Last year one of our primary goals was to finish the basement before winter. At a minimum we wanted the floor poured because it will have radiant heating. That way we could get the water heater and the washer and dryer into the heated basement. Because of the plumbing delays none of that happened, so everything is still on the unheated first floor. Knowing the risks (from previous year mishaps), we put heating cable on the new water main that runs down the beam in the basement and insulated it. The pipes in the first floor already have heating cable and insulation from previous years.

We’ve been fortunate to have a fairly mild winter this year, but we had a cold snap earlier this month and the first casualty was the water heater. We have a high-efficiency condensing gas water heater that I really like, even if a wall-mounted inline water heater would have been more convenient, given our basement renovations. Unfortunately, the condensing aspect means there is a drain line at the bottom of the exhaust vent. It’s a plastic tube that wraps around the water heater at near-floor level and out a hole in the side of the house. It’s supposed to go to a floor drain, but since the water heater is temporarily on the first floor, it’s draining outside. That drain line froze, so the water backed up and blocked the exhaust vent. When I tried to melt the ice with a heat gun I melted the tube. When I tried to disconnect the tube I broke the connector to the vent and cut up my hand on a sharp sheet metal edge. I managed to replace the connector and the tube and so far it’s been fine.

The second casualty was the washing machine. Two years ago the water inlet and valve assembly in the washing machine froze and cracked and we had to replace it, so since then we’ve been careful to drain the lines when it gets cold. Last year we had some bitterly cold days and managed to get through without issue. This year I thought I was being clever by turning off the water and then starting a fill cycle on the washing machine to drain the lines instead of unscrewing the hoses at the back. As it turns out that wasn’t clever and the assembly froze and cracked again.

The third issue was the next day when we got home from work and the cold water wasn’t working on the second floor. Apparently, even though all the pipes are insulated and heated all the way up to the second floor, the inaccessible area in the second floor wet wall got cold enough to freeze. I used a heat gun in the bathroom and got it flowing again.

This past Saturday, still waiting for the replacement washer part, Sarah got home to discover a torrent of water spraying all over the basement and the front yard! When we got the new water service, we asked the plumbers to install a spigot at the front of the house. When I installed the heating cable and insulation on the main, I skipped over this small branch line. Apparently it froze, but didn’t leak until it melted when the temperatures warmed up. The joint between the spigot and the copper pipe popped free. I had to turn off the water at the meter, run to Home Depot and buy a valve, and install that on the branch line. That way we can at least turn off and drain the branch. Later that day the new washer assembly arrived and I got that installed as well.

We’re hoping the coldest weather is behind us. The latest update on the plumbing is that if they can get the permit by today, they can repair the sewer tap by mid-next week. What that means for the timeline on the re-lining isn’t clear, but I’m guessing we’re looking at the end of February. I still need to clean up the weeping trench in the basement, but there hasn’t been any urgency on that.

It’s a new year, but we’re still waiting for the basement plumbing. With the city insisting that we needed to repair the sewer tap, the plumbers had to hit us up for more money (a lot more money). The alternative was to run a new sewer line under the house that then tied into the existing sewer line in the front yard instead of re-lining the existing sewer. There are several reasons we decided against that. The first is that we already got a quote for that (from another plumber) and it was still more than doing the re-lining (even with the tap repair). The second is that the tap would still be broken and could fail in the future. The third is that the existing clay sewer line in the front yard goes under the maple tree and will need regular hydro-jetting if it doesn’t gets re-lined with epoxy. Basically, even with the additional cost, this is still a better end product for (probably) less money. Unfortunately, it’s not as much less as it was originally.

We made payment and signed paperwork on the 18th, which was of course the week before Christmas. They came out and resprayed the lines in the street and easement and put up the little marker flags, but so far nothing else has been done. I appreciate the lengths that the plumbers went to to try to save us money by getting the water department to let us skip the tap repair. At the same time, they knew this was likely back in October. If they had just relented then we’d probably be done by now. Instead this project has been going on for over three months when it was originally projected at six weeks. Now there’s snow and ice on the ground, it’s undeniably going to be more difficult, and we’re still living on the second floor and contending with our water heater, freezer, and washer and dryer running on the unheated first floor. Simply put, we’re frustrated, and the huge extra bill right before Christmas didn’t help anything.

We’re resigned at this point to another winter on the second floor, supplementing our undersized radiators with electric heaters and struggling to get the temperature up to 68°. I really hope they are able to continue work if the ground freezes.

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Service lines

Service lines marked

The day finally arrived! Wednesday, the plumbers showed up with trucks, trailers, an excavator , and a generator to start the water service line replacement. The water main is on the far side of the street, so they had a lot of work to do. The first step was to cut and dig a hole in the street where the existing ¾” lead service line connects to the water main. The old line runs directly on top of the sewer pipe, and the new service needs to be located ten feet away, which means the next step was to cut and excavate a second hole in the street. Unfortunately at that point the saw blade on their giant concrete saw broke and they had to give up for the day.

Work underway

Work underway

Thursday they excavated for the new buffalo box in the front easement. Hopefully the process didn’t damage our maple tree, since it provides a lot of afternoon shade, and none of our close neighbors on this side of the street have a mature tree out front. They got the second hole cut, along with a trench across the street from the buffalo box to the second hole, but at that point didn’t excavate the concrete. In the mean time they dug out a hole inside the basement at the front corner.

Friday they did the horizontal bore, where they basically drilled a 2″ hole through the dirt from the buffalo box all the way to the basement, maybe twenty-five feet. Unfortunately I wasn’t home to take pictures of the process, but I could see the hole in the basement when they were done. They originally had planned to switch service on Monday, but instead they did the actual excavation of the trench and second hole in the street and ran the copper tubing into the basement from the buffalo box, plus most of the interior copper pipe which runs overhead from the front of the basement back along the beam to the mechanical room.

Finally on Tuesday they cut over service. The old line was disconnected from the main and cut, the new line was connected and tied in, and our new meter was in place. The plumber said he flushed water through to get the solder out of the line, but it still tastes foul. It will probably take a few days to fully clear out. There’s a leak in the valve just past the meter, so they’re coming back out today to correct that, and they still need to patch the trench in the street, which we’re reminded of every time a car drives over the steel plates, but it’s in! My next step is to put heating cable and insulation on the new line in the basement so it doesn’t freeze before we get our heated floor poured. Temperatures have been thankfully warm, but still trending lower and it’s getting below freezing at night. I also need to go clean up the weeping trench. They put the drain tile back in place, but it’s not trenched the way I had it before.

Formed steps

Formed steps

Our concrete mason, Mario, was back this past Saturday building the forms for the stairs. He pointed out that the basement drain we put in was too high. Somehow, between the time we put it in and when he came by it had lifted by about an inch, which I confirmed with the laser level. Since I needed to adjust it anyway, he asked if I could center it in the landing because it would be easier for him to slope the landing to it. That meant not just shortening the length of pipe, but adding an elbow that I fortunately already had.

Drain reposition

Drain reposition

I got that taken care of Saturday afternoon, and Mario was back on Monday to do the pour. He wound up tenting the whole operation with a tarp to keep out the rain. Yesterday he came back out to remove the tarp, clear the forms from the basement footing curb, and make sure everything looked good. We’re pretty happy with the finished results, and we plan to bring him back to pour the basement floor once the plumbers finish their work. If you need a concrete mason in the Chicago and Northwest Indiana area, we recommend MG Concrete.

Finished steps

Finished steps

It was snowing this morning when I snapped a photo of the finished stairs. I need to check the basement and see if the drain is working. I also plan to grind down the bit of footing stone that is proud of the landing by a couple inches so we don’t have a tripping hazard. Hopefully I can get some photos of the finished footing curb as well.

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One of the biggest frustrations with our project for the last several months has been the basement plumbing. First, it took us forever to get quotes from more than one plumber. Then we selected a plumber (not coincidentally one that gave us quotes fairly quickly) and gave them the initial deposit. The original estimate for work was about six weeks, which was over two months ago. Most of the work hasn’t been done yet and the source of delays has largely been the City of Chicago. We pulled our original permits three years ago with a different plumber. Because the permits were already pulled, the existing permit had to be reactivated and the plumber changed. Once that was done, they were able to put in the underground plumbing for the basement bathroom, the floor drain, and the utility sink, including the ejector pit. That was when they told me they were waiting on me to finish the weeping system, which I did.

Sewer work

New basement plumbing

At the same time, they scoped the sewer with a camera and submitted the recording to the City, who came back with a concern about the “tap”, or the connection between our sewer and the sewer main under the street. The plumbers ran another scope, after which the water department decided they wanted the tap repaired. Around this time they said that our other permit for the new water service was approved, but then they turned around and said that the whole project had a “red flag” on it because the original permits weren’t pulled properly. We didn’t get an explanation of what was wrong or how that happened, but the result was that no work could be done at all.

The plumbers reported that they were able to negotiate with the city and get the red flag lifted, and the last update is that we should finally have our permits today. Then the plumbers can finally schedule the tap repair, the new water service, and the sewer re-lining. At this point I’ve gotten a bit skeptical, but this is the most positive sign so far that something is actually going to happen before the ground freezes. The plumbing is the only thing we’re waiting on to pour the new basement floor.

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