Blotting a basement begins with cheap, basic remedies


February 26, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Those of you who liked the last winter action-adventure, "Ice Storm from the Underworld," are going to love the sequel: "Thaw from Purgatory."

All that frozen white stuff that's stuck around for weeks is melting, refreezing, thawing and turning into slush and water -- and just maybe ending up as a small lake in your basement.

We've gotten several questions lately about wet basements. Water in basements is a perennial problem, but this winter has been especially bad, with plenty of rain, snow, sleet and so on accumulating. Long stretches of cold temperatures are a big part of the problem: Frozen ground won't absorb any more water. And even though we've had some odd, nearly balmy days, the ground is still frozen. So the water has had to find new places to go.

It's possible that if you see a little water in the basement, you may not need to do anything more than relax, take a deep breath, and wait for spring.

If there's a lot of water down there, endangering your water heater, furnace, washer and dryer and general hoard of accumulated junk, obviously you'll have to bail, mop, dam, wet-vac, or even rent a pump.

However, if there's only a trickle in a place where you've never seen water before, you might want to wait and see if it recurs in more normal weather conditions.

Buy some top soil

The cause of the problem could be something simple, such as a low spot or hole in the ground near the foundation. If you can see the ground around your house, you might want to check now for depressions or gaps; the solution is simply to fill them in. Spring is already creeping into the merchandise at home-improvement centers -- we've seen stacks of roses, ready to plant -- so you can probably find top soil there too.

After this first basic step, dealing with water in the basement is a series of escalating attacks. You start with the simple and cheap and move up -- if need be -- to the complex and expensive.

Figuring out what you need to do starts with figuring out where the water's coming from. Is it oozing up from the floor or seeping through cracks in the slab? That's ground water. Is it running in the top or bottom of a wall or through a crack in a wall? That indicates a hole or break through the wall from the outside. Is it simply seeping through the walls, making them damp or clammy? That too could be ground water.

Are openings sealed?

Structural features sometimes cause leaks -- doors, window wells, water pipes for outside faucets. If they are not properly sealed, ground water or precipitation can trickle through.

The reason not to rush into a basement water fix -- especially at this time of year -- is that some of the most effective solutions have to be made from outside, under the slab or under the foundation.

Think of basement walls as dams holding back moisture. You have to treat them on the wet side, to keep the water away from the wall. New houses are built to keep basements drier, but older houses may need some retrofitting.

Here are some steps for eliminating basement water, in order of seriousness:

* Simple solutions: Fill exterior low spots and holes; patch exterior and mortar and caulk seams around windows, doors and spigots; patch interior cracks and holes. Once cracks and holes in basement walls are filled, painting them with basement-wall-sealing paint can help keep some of the moisture off the wall. You can also cover exterior doors with metal shed-type doors and cover window wells with plastic bubbles that are sealed to the house.

* More serious solution: If water problems persist after a spate of seasonal weirdness and after holes are filled and cracks are sealed, the next step is to install a sump pump. The waterproof pump is installed in a gravel-bedded well in the lowest point of the basement. The well collects ground water and water leaking around the foundation, and the pump sends it away. Sump pumps generally cost less than $100, and a handy homeowner who isn't put off by a little jack-hammering might be able to install it. However, it does require pipe to be installed running to the outside of the house, and it needs an electrical outlet nearby.

* Most serious solution: Serious water problems may require installing drain tiles around the perimeter of the basement floor just under the walls. The water flows through the tiles, under the basement slab and into the sump pump's well, where it's pumped away. Solving serious wet-wall problems may mean excavating the outer walls of the foundation and sealing them with a basement waterproofing membrane.

How serious is the problem?

Obviously these are big jobs, and not things a non-expert should tackle. While the materials may not be that expensive, the labor to install them can be.

So don't rush in: It pays to find out how serious the problem is before you start tackling it. Once the ground thaws and the weather gets better, the problem may disappear -- or at least it may not be as major as you feared.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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