Demystifying our basement floor drains

I’ve decided to try to figure out our basement floor drains. My goal is to ascertain:

  • How the drains themselves are configured;
  • Where the plumbing goes;
  • Why they seem to hold water indefinitely; and
  • Why they back up into the basement during heavy rainstorms.

My goal is to either fix the existing drain system (I’m assuming it’s clogged), or reroute the drains somewhere else, like a sump pit. A third, less desirable, option would be to just close the drains up completely. But I’d rather keep the drains around, because (properly working) floor drains provide cheap insurance against flooding from things such as burst washing machine hoses, busted water heaters, etc.

My current hunch is that the drains tie into an old network of underground pipes that also used to handle the rain downspouts. I’ve abandoned most of these in favor of downspout extenders and splash blocks. However, the pipe openings are still there, and they still collect some water in rain storms. Assuming the original piping is plugged up, this could account for the rising water in the drains during rain storms.


Yesterday, I tried sucking some water out of one of the drains using a wet/dry vac and some PVC piping sized to fit into the drain openings. I’d estimate I sucked out around 20 gallons before giving up — much too labor intensive. However, I managed to get the water level down around 2 1/2″, and the water dropped around the same amount in all the floor drains I checked, which seems to confirm that the floor drains are tied together, and that the pipes underneath them are relatively clear. There’s still too much water to see all the way down to the bottom of the drain, though. Interestingly enough, after 12 hours or so, the water level had crept back up around 1/2″. No rain during that period, and I’m relatively sure it’s not ground water — our water table is not that high.

Next up, I want to get the drains completely free of water, and try to figure out where the pipe exits the drain. Apparently there’s quite a bit of water down there. So, I’m going to need a better (less labor intensive) way to get the water out. I’m going to try a drill powered pump, with the discharge going into the sump pump pit. With the drain free of water, I’ll try to get an idea where it goes, and see if there’s any chance of getting a snake down there.

With the drains empty, I’ll then try flooding a couple of the downspout pipes outside, and see if any of the water ends up in the drains. That will tell me whether they all tie together. At that point, can make some decisions as to what to do next.

Aah, the joy of old houses. Stay tuned!

Washing Machine Fun

My SIL’s washing machine died the other day. It fills and drains OK, but won’t spin or agitate. It’s a Whirlpool direct drive (badged as a Sears Kenmore). I did a little poking around on the net, trying to identify the symptoms, and it appeared that the problem may be the motor coupling. I’ve always been partial to Whirlpool appliances, particularly washers and dryers, because of their easy serviceability. This one was no exception. Following the instructions I found at the web site, I had the motor out in about 10 minutes, and the coupling was indeed broken. So, tomorrow I’ll pick up a new coupling, put it back together, and see if it fixes the problem.

This is actually my second washing machine repair. Our house has a similar Whirlpool direct drive washer, and a few years back, some “stuff” found its way into the pump and jammed it up. Fix was a new pump. The disassembly procedure for the two washers was exactly the same, although the Kenmore has a couple of trim pieces covering two of the screws that need to be removed (sneaky sneaky).

Of course, now that I’m a certified expert at repairing these Whirlpool top-loaders, we’re thinking about going out and buying an LG front-loader. Go figure..

Ubuntu 2 1/2 month review, etc.

I’ve been using Ubuntu now for about 2 1/2 months. The verdict so far: I like it. When I initially installed it, I was looking for a Linux distro with a reasonably well-integrated and user-friendly desktop environment, and Ubuntu (with GNOME) has lived up to those expectations. I really like the GNOME file manager with its built-in sshfs support, and the menu/taskbar integration works really well. When I install an app, it automatically shows up in my “Applications” menu, and the GNOME-aware apps also take advantage of the task bar. This works even with GNOME apps that aren’t provided with Ubuntu — for example, today I installed gSTM, which is a GUI interface for managing SSH tunnels. It’s not part of the Ubuntu “universe”, so I downloaded a .deb from Sourceforge and installed it (there’s a handy GUI for installing .debs too, which Firefox launched automatically). Once installed, gSTM showed up in my “Applications” menu and also added itself to the task bar when I launched it. Very nice.

The only thing I’m not quite happy with is my age-old gripe with all Linux distros: fonts. I’ve done all my requisite font-fiddling and I’ve got fonts I’m pretty much happy with now. But the font rendering in Firefox is just horrible. Text is always overflowing table cells and other stuff, and certain web sites just look, well, bad. It’s not bad enough to be a show stopper, but I really wish it looked nicer. I’m not sure what’s to blame: Firefox, X, GNOME, or whatever. But I will say that the fonts look pretty good in most of the other apps.

Linux GUI distros have to fight an uphill battle, because there are so many different apps (some 20+ years old) coded to all sorts of different GUI standards. There’s no way to get all of these apps to look perfect — it’s like herding cats. But the GNOME people have done a pretty admirable job fitting everything together. The user experience is about as seamless as one could hope for.

I hate Microsoft

So, I’m trying to find a nice, easy, seamless way to access data on my home Linux fileserver from XP. The goal is to have drag-and-drop access to files using the Windows GUI, as opposed to using sftp, which I’ve been doing pretty much forever and am finally getting tired of. But of course, with Windows, nothing is ever easy. My first thought was to use NFS, as I’m already using that to provide connectivity for my Mac, and Microsoft kindly provides a free toolkit (“Services for Unix”) which includes an NFS client. Nope.. our Windows PC runs XP Home Edition (which really should be called “Crippled Edition”) and SFU doesn’t work with XP Home. Of course, I didn’t find this out until I had downloaded the entire 200+ meg SFU distro, extracted it, and attempted to run the installer, which happily crapped out. Thanks guys.

With SFU ruled out, I fell back on SMB. I already run Samba on the Linux box, so I can just map my home directory to a drive letter and do it that way. That’s not quite as nice as NFS because I have to enter a username and password when I map the drive (although I might be able to work around that). But, there’s a hitch with that too — the XP box already has a couple anonymous shares mapped from the same Linux server, and for some inane reason, XP won’t let me map shares from the same server under multiple usernames. But, I outsmarted it by connecting to the server using an alternate DNS name, and that seems to work fine.

So in spite of Microsoft’s best efforts, I now have an XP box that’s actually somewhat useful on a heterogeneous network. Party on…

Our weird house

Just when I thought I’ve seen it all with our house, I find more weirdness.

I’m working on relocating the clothes dryer circuit, in preparation for our new washer and dryer. In the process, I noticed some disconnected copper tubing hanging down the wall behind the dryer. It’s the standard 3/8″ stuff that you might see supplying a dishwasher or ice maker. I’d noticed it before, but I just kinda ignored it until last night. Last night, I figured I’d trace it to wherever it goes, and take it out, as it’s obviously not doing anything anymore. Well.. it goes up the wall, along the top of the foundation (oh yeah.. I forgot to mention this is all in the basement), then outside through the rim joist and siding, right near ground level. Then it goes into the ground. Except the ground at that spot is a concrete deck. The line actually goes into the concrete. Where it goes after that, is one of life’s great unsolved mysteries.

WTF?? Well, I know that at one point, the basement of the house was used as an in-law apartment. So it’s not inconceivable that our present-day laundry room used to serve as a kitchen, which would explain why there’s an ice maker line there. But that begs the question: There’s already plumbing right there in the room. Why not just tap the ice maker line off that, rather than running it outside, then underground?? This seems too obvious, so I could be completely wrong. Or it could be that some previous owner (or plumber) was just incredibly boneheaded. We may never know. But in any case, the mystery remains: where does the line go? Stay tuned!

All’s not happy in the land of calendaring

Well, it appears I spoke too soon about backwards compatibility with the new Oracle Collaboration Suite and the old Calendar API that I’m using for my iCal downloader stuff. The first bad sign happened a couple weeks ago, when I noticed that a bunch of my Oracle Calendar entries had mysteriously disappeared from my iCal subscription. After investigating, it turned out that an entry in September 2007 was screwing it up. If I downloaded a date range up to but not including that date, it worked fine, but as soon as I included that date, about 50% of my entries disappeared. Hmmmm, not good. Then, today, I noticed that my iCal subscription was about a week out of date. When I went to run the download job manually, it bombed out with the API error code CAPI_STAT_DATA_ICAL_COMPVALUE. The docs have the following description for this code: “There was a problem with what a component contained.” Thanks guys, that’s really helpful.

So anyhow, it looks like I’m back to square one with the calendar stuff. When I get the time, I’ll rewrite it to use the newer API. Alternatively, maybe OCS has a way to do this without having to write custom code. That would sure be nice. Unfortunately though, until I get around to this, I guess I’m stuck with no Oracle Calendar data on my Palm. Bummer.

Subpanel replacement work continues

Wednesday, I took the day off work and moved the bulk of the circuits off our old FPE “Federal Noark” panel, to the new Square D QO panel. There are three circuits remaining to be done, all of which are connected via conduit, so I’ll need to reroute these before I can rip the FPE panel off the wall. I’ve blocked off next Wednesday to do this, as the wife -n- kids figure to be out of the house most of the day, and I have no meetings at work.

As with every other project in this house, half the work seems to involve fixing shoddy previous-owner retrofit work I encounter along the way, and this project has been no exception. Here’s what I’ve found and fixed so far.

  1. Old QO subpanel didn’t have its netural bus isolated from ground. New panel has a separate ground bus and an isolated neutral bus.
  2. The basement clubroom exhaust fan circuit was wired with 14 gauge wire but had a 30 amp breaker. It now has a 15 amp breaker.
  3. Whole house fan circuit was doubled up with one of the lighting circuits. Someone probably did this at one point to free up a slot. They are now two separate circuits again.
  4. The wiring to the boiler room/office light switch had individual strands of wire running unprotected behind the paneling. Apparently, when the room was finished, someone removed some conduit but didn’t bother to replace the wire. I replaced it with romex.

I’m sure there’ll be more to come..

Weird mp3act streaming problem solved..

When I switched my desktop Linux box to Ubuntu recently, I was able to get everything working relatively easily except for one thing: For some reason, I couldn’t stream MP3s from my mp3act server. The playlists would download properly, but nothing would play: xmms would just ignore everything in the playlists. Well, today I finally tracked the problem down, and it turned out to have nothing to do with Ubuntu. The culprit was my web proxy configuration. I run the Privoxy ad-blocking software (ObPlug: Privoxy really makes the web a much more pleasant experience). Now, I used to run a local Privoxy on each of my Linux boxes. But when I installed Ubuntu, I elected not to run Privoxy on the Ubuntu box. Instead, I configured Firefox to proxy through the Privoxy running on my server. That way, I only have to maintain one Privoxy installation. That works fine, but it does make all of my web traffic appear to come from the server rather than the desktop. And therein lies the problem. When mp3act generates a playlist, the URLs for the MP3 streams are all keyed to the IP address that requested the playlist. When xmms requests the stream, it doesn’t go through the proxy, so the requests come directly from the desktop, and the IPs don’t match. So, mp3act refuses to serve the file.

Solution: When talking to the mp3act server, use a direct connection and don’t go through the proxy. In Firefox, this is configured under Edit->Preferences->General->Connection_Settings. Once I made that change, everything worked fine.

Very very happy to have this working again!