As I wrote in my last article, frost and frozen ground has been a problem here in the North forever. With that in mind most, but not all, homes have a basement. Every conventional building must have a foundation and it needs to be at least 3.5-feet deep. In building a new house, the builder would have to go at least that deep and by then was half way to a 7-foot deep basement — a common depth. True, some basements were 8 or 9 feet deep. Even a house with a crawl space would have footings that went down 3 to 4 feet, and then the house was built up to leave an area that all the tradesmen could crawl around in to install pipes, wires, pumps,etc. Having made this excavation into the ground, some smart people figured out that by extending the basement out away from the house they had in effect a well pit. These spaces, called a basement offset, had some advantages over a true well pit and a lot of disadvantages too.

Like a good well pit, if such a thing ever existed, the basement offset would be large enough to house a pump and pressure tank. It would be deep enough that the pump service man could stand up and it would have a concrete floor that sloped to the true basement and, if a floor drain was nearby, that was an added benefit. A basement offset deeper than the rest of the basement — and these did occur — was often a mess as water would collect in it.

Sometimes space under a front or rear porch was used as an offset. If the porches had roofs on them this became a real problem when servicing wells. A good location for the well was about 2 feet from the outside walls of the offset and an access port directly above it was a necessity. This access port did not need to be really big. For a 4-inch well, for instance, a 6-inch hole in the roof worked out nicely.

While the above describes a decent basement offset, like many well pits only a very, very few were built like this. Many times they weren’t deep enough and I can remember a few where the top was below the ground surface and one pump man had to dig to get to the access hole. They were easier to enter than a true pit, but sometimes the stairway leading to the basement was at the end of the pathway through carpeted areas and very few homeowners liked pump men wearing wet or dirty boots walking to the stairs. We as pump men did not relish cleaning our boots or shoes on each trip to the basement, liked even less wearing so called “booties” and we would never, never, never remove our shoes, although I was asked to do this on a few occasions. 

Another advantage the basement offset had over the true well pit was a lot less condensation. The air seemed drier and the walls generally did not drip water, and this meant longer equipment life. One huge disadvantage to the offset was that this was a most attractive place to store those carrots, potatoes and onions that I talked about in my last article. Occasionally, a homeowner would store paint, lubricants and even fuel in these areas. Moving this stuff just made the serviceman’s life tougher. If the offset was under a porch, sometimes the overhang of the roof rafters of the home interfered with pulling the drop pipe. In older homes that had a short overhang, this was usually not a problem. But in some house designs of the ’50s and ’60s the overhang was wide enough to create a real problem. If the drop pipe was polyethylene plastic, these overhangs didn’t cause problems. If the drop pipe was steel or rigid plastic, this just made life more difficult for the serviceman. I even encountered a few places where there was a hatch in the roof above the access hole so you had not one but two obstacles to deal with.

I would have to say, however, that the basement offset was a definite improvement over a well pit. Like anything, if the design and construction was good, it really worked quite well. If the design or construction was poor, it was a pain for all involved. These offsets rarely had a light or electrical outlet and it was dark in there so one had to string out a trouble cord. We almost always hardwired our pumps so we could not plug into the outlet that powered the pump — it did not exist.

If the casing terminated at least a foot above the floor and had a well seal, this was a pretty good installation from a sanitary standpoint. My parents had a house that was brand new in February 1941 and the well was in a basement offset. The well was originally a 2-inch casing and after many years of use we pulled it and replaced it with 4-inch. It always worked pretty well and my mother did not store vegetables in that area.

Next time, I will write about another frost-beating idea that was a favorite of my public health friends but was really a step backwards — the residential well house.

After the cold snap I wrote about in my last article, we had some reasonably mild weather for a few days — actually for a couple weeks. I could see grass in several areas of my lawn. Then about a week ago or early February, we got a huge snow storm. Our area got at least 12 inches everywhere and up to 16 inches in some localized spots. I had a drift over 4-feet high in the front of my house. The snow was so heavy that it coated the dish for my satellite TV to such an extent that we could not see the last 10 minutes of the Super Bowl. My wife Shirley turned on the radio and we listened to the end of that game like it was 1949 again.

Having enough snow blowers and tractors, I was able to clear the big snow from our driveway and walks. Then the temperature went into the 40s for a day or so and then dropped and froze everything. My driveway is now glare ice, as are the unpaved roads in the area. Driving in anything that is not 4-wheel drive is trouble waiting to happen.

As I write this right at the middle of the month of February, the overnight temperatures have been well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit with daytime highs around 10 above, along with a nasty wind that makes it extremely uncomfortable outside. I guess global warming has not gotten to southern Michigan quite yet. A good well pit or basement offset would not be a bad place to work under these conditions.


For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.