Category Archives: Rain Barrels

Planning to Dig a Swale

In my post about water in our basement, I mentioned all the rain we received this past winter and spring. Now, almost July, we are still receiving a significant amount of rain. According to Channel 3000, “southern Wisconsin is roughly 10 inches above the average for precipitation [this year], making it one of the wettest years on record so far.”

This past Wednesday morning, I had just published posts related to some initial steps we took to remediate our basement water issue, when what did I find in our basement again? Water.

We had hoped that our basement problems earlier this year were related to the frozen ground and lack of vegetation. Surely, the growing trees and perennials next to the house would drink up the water in the summertime. We had just dug the window wells deeper and removed the landscape timbers to improve drainage. But we had the same problems as before: a deep pond along the south corner of the house and water pouring in below two of our basement windows.

Water gathers on the southwest side of our house during heavy rainfall and then enters our basement.

Water gathers on the southwest side of our house during heavy rainfall and then enters our basement.

We decided to speed up our water in the basement project. I placed a call to Digger’s Hotline with plans to dig a swale this weekend to move some water away from the house.

The south corner of our house is a low area, not only on our property but also compared to our neighbors’ properties. Our house is built lower than our neighbors’ homes so regrading is limited by the height of our siding and the height of the neighbor’s yards. I’m a big fan of wetlands, but when one unexpected forms right next to my house and then invites itself in, it’s difficult for me to click ‘like’ on that. There isn’t room to slide the wetland away from the house. What we do have room for is a narrow swale, catching the water falling from both our property and the surrounding area and channeling it along our lot line away from our house.

Unfortunately, a swale along the lot line means that some of this water will probably end up in the street and sewers. This is sad. Rainwater is a mostly clean source of free water for us all. When it goes to the sewage treatment plant, it wastes energy as it becomes mixed with chemicals. We don’t yet have a rain barrel, but even a rain barrel (at only 50 gallons) would only hold a small percent of the water that pools up by our house. Water containers can be purchased at 250 gallons, but at over $250, they are expensive.

Another problem with water rolling onto the street is flooding. The corner by our house receives a rush of water from the two intersecting streets (and other properties). During heavy rains, the street by our house fills with puddles that reach to the elevated center of the road. Cars zig-zag around the deep water during these flash floods. The sidewalk also becomes one huge puddle. Among our neighborhood, our problem isn’t unique.

Rain gardens would be a good long-term solution for many of us neighbors to implement on our properties. Of course, a rain garden isn’t a quick project. We need to do some research and invest money into plants suitable for rain gardens. For now, we just have a shovel and a little time to dig those swales. But with more education and cheap access to rain garden plants, we could wisely sink the rainwater into the ground.

I was disappointed when I called the City of Madison Water Utility this year and asked about the Terrace Rain Garden Program. The person I talked to seemed to think that this program wasn’t worth the high cost. Perhaps I need to talk to someone else, because I think our property would be a good candidate for this project (if we could only ensure that the water doesn’t overflow into our basement).

In the meantime, we need to get the water away from our basement so that large-scale damage is not caused on our home. Then, once we have a swale, perhaps we could implement rain gardens at multiple points along the swale to absorb the water. To read about the swale we dug, check out Digging a Swale.

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Water in the Basement

As usual, the weather here in Madison, Wisconsin, brought some surprises this past year. We moved into our house during a summer drought and watered sagging plants to try to save them. Then during the following winter, warm temperatures and heavy rains brought water into many basements in the area, including ours (despite a clean condition report that didn’t indicate water problems in the basement). One moment a drought, the next moment water in the basement. We really hoped this wasn’t typical weather.

Water entering our basement this past winter.

Water entering our basement this past winter.

While we were able to fare ok in our house during the drought, the winter weather was a problem that hit closer to home. As the temperatures rose and precipitation turned from snow to rain in January, water began to pool up on top of the frozen ground. With no where to go, it poured into our basement under two of the windows. We rushed to move our belongings away from that corner. Luckily, the water formed a river and flowed into the drain about 20 feet away. But part of our basement was now unavailable for storage.

We already had a sump pump and floor drain tiles along that corner of the basement, which seemed to be working. However, we wondered if there was anything wrong with our setup. Searching for answers, we contacted a couple of businesses that specialize in basement water problems. The businesses proposed to cut a hole in the basement wall under the windows and install drain pipes going to the sump pump. For $700, we could cycle water from our window wells, down to the sump pump, and then back out to the side of our house again. Hmmmm, it seemed like there should be a better solution. We didn’t want holes in the basement wall or fancy features which could become clogged or require repair. Rather, we wanted to prevent the water from coming near our house.

The south corner of our house is a low point on our property.

The south corner of our house is a low point on our property.

Next, we contacted some landscaping companies about how to keep the water away from the house. Some of them recommended digging the window wells deeper and adding rocks so that the water would drain down and not get saturated next to the basement windows. Another company proposed, for $1400, removing the timbers bordering the house’s landscaping, re-grading the soil next to the house, and adding a swale to move the water away from the house. We liked these ideas better since they sounded more natural. We didn’t need our sump pump running if we could just keep the water away in the first place. We decided to wait until spring to start our outdoor re-landscaping project.

April showers bring... a small pond along our house.

April showers bring… a small pond along our house.

As the weather got warmer, we hoped that the water problems would go away, but in April we had a couple weeks of rainfall which really got our sump pump running again. A small pond formed next to that same south corner of our house and Mallard ducks came to splash about.

The previous owners of the house had planted a number of hostas on the southwest side of the house. I can imagine that these plants helped absorb some of the water as it pooled up from heavy rainfalls in the summer, but unfortunately, they aren’t able to help in the winter and early spring. Likewise, a more formal rain garden or a rain barrel aren’t able to hold water at these times of year. Controlling the path of the water by re-grading and using swales or berms sounds like a better option to start with.

Here are my current thoughts for a complete solution:
1. Remove the landscaping timbers on the southwest side of the house.
2. Dig the window wells deeper and add rocks.
3. Dig a swale to channel water away from the house.
4. Use soil to re-grade along the southwest side of the house.
5. Raise the soil level in low areas to that of the surrounding area.
6. Add a rain barrel on the south corner of the house.
7. Add a berm around the south corner of the house to divert water to the swale.
8. Add a rain garden at the end of the swale to prevent water from making it to the sewer.

Since weather conditions could be quite different next year, we might not know for several years if our work pays off. But I’m inclined to believe that climate change will continue to bring extreme weather in the future and that any steps we take to improve the flow of water on our property will make a difference. I will post updates as we take on this water challenge.

Hostas on the southwest side of our house last summer.

Hostas on the southwest side of our house last summer.