Palmer House

Renovating and Restoring Our 1880 Folk Victorian

I’ve been going back and forth with what I wanted to put into this blog post. It’s hard to make a post interesting when some of the improvements made to Palmer House took place two years ago and you don’t have pictures! Not to mention, sometimes the improvements are made out of necessity, and aren’t always the “prettiest” ones. But I think this post will be fun to read since it makes me chuckle when I think back on it.

When we bought Palmer House, we hired a home inspector and walked through with him. At this point, I had fallen in love with the house and I was terrified that he was going to find something wrong with the house in a major way…a problem with the foundation or the roof, maybe mold, termite ants, rot or nuclear bomb in the basement! I mean, the possibility for disaster was endless!!! (Yes, I in fact DO get myself this worked up over situations like these). When he was done with his walk through, there were only two problems he had with the house. “Only TWO?!” I couldn’t believe it! But I had to hold my breath, because again, the house might be on a sinkhole or something.

“You have a mold problem in the attic. Nothing serious, but the current owners need to pay to have it remediated before you can buy it. That’s the only thing holding up the sale, but you really need to invest in a sump pump with a battery back-up in the basement. You practically have a stream running into the pit where the current sump pump is. You loose power one day, and your basement is going to be flooded.”

A pit and a stream was right! There was a hand-dug hole in the basement floor and a sump pump had been dropped into the hole to pump out the water that was – literally – flowing into the basement. The day we walked through the house, we went into the basement and looked around quickly – but it was Christmas time. The ground was frozen, not wet – there was no stream to be found at that time. In hindsight, that was probably a good thing. Had Chris and I seen that on the first showing, we may have questioned the entire idea of buying Palmer House…a small creek in the basement would be enough to ward anyone off I think! Anyways, when we walked through with the home inspector, it was March, and everything had started to thaw out. The water was pouring in a from a small hole on one side of the foundation and landing right in the sump pump pit. Which made me ask the question, what came first – the stream or the pit? My gut was telling me the stream…

The basement was a wet one. The floor was damp, and the low areas had small pools of standing water. There was no French drain, so there was no way to get any standing water to the sump pump. There was a dehumidifier sitting on blocks with a hose going out from it into the pit. It was obviously supposed to drain the water into the pit to be pumped out, but at the time, the tank was reading full and the basement was a soupy mess. Apparently, we were going to need help in the moisture department…

Flash forward to about two months after we bought Palmer House. Chris had gotten home late and I had already gone to bed. Next thing I know, Chris is whispering in the ear to get up and help him because a pipe had burst in the basement. I think this is every new homeowners worst nightmare! I shot out of bed and followed him downstairs. This is where it gets interesting…

Now, what I didn’t tell you, was that right over the sump pump pit was the fuse box for the entire house. When I stepped off the stairs into the basement, I could see that a copper elbow joint had split and was spraying water all over the fuse box. Neither of us knew what to do. Luckily, the pit was catching the majority  of the water, but there was a puddle of standing water around the pit, under the fuse box, and of course right under the valve we had to get to to turn the water off. We had no idea if the water was electrified, and there was no way we were going to step in that puddle to find out. We tried grabbing a broom and pushing the lever to the valve closed, but the water pressure was too great against the valve for a broom handle (See why I say in hindsight I chuckle at this situation? There we are, me in my PJ’s and Chris in his work clothes, reaching across a puddle to push a handle to a valve while water sprays all over our hot electrical box). After only a few seconds of this, we decided to call 911 and get the fire department in the house. It was so embarrassing! I don’t remember exactly what time it was, but it was late…like so late it was approaching early. Our fire department is volunteer, so we woke up these poor men and women in the middle of the night for this! The fire alarm also went off at the fire department, so I’m sure we woke up half the Village! At least they wouldn’t know where the firemen were going or for what! We had two sprint units show up at our front door, thankfully before the actual truck showed up (I would have been incredibly mortified!). I explained what was going on and the two men followed me into the basement. We explained to them that we weren’t sure if the electrical box was compromised or if the standing water was electrified, and as we were saying this – the guy walked across the room and shut the valve off. You want to talk about feeling like a fool?? We said thank you and goodnight and apologized over and over for waking them up. Of course, they were very gracious and told us that that was what they were there for.

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In the morning, the man, the myth, the legend – my dad, contractor superior – came over, bought a $3.00 rubber piece of pipe, and fixed the broken elbow in about fifteen minutes.

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The fuse box looked intact, but it needed to dry out. We set up a big box fan and let everything dry over the next week. During that time, we bought a new sump pump with a marine battery back-up and hired my dad to put it in. We also looked a the dehumidifier, which was working, just not draining unless we physically emptied it ourselves. Chris hooked up the drainage hose to an air compressor and blew the hose out to reveal a bunch of built up junk. The second we hooked everything back up, the dehumidifier started draining into the pit. Yay! At least one thing was working! When my dad came a few weeks later to dig a proper pit and hook up the new sump pump, he removed four five-gallon buckets worth of debris from breaking up the floor and scooping out the existing pit. Two bags of concrete and a plastic bucket later and we had a proper pump pit! We hooked up the pump, got the dehumidifier draining and got the electrical box dried out the rest of the way. I don’t know if that basement has ever been that dry, ever, in it’s life! It was a relief to me – water is the killer of houses – and we had 138-year-old hand-hewn hemlock timbers holding up our house!

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Here’s the pretty new sump pump pit. Sorry there’s no before pictures, but use your imagination and picture a hole dug into the ground! The black box on the floor is our marine battery back-up, and the white box is our dehumidifier – definitely the thing that keeps the basement as dry as possible!

Luckily, we have never had use for the battery back-up as we have never lost power in the house, but it makes me feel much better knowing that it’s there! And up until yesterday (literally), we haven’t had to clean out the drainage hose to the dehumidifier and the basement has been nice and dry!

Let that be a lesson to all you old home owners! Make sure you have yourself a good sump pump with a proper pit, a dry basement, and a contractor that’s willing to do the little jobs!

“It’s not the beauty of a building you should look at; it’s the construction of the foundation that will stand the test of time.” – David Allen Coe

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