Wet Basement Blues and Hues
WET BASEMENT! Worse than the heartbreak of psoriasis, smellier than halitosis and more unsightly than “ring around the collar.” Maybe you can tell that I haven’t watched much television for a while (barely know how to operate the remote), but I do know what worries home buyers. If there’s brown, green or black on the basement foundation walls, it’s one of the first concerns I hear about.
Basement water can significantly affect your enjoyment and use of a home; it can create very costly problems, reduce the value of a home and even have an impact on your health. So buyer (and owner) concern about moisture is anything but frivolous.
In my experience, fortunately, over 50% of basement water problems are the result of neglected gutters and downspouts. Another 40% of the problems are due to improper grading that is usually remedied very easily with a shovel and some grass seed. A very small percentage of basement moisture problems are the result of a high water table.
Two recent experiences should serve to illustrate what I mean by neglect. On the morning of one inspection after an overnight rain, a large, deep puddle appeared on the basement floor around the oil tank. The broker and seller made various apologies and excuses, but the culprit was the fallen downspout extension pipe, and I offered to prove it. The buyer held a hose at the spot where the roof water was deposited by the front downspout. In less than a minute water starting squirting through the foundation wall into the basement to replenish the puddle. The broker reconnected the elbow and downspout extension and the problem was (temporarily) solved.
In a home without gutters, the owner noted with dismay how even the lightest rain yielded a damp spot on the floor under the water main penetration at the foundation. The grading at the front of the house was incorrect, towards the foundation. The owner ran water from the garden hose, and I asked the broker to go downstairs and call when water appeared. As soon as the broker enter the basement, I heard her shout “O.K.”
An obvious clue to the source of basement moisture is symmetrical discoloration or peeling in the corner of a foundation, almost always the sign of inadequate dispersal of roof water. The pattern is narrow at the top and widens towards the floor. Often, simply adding a downspout elbow and splash-block will resolve this type of “wet basement” problem.
Homes that have major water problems in winter during heavy rain when the ground is frozen are most often on slopes and have water penetration on the side of the house facing uphill. This occurs because even in the coldest winter, the soil around the foundation is thawed and porous because of the heat loss from the basement. Everywhere else, the ground is frozen and impermeable; water from the hill flows down the surface and sinks into the soil around the foundation. Installing a waterproof barrier under the soil tarred to the house, but pitched away from it, may solve this type of leakage.
The most serious water problems are caused by the rising water table, because the basement then is like a boat on a lake with a hole in the hull. As bailing is the only answer for the boat, a sump pump is the only way to solve this type of flooding. Just because a home has a sump pump is no reason to pass it up. I have seen the water table under the floor of many basements that were perfectly dry.
Mold and unpleasant odor are often associated with damp basements, but these problems are often the result of excess humidity and condensation of moisture from the air; operating a dehumidifier (with windows closed!) is the cure, not a $2000 bentonite clay treatment of perimeter soil. Don’t live with a moldy basement. Spores are tiny and airborne (or shoe-borne) and find their way upstairs in many insidious ways. They can cause or exacerbate a variety of respiratory illnesses. Be dry and breath long and healthy!