Sunday, December 27, 2009

Home Depot physics

Granted, it's a parochial problem, but a real one--our water table has risen as high as it's been in a few decades.

Week after week we get rain; week after week we get nor'easters. Bay water gets pushed up, rain water flows down, and now we have more water than we know what to do with.

I happen to love water, beyond its obvious life-giving qualities. I love to play in puddles. I love how it sticks to things. I love that it's (mostly) transparent. I love the way it gives, but barely, when you run your fingers through it. I hope it is kind when I drown in it. It is, indeed, life.

Still, a rising water table can be a problem, especially if you're foolish enough to have a basement just a foot or two above the usual water table.


I used to be a stevedore, a very brief period in my life, made briefer by my bride, who convinced me not to sign a two year contract as a foreman for M.J. Rudolph way back in the 70's. I loved working on the waterfront, and I was vain enough to appreciate my growing pecs even more than the substantial money shoveling iron earned you back then.

I learned how to fix things. I learned that school smart ain't worth shit when a crane boom goes down. I learned that if a man threatens you with a shovel, and you have one in your hand, responding in kind may ease the threat. I learned that being learned is not nearly the same thing as being smart, and neither of has much to do with being wise.

They (we) know stuff you do not. Stuff that matters. How to fix things. How to build things. How to kill things.

Two of the brightest men I know never went to college, and one never made it out of high school. Both are happy, both are productive.

My basement has a small sump pump basin, about 10" in diameter. The basement has been dry since we owned the home, and the sump pump basin had been hidden by a metal cover painted to match the color of the basement floor. There was no pump in the basin.

A couple of weeks ago, the sump pump basin, normally dry all the way down, was half full of water. Uh-oh.

More rain, then snow, more rain again. Today the water rose a half inch above the basin's edge. Water seeped from crack in the basement floor. More uh-oh.

Water seeks its own level. Water is as destructive as fire, just more patient. We have a problem.

I wandered over to Home Depot--I needed a sump pump that could squeeze into a 10" diameter, and the internet site assured me that Home Depot carries it--and it does. But I was about 32 customers behind.
Yep, we got the peak of a 30 year cycle--one guy just came in for his 4th pump today--the first three are just keeping even.

Fair enough--I need a narrow pump.

Last one went a few hours ago. But we got a pedestal pump. Might try that.

I took it.

We finagled over what kind of joints to get--the associate (correctly) pointed out that a few 45 degree joints will get you the same place as a few 90 degree elbows, at less work for the pump.

Less bend, the less force needed. Keep the pipe at 1 1/2 inches--any less will eventually kill the pump.

Conversation drifted over to water--if you grasp water, you grasp Newtonian physics.

Another associate ambled by--men love to talk about water, and problems we cannot solve.
Man came by and reported his neighbor's house just got lifted up--it's all about displacement--you displace enough water, you get enough lift to raise a house. It's the same reason steel ships float.

And I didn't doubt him, because he was right. In my head I tried to calculate the basement square footage, and the buoyancy force created if the water table rose a half foot higher than the floor.

We have a lot of smart young people who can solve quadratic equations but cannot change a tire. We have a lot of smart young people that can ace the SAT's but cannot grow a head of cabbage.

Acing the SAT's is a useful skill--it will get you money, and power, and maybe even better sex. But you will still depend on the someone who can figure out the head pressure for the sump pump you need when things are less than perfect.

I spent a night in Brooklyn keeping a barge afloat.

Barges have two skins--the outside, and the inside. There is enough space in between for a man to crawl through, squeezing between cross struts and through hatches.

My orders were simple--do not let the barge sink. Refuel the pumps. Clean their filters. Just keep the damn thing afloat until the commercial divers could fix the hole punched through the side by an errant crane.

What did I learn?

I could work for 36 hours straight.
I could fix just about anything that could go wrong with a simple 2 stroke engine.
That dawn in Brooklyn can be lovely, even over the din of 2 stroke pumps.

Tonight I am manning one pump, an electric 1/3 horsepower machine, with a roof over my head instead of stars. I am drinking decent ale instead of spiked coffee from John the Pollack's thermos.

I am almost three times as old now as I was then. I have two wonderful kids. I have lost half my immediate family over the last dozen years or so.

And yet Orion rises overhead, and yet the tide falls below, and yet solstice returns as it has, as it will, no matter what I pretend to know.

And should my home rise like Noah's Ark upon the rising tide, no degrees will stop the flood, no certifications will part the sea.

And after 40 days of rain, the practical knowledge of how to run and maintain a simple 2 stroke pump will trump anything Ludwig Wittgenstein has written.


This Brazen Teacher said...

We have a lot of smart young people who can solve quadratic equations but cannot change a tire. We have a lot of smart young people that can ace the SAT's but cannot grow a head of cabbage.

I'm in trouble Doyle. I cannot solve quadratic equations, change a tire, ace the SAT's or grow a head of cabbage. Bullocks. Well, the last one I've never tried. Ironically maybe that's the feat I would be most successful at.

Liked the post.

Kathryn J said...

I have been watching the higher water levels here as I monitor my favorite beach a bit north and east of your location. The water is very high and I fear the coastline there - I can tell that my favorite beaches will be much different next year when I visit.

I hope your pump continues to manage the water and your skill at fixing things keeps you dry during this year of fierce No'easters.

doyle said...

Dear Brazen,

Ah, yes, but you can unwrap young minds and put them back together again.

I bet you'd be a great gardener, if you're not already. Heck, some cabbages are sold as ornamentals--you can use them for PTA sales.

(I keep wanting to nibble on ornamental cabbages when I see them--part curiosity (do they taste the same?) and partly perverse (nibbling on my neighbors' nasturtium flowers gives me odd joy beyond the peppery taste).

Dear Kathryn,

I finally got the sump pump hooked up--I should have a webcam on my backyard now--if the freeze keeps up, we might be able to ice skate tomorrow.

I love the Coast Guard's beachview--I'm going to watch it during the next big storm!