On the Level: Water control mat doesn’t always cover problem

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Story image for Garden Supply  Hardware & Mat from CapitalGazette.comQuick question for you – you’ve written a couple of columns over the past few years about the area in the outside basement stairwell that has a drain. You recommended in the articles to place a water permeable mat over the drain in order to catch debris, but let water go through. I’ve looked in the local home improvement stores as well as online, and I’ve not been able to find anything. The ones I find all let water through the top of the mat, but have a solid backing to trap the water (most are for use inside the home by the doorway to the outside). If you have suggestions on where to get one – or how to make one – we’d sure appreciate it!

I think using the term permeable threw some folks. I’ll try to be clearer. The mats I like for areaway drains look like a 2 foot section of old conveyer belt. Even a lot of leaves or pine needles covering one wont inhibit water control. The natural mat I looked at was made of coir– a material I’d never heard of before consisting of the stiff fibrous outer husk of the coconut. It is rated at a gallon and half of water going through it per minute. I did some quick mental math and concluded that if we had a rain delivering that much water at or greater than that rate the mat would be the least of our problems. I did some field research by going into a hardware store and looking at available mats for myself. I spent so many years going into such places that these new ones– known to the trades as “Big Boxes” make my teeth itch. Here in Annapolis we had Brooks Bros Lumber (at the mall where Amish market is now), Johnson’s Lumber on West St. (gone– apartments there now. Now in Edgewater), Meredith and Roane on West St. (self storage now), Steven’s on City Dock (Mission BBQ now). You get it.

What we have here now in the way of old fashion hardware stores (except for Clements in Severna Park) is Ace Hardware on Forest drive which is very good and Bowen’s Farm Supply. Bowen’s smells like the old fashion hardware, lumber and feed stores I remember growing up. Went to Ace today– knowledgeable staff that you can find and talk to, have good novelty gifts for kids not to mention a freezer chest with ice cream bars too. I stopped in on my way to lunch to a look at mats. The only mat that wasn’t water permeable was one with a solid backing that looked like Astro-turf which was developed in the 60’s for the Houston covered stadium. Good for scrubbing sand or light mud off one’s shoes before tracking it in the house from a porch.

Areaway drains have potential drain stopping problems other than leaves and debris covering the drain lid. The drain itself is called a bell trap drain because from the side it looks like a bell. The drain pipe itself is in the center of the drain and bell catch surrounds the drain pipe. It is designed to catch what we call fines. Fines are inorganic silt that if allowed to get into the drain dry and harden are like concrete and almost impossible to snake loose. I’ve tried high pressure hoses, plumbing snakes or anything I could get my hands on including crow bars to break the stoppage free. Sometimes nothing would work and only solution was to break up the concrete at the bottom of the areaway and break over to the sub-slab drainage just inside the areaway door and install a new connection so that water gets to the areaway goes by drain from the bottom of the areaway to the basement’s sump pit and pump to be pumped out of the house. Seems like a lot to go through but talk to anyone who has had a basement flood due to the failure of any of the above steps in basement water removal and you will get the picture. The next preventative step that looms on the horizon here is either a backup battery pump for the sump pit or a stand-by generator for selected circuits in the house for lights, pumps and refrigerators. When folks ask me if they need one I return the question by asking how many times do they lose power in a year. If it’s more than once and for more than a day I suggest that they think about it.