My last basement dig out post was June 3rd. With the dumpsters and excavator gone we stalled out and decided just to hire the rest out. The concrete contractors we talked to gave us some very reasonable quotes and we were just waiting for the plumbers to get back to us. We finally got a couple plumbing quotes, but they’re really, really expensive.

We’re basically looking for three things from the plumbers: (1) replace the old clay sewer line under the basement floor with an overhead system plus rough-in for the basement bathroom and floor drains to an ejector pit, (2) replace the old lead water service with a new copper line, and (3) install an interior weeping system (aka drain tile) with a sump pit. The new water line in particular involves either excavating pits and horizontal boring or a trench across the yard and the street, so it’s the biggest line item, but the sewer work is pretty pricey too.

We’re going to try and get another couple quotes in hopes of a less expensive option, but time is getting short to get this work done before the cold weather sets in. In the mean time, we’re going to tackle the weeping system ourselves. While it’s the least expensive item on the list, it’s the only one we can realistically do. Even though it  won’t bring the plumbing costs down by a lot, we’ve got to do everything we can if we want to move forward.

Before we can put in the weeping system we need to level the subsoil in the basement. When we dug out the basement with the mini-excavator, our limited experience meant the end result wasn’t what you’d call perfectly smooth. Because it’s all clay, making it flat is extremely labor intensive. We’d held off leveling it until we’d talked to the plumbers because we weren’t sure if they were going to have to dig up the existing sewer and water lines. Now we know that’s not the case and we can get started. They’ll only need to dig a hole in the front corner, and over by the soil stack.

Not level

Not level

The first step was to dig out the corners where we couldn’t get the excavator in close, then go around with a pressure washer and clean up the stone footings. Once everything was cleaned up I used the laser level to measure how close to level the subsoil is. I started working from the front bay window toward the back of the house, focusing on one four foot square at a time. I quickly discovered there’s a gradient of clay consistency from one side of the house to the other, requiring different techniques to level out.

Level line

Level line

On the North side of the house the hard-packed clay is the consistency of old, dried fudge. It’s so dense you can’t slice a shovel through it and I have to use the mattock to chip it away. As I move to the other side, it gets gradually softer, which is why a lot of that side is actually dug too deep. So, I take all the clay shavings from the one side and dump them on the other, then use a block of wood and a hand-held sledge hammer to pound it flat. I thought about using a plate compactor or a lawn roller, but everywhere I need to compact the clay it’s sticky and would make a huge mess. As much as I don’t want to do it all by hand, it’s probably the only way. I drew a line on both the shovel and my block of wood to check my progress as I went, as well as a longer board that I could use to check larger areas. Basically, everything needs to be 6″ below the laser line.

Progress is very slow. I often find myself adding up square footage in my head and breaking it down into percentages, since while the digging is physically hard and time consuming, it’s also mind numbing. Each 4×4 section is averaging me nearly half an hour. I’ve only done about 300 square feet so far, to the back of the first column footing, but just that has been a huge pain over several days.

I’m planning to get the leveling finished over the long weekend, but there’s a lot more work to the weeping system. My hope is that by doing this portion ourselves, we can save enough money to still move forward with the basement this year. After getting excited about our reinvigorated timeline, I don’t want to get derailed out of the gate.

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