"Be careful about using wet vacs in the basement"
Column ##854 07/09/11
On The Level
Q. After last weeks afternoon downpour and my flooded basement it may be a good time to review the rules as they relate to the use of a wet vac. Several years ago my basement leaked due to gutters that I had not cleaned out prior to a storm and the sump pump drain line going out into a clogged drain running under ground to the yard. After that experience I have made some changes in the sump pump pipe location and I made sure the gutters and downspouts are clean and not leaking at the joints.
Last week in attempt to pump out my flooded basement I used my shop wet vac. I was standing in about an inch or more of water while using the vacuum. An electrician friend told me I was lucky I wasn’t electrocuted. In my favor, God was with me as He always is and I was wearing leather work boots with rubber soles. I recently purchased a pair of boots and they came with a label stating that they were electrical approved. What should I have done to prevent a possible death situation while using the wet vac? I don’t feel right in calling the fire department to pump my basement for me as they have enough to do. I hope your reply will help save someone who may useßå a wet vac in the wrong situation and in the wrong way.
A. After Tropical Storm Isabel we learned the magic number was 48 hours to get control of things in terms of interior moisture control before mold and mildew set in. People will use any means at hand to that end and therein, as you wisely note, the danger lurks.
The very first thing anyone should know about a wet vac, a very handy tool indeed, is it isnít a pump. Sure, it will pull up small amounts of water and wet vacs usually have gallon ratings printed on them, such as eight or ten gallons, letting you know what their capacity is. You may have noticed while using your vac as it got to the point of it needing to be emptied the sound of the motor changed pitch-- higher-- and the wand didnít suck water anymore. There is a float device inside of the filter assembly that floats up as the vacuumís can fills with liquid and blocks the intake.
Obviously, if it didnít have such a stop-gap feature users wouldnít have any idea the canister is filling to capacity until it overflows. Most wet vacs that Iíve seen have common electric motors located on the tops of the canisters so theyíre not likely to get wet unless water gets sloshed onto them or tip over into a depth of water while running. Then you hope for other safety measures to keep you in the land of the living.
No one should ever use any electric tool in the environment you describe without it being connected to a safety outlet called a “Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter” (GFCI). That’s the type of outlet that has the little test and reset buttons on the center of the faceplate between the two receptacles. Most people first encounter them in bathrooms. But as the locations of electrocutions in homes and work places were studied, they started showing up in many more potentially hazardous locations such as kitchens, basements, garages and any exterior outlet. I am a huge proponent of them as I know I have had my own life saved by them on many occasions while working as a carpenter.
The way they work is they sense the electrical current being used and if even a small amount gets loose, looking for a ground source other than the circuit itself, it shuts it down. The safety feature is should the loose current, say in the water of a wet flooded basement, choose to pass through you on its way to ground then you may not survive the experience.
If your home was built within the last 20 years or so and the basement was unfinished then the outlet should have been GFCI protected. But with basements, when they become finished spaces, the requirement for the GFCI goes away and should that basement flood and you bring electrical equipment to work on it, such as a wet vac, the likelihood that the power source to which you connect won’t be safe soars. You can buy an inexpensive plug strip that has a built-in GFCI and they are great. Plug the GFCI strip in to an unprotected or regular outlet and then plug whatever tool you’re using into the strip and you are safe to go. Construction workers regularly use these strips to comply with OSHA and MOSH safety regulations.
The sad thing is in the upset of dealing with something like a basement flood, most folks don't take the time to put safety first. I’m not sure God really cares when He meets you. As for the rubber boots, keep them on but don’t count on them.
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