it stopped working because I mistakenly tied it into the ground fault (GFI) outlet in the bathroom, and the start-up surge tripped the GFI.
I’m not exactly sure when the pump stopped working, but judging from the marine growth encrusted on it when I removed it from the sump, I’m guessing it must have been about two weeks after it was installed. I’m kidding. I distinctly remember hearing the pump work for at least three weeks.
The reason I had to put in a sump pump in the first place is that we have a very high water table in our neighborhood. I have been told this is because we are sitting on aquifers, which are sort of underground rivers. Like any river, when we get a lot of rain the aquifers overflow their banks and we get three inches of water in the crawl space.
When we excavated, I buried a loop of four-inch plastic pipe in a trench that encircled the inside of the crawl space. It’s a special type of pipe that has slits in it so that water can seep in. Both ends of the pipe emptied into the sump, a plastic can about two feet deep buried in the ground.
The pump itself was submersible and was dropped into the bottom of the sump. A discharge hose ran from the pump, across the crawl space, and to the outside through a hole I had cut through the foundation wall. A perfect setup. Yea!
What with a high water table and lots and lots of rain, you can imagine how much water had accumulated in the crawl space when I entered—crawling, of course—to install a new pump. Something else you need to know about crawl spaces and ground water. Crawl spaces are like caves. While they never freeze during the winter, they also never warm up in the spring. I’d estimate the temperature in my crawl space at slightly above freezing. The ground water is like spring water that comes from the bowels of the earth. Its temperature is only slightly above zero. It doesn’t freeze because it’s always moving, I guess.
There is another dynamic you need to understand. This one concerns any kind of work done in difficult-to-get-into-and-out-of places, places like crawl spaces. The dynamic is this: you will not remember one of the tools you need for the job until you have inched your way through freezing water for about a hundred yards.
And bear in mind, jobs like installing new sump pumps have many different phases, each phase requiring special tools that you will remember only when you are already at the job site.
Once I got the new pump installed, plumbing-wise, I still had to hook it up electricity-wise. Naturally, I had to tear out the old hookup from the GFI and tie in a new set of wires to a convenient source—in this case, an existing wall outlet—in the room above.
I use the word “convenient” in a relative sense, of course, since any new electrical installation requires accurate measuring, precise hole-drilling, and then feeding a long, impossibly whippy length of wire through the hole to the outlet above.
Naturally, each of these steps requires multiple trips into and out of the crawl space. And don’t forget that dynamic about tools. It also requires reasonable assurance that the electricity in question has been turned off at the breaker box in the garage. Actually, “reasonable” is not the appropriate word here. It really has to be a lead-pipe certainty. Trust me, when you are lying on your back in three inches of water, you don’t want the teensiest little nagging question about whether the current is shut off or not.
I made sure of the electrical question by plugging in a light and switching breakers until the light went off. At that point I felt safe. Unfortunately, my work light in the crawl space was also off, a fact I didn’t discover until I had crawled halfway in, so I had to retreat and reroute the extension cord.
The new pump was bigger and more powerful than the original one, so naturally, it required a bigger discharge line. Whereas the first one was happy using a flexible hose to carry the water into the yard, the new one insisted on solid two-inch PVC pipe.
And try as I might, I could not get the two-inch pipe to go through the one-and-a-half-inch hole I had chopped through the foundation wall for the flexible hose connected to the old pump.
Finally the job was done, and I crawled out of the gloom below and stood blinking in the sunlight. Then I crossed my fingers and flipped the breaker.
I have been told that when a mother gives birth, she forgets the pain immediately upon seeing her child. I can assure you it is likewise true when a newly installed sump pump roars to life and hundreds of gallons of water begin spewing beautifully into the yard. For a moment I even forgot I was dripping wet and shaking with cold.
Actually, there is yet another reason they call it a crawl space. Once you’ve spent the day there, crawling is about the only way you can get around for several hours.