This Must Be the Place: Pump and Circumstance

Writer and music blogger Doug Hamilton was born and raised in America, moved to Canada in the early 2000s, and recently relocated again with his British-born spouse to Portsmouth. In this new series, Doug finds out his new flat has a sump pump, there’s only one problem – it doesn’t seem to be working and he has no idea how to fix it.

Mea culpa. In a previous post on adjusting to life in the UK, I dismissed the widely held view that it is exceptionally rainy here, noting with premature smugness that the weather in the months since my arrival hadn’t been any more inclement than anywhere else I had ever lived. Well, this past winter definitely dampened that naïve notion. From mid-November through the holidays and into the new year, the forecast was persistently grim for much of Britain.

In Portsmouth, the coastal city that my spouse and I call home, steady downpours occurred almost daily. And though the clouds parted for brief interludes, you could always count on one thing: At the exact moment you left the house to run an errand or whatever, the heavens would open up. The deluge didn’t subside until March – clear skies greeted us right around the time we were all ordered to stay indoors to keep the coronavirus at bay. Isn’t it ironic, Alanis?

So yeah, newsflash, the possibility of looooong soggy spells in Britain is all too real. As such, homes that have areas below street level, like the two-storey flat the hubby and I bought back in October, need extra protection against flooding. This is why there’s a sump pump on our property. Having hitherto lived my life fully and freely above terra firma, I’ve never encountered one before. In the aftermath of the stressful incident described below in vivid detail, I Googled ‘what is a sump pump and how does it work’, and discovered that it’s an electric pump system that propels excess water through a pipe up and away from the house and into an external drain. Whether this is done by physics or by Order of the Phoenix-approved wizardry, I’m still not sure. (Wikipedia has the full breakdown, but it’s a lengthy entry and I lost interest pretty quickly).

On a Googling roll, I then did a search for ‘sump etymology’, because who would name something ‘sump’ on purpose? I learned the term is derived from a ‘Low German’ word meaning ‘swamp’. Obviously, then I had to Google ‘Low German’, because that sounded kind of judgy and, well, things just spiralled from there.

But I didn’t know any of this when we first moved to 1 [REDACTED] Court. (Privacy concerns prevent me from disclosing the flat’s full address. I don’t want the blogger paparazzi camping out on our doorstep). I just knew that our sump pump was hidden away under a trapdoor in the courtyard near the basement entrance, and that a wooden hutch nearby housed some apparently related gauges and lights and switches. I initially considered all of it none of my business and best left alone, but my hands-off strategy was short-lived. As soon as the flat became ours, my partner and I set about tackling a list of the improvements we wanted to make. Near the top of the list was replacing the wooden decking in the courtyard, as many of the planks were damaged and had broken underfoot.

For this task we hired Graham, a very able chap of very few words who runs a local deck design company. He started the project while we were still settling into the new place. As he ripped up the old planks, Graham noticed that the gutters along the edges of the courtyard underneath the deck hadn’t drained properly and that puddles of murky water had spread over the concrete floor. He called me outside to show me the problem – the spouse was away at work – but I hadn’t a clue what to do about it. ‘Hmm’, I said helpfully, and paused to stroke my chin before adding ‘Hmm’.

Graham laconically surmised that there might be an issue with the sump pump. Sure enough, when we lifted the cover off, we saw that the basin the pump system sits in had overflowed. Graham opened the door to the hutch and found the power switch, which was in the ‘on’ position. Something was undoubtedly amiss. I began to panic as questions swirled in my brain. Would I have to drain the basin manually? If so, what would I use? Would a ladle work? A wine glass? Should I instead call someone to come out to take a look at it? But would that result in a costly repair bill? And would I have to speak to the repairman in Low German?

Perhaps sensing my distress, Graham noted that there was a sticker in the hutch bearing the number of a sump pump service company. He suggested I dial the number to get some advice and assured me, in as few syllables as he could manage, that he would be on hand to help translate from technician to idiot home owner and back again. I tapped out the digits on my phone and was connected to a friendly-sounding fellow by the name of Trevor.  I told Trevor the reason for my call but made it clear up front that I knew absolutely nothing, nada, bupkis about sump pumps.

‘That’s all right, I’ll talk you through it’, he responded chivalrously. ‘Sometimes the pump can get overwhelmed with rain. Is the pump visible?’

I eyed the basin and spied a slender pipe with two tubes, like accordioned vacuum cleaner hoses, attached on either side, but if there were more workings they were submerged and obscured.

‘I’m going to answer with a tentative no’, I answered tentatively.

‘Can you tell if there is a float attached?’

Images of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade flashed in my head. ‘Um, what does a float look like?’ I asked meekly.

Rightly guessing that the exchange wasn’t going well, Graham reached into the basin, grabbed one of the tubes and pulled upwards. A mechanism connected to the tubes emerged from the water. He inspected the dripping contraption, which I assumed was the pump, briskly turning it this way and that in his grasp. Suddenly we heard a heavy click and a motor started to whir. Graham hurried to place the pump back in the basin and the standing water drained away in seconds.

‘I think our decking guy got it to work!’ I crowed to Trevor over the phone.

‘Lovely!’ Trevor exclaimed, as the Brits are wont to do. ‘How did he fix it?’

‘I don’t know, he just sort of… manhandled it a bit’.

Trevor chuckled. ‘Aha. So then next time you see that the pump appears to be overwhelmed, just pick it up and give it a wiggle’.

And with that pithy set of instructions I became a master of sump pump maintenance. I still may not know the mechanics of one in detail, but I can wiggle it with confidence and, dare I say, panache. As the wet winter wore on, the pump became overwhelmed a few more times. On each occasion I plucked it from the water, gave it a little shake, and it whirred to life again. Once the pump somehow got knocked cattywampus and was stuck above the waterline. (They are fussy little divas, these pumps). It emitted a dreadful sucking sound and an alarm light in the hutch flashed urgently, but I didn’t freak out. I just hauled up the pump and applied my now patented wiggle method, adding a playful twist for extra flair, then plopped it back in place. It purred like a Lamborghini after that.

Besides turning me into a sump pump ninja, Trevor’s words reassured me that my lifelong, heretofore ineffectual practice of attempting to fix faulty appliances by shaking and banging on them hadn’t been entirely in vain.  I’ve fared so well with the sump pump wiggle that I’m thinking of applying it to all future home repairs. Sure, it might not work on every leaky tap or stuck drawer, but it’s worth a try. If I get good results, maybe I’ll even pen my own DIY manual. Working title: It’s All in the Wrist.

This article was originally published on Doug Hamilton’s website, Dugout Discs. You can read more of Doug’s writing on his website, including his musical writing, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.

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