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The Importance of Keeping Basements Dry: Palmer Valves, Drain Tiles, Sump Pumps and My New Home Beginning

I recently bought a small, older home in Shorewood for our family to live in while we build a new home, and like a lot of people, I plan to leave this home in a much better condition than I found it.  Much like many of the home Buyers we represent, I was in competition for this home, so I felt compelled to drop all my contingencies, including the home inspection.

The Sellers provided a property condition report and verbally acknowledged they got a trickle of water in the basement from time to time when it rained. It appeared they had done a drain tile test to see if the water was still flowing freely in the drain tiles to the palmer valve, so I felt comfortable removing the home inspection contingency.

What’s a palmer valve? It is the mid-1900s answer to today’s sump pump. A palmer valve is a type of check valve designed to allow the groundwater that collects in the drain tile from around your foundation to be directed into the sanitary sewer system through a flap that would open as water flow or pressure increased behind it. Some of the original palmer valves installed in homes built beginning the 1920s still work to this day. You can find these systems throughout Milwaukee residences including on the East Side, Wauwatosa, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay - all the hottest communities with older, often historic, homes.

We closed on our new property in the spring, and after one of the rain showers, I quickly realized the basement felt damp. It also smelled musty which was a key indicator to me that I needed to further investigate the water tightness of the basement. So, I called my trusted contractor Rob Redding of Verette Construction, the best in the business.

His team re-performed the drain tile test by creating holes in the basement floor around the perimeter and checked for mud, standing water, and mold.  They then ran water through holes and checked for clogs, etc. Then came the bad news - the tiles were not allowing the water to flow to the palmer valve freely.  To ensure a dry basement, the answer was new drain tile and the installation of a sump pump to replace the antiquated palmer valve technology.

The installation of drain tile is a messy process. Installation requires contractors jackhammer a 12-inch perimeter around the interior basement walls, break up the concrete and remove it by hand through the window or a door, install stone and four-inch tiles around the entire interior perimeter where they removed the concrete, and then cover with cement. All the tiles then meet end-to-end at the lowest part of your basement and a sump pump is installed to remove the water. Sump pumps run on electricity, so it is prudent to also install a back-up battery when you are performing the installation. It’s also critically important your system is well tested after it’s installed and before the first rain. Once this process is complete, it’s unlikely you will see water in your basement.

One additional item to consider to ensure your basement never floods is the installation of a backflow preventor.  Backflow preventors became popular in the North Shore and on the East Side following the 100-year-floods in July 2010.  This is when Milwaukee made the national news because twice during a one-week period massive amounts of rain fell over very short periods of time flooding roads, rivers, homes and businesses.  Backflow preventors are devices that are installed on your water pipes to allow water to flow in one direction, but not in the opposite direction, to prevent water contamination.

Not only is it important to keep your basement dry while you are living in it, it’s a way to protect your investment and therefore, an important consideration when thinking about home improvements. And if you’re thinking about selling your home in the next few years, keep in mind Buyers are frightened by wet basements. They want to fully utilize the basement space and don’t want to spend their time or money to fix a water issue.  They want to build out their basements to add overall square footage to the property, so don’t let a wet basement stand between your home and a potentially great Buyer.

The palmer valve technology installed in homes built in the 1920s thru 1950s is now nearly 100 years old.  Basement spaces need to be upgraded the same way we look at upgrading our bathrooms and kitchens. Today’s buyers are educated and have a keen sense of knowing if a basement is dry. It is one of the aspects of home purchasing I consistently look at with our Buyers. If a basement smells musty, run a drain tile test so you know what you’re getting into.  Last year was a particularly wet year in SE Wisconsin, and we continue to experience more and more heavy rain days, with lake levels the highest they’ve been in 100 years so it’s increasingly important to mind your basement – or the one in the new home you’re considering.

Drain tile installation plus a sump pump is about a $14,000 improvement to your home and well worth the expense. Buyers’ agents like me and Gretchen Keating consistently pull local village or city files as part of our due diligence for our Buyers under Buyer Agency so we understand what work has been done on a home.  If your home still has a palmer valve and you have not considered upgrading your basement, perhaps it is time to consider this important step to protect your investment and toward better resale value.

Powers Realty Group is a distinctive boutique real estate broker focused on the needs of customers delivering exceptional results. We are the trusted local experts. Call us today about buying or selling your home.

Call Suzanne Powers