The reader who wrote to ask us about a water problem in her basement came to the right place. For several months after Karol moved into her current house, she thought the only hope for the basement was to install a diving board at the top of the stairs.
Where was the water coming from? Why was there so much of it? Was fixing it going to cost a fortune? There are few household problems as frustrating as water in the basement.
"Not always, but on several occasions, water has seeped in the back part of my basement," the reader says. "I have considered having waterproofing done with drain tiles and sump pump. However, I have some reservations as to whether or not I really need it. My basement does not smell 'mildewy' and is basically dry. However, it seems that how the rain comes down will determine whether or not some comes in. It is never
flooded -- just enough to wet the floors in a certain area. From the estimates I've had, [drain tiles and sump pump are] quite expensive."
The reader is right to express reservations about installing a sump pump and drain tile -- it's definitely the treatment of last resort. Not only is it expensive -- about $20 a lineal foot for the tile, plus a few hundred for the pump -- it's not the best solution if the water is coming from anyplace other than underneath the floor.
While the sump-pump-and-drain-tile system will take away any water that gets into the basement, it's not a solution if the problem is in the walls. You do not want water coming through the walls, especially if they're old masonry. Even if you drain it right away, it will damage the mortar and may even crack the bricks or blocks.
So the first thing to do is to find out where the water is coming from.
In most cases, it's quietly finding its way into the basement from somewhere at ground level -- the yard, or a concrete area next to the house.
Check all the gutters and downspouts to determine if they're really channeling water away from the house. Make sure all the connectors are still connected and that the water isn't being poured out at the bottom into a spot that doesn't drain.
Sometimes downspouts drain into a pipe. If that pipe fails, the water will pour into the ground instead and may find its way from there into the basement. If you suspect this is what's happening, try to channel the water someplace else (use a length of 4-inch plastic pipe) and see if that helps. If you can't rechannel the water, the only solution may be to dig up the pipe and examine it.
If the gutters and downspouts are OK and there's no pipe to worry about, check the ground or concrete next to the house to make sure it slopes away. If you can't determine the slope just by looking at it, use a level.
Look at neighbors' yards as well -- if a neighbor's yard is higher, you may be getting all of his water as well as your own.
If there's a spot that slopes in the wrong direction, have it corrected. If it's just part of the lawn, you may be able to correct it yourself with a little creative shoveling. If the problem is old concrete, you may have to pour new concrete with a trough that will carry runoff to someplace where it will drain.
If the water is coming from a neighbor's yard, try to enlist his help in solving the problem. You may need to regrade both yards to create a low area, or swale, at the property line that will capture the water and carry it away.
When you check the slopes, check the foundation. There may be obvious signs of water entry -- cracks, a place where a concrete sidewalk may have settled and pulled away from the foundation or where water may be undercutting a sidewalk.
If your house is landscaped, probe around in the leaves and look for a low spot that may be collecting water. (A buildup of leaves around the foundation will collect a lot of water.) Removing a bush could leave a depression where water gathers and eventually seeps into the basement. If you find any landscape problems, you may solve them inexpensively with a bag of top soil and some grass seed.
Basement windows are often spots where water gets inside. If the windows have wells, make sure they drain properly, or cover them to keep water out. If there aren't any wells, make sure the sills are above ground level. Sometimes successive generations of landscapers have obscured a sill. Make sure the sills themselves are in good condition. Check for cracks or gaps. If the sills are wood, they may be rotten and need replacement with brick or concrete.