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Wet basements

...and how to wring them dry

by: Bob Hardina

Water was dripping off everything, said a fellow energy colleague. There was actually a stream of water running down the posts that held up the floor. When I took my screwdriver and pressed it against a floor joist, it sunk in up to the handle.

My colleague was describing a basement she had entered to size up the house for a heating system upgrade. This may have been an extreme case, but it is not an isolated one.

The June 16 article, Basement ecology and the dripping pipes of summer by Paul Kando dealt admirably with the “why" of wet basements. This article should address what homeowners can do about it.

The basic principal in dealing with basement moisture is to do what needs to be done to keep moisture from entering in the first place.

Basements, more often than not, are the step children of the building. In previous centuries, the cellar hole was dug, stones were gathered from what was to become a pasture and the basement walls were built, capped off with some of our excellent Maine granite. The dirt floor was leveled off. Sometimes a spring was encountered in the basement, so a trench was dug to divert the water. The construction of the house could begin. Time was of the essence. The warm days of early spring would, in a few months, become the cold days of winter.

The lovely colonial house took shape. It sheltered several generations, being added to as the family grew. The economy changed, the farm was broken up. The family moved on.

The house was sold to people from away who loved it. They planned to renovate and restore. The basement was unchanged. A refrigerator and freezer replaced the cold cellar as a place to store vegetables. A new furnace was installed, set up on blocks to keep it off the dirt floor. The house was redecorated completely. There were granite counter tops in the modern kitchen complete with stainless steel appliances. The wide board floors were restored and refinished. The plumbing was updated when two new bathrooms were installed. The house was picture perfect. The door to the basement was rarely opened, except to open the hatchway to provide access for the plumber to service the water system and the oil burner tech to service the furnace.

Thousands of dollars were spent bringing the house into the 21st century. The basement, however, was still a late eighteenth century, moisture laden hole in the ground. It was slowly destroying the lovely house above it. To preserve the house and to lower the heating costs, the moisture in the basement has to be eliminated.

For serious moisture problems it is best to call in a professional. There is usually some low hanging fruit however, things people can do themselves to reduce the level of moisture.

Pipe insulation is inexpensive. Insulate both the hot and cold water lines. This will reduce energy loss in the hot water piping and will virtually end the water dripping from the cold water pipes. Sheet insulation can be wrapped around water tanks and water treatment tanks to keep them from sweating.

Level dirt floors with crushed stone. Cover the crushed stone with plastic sheeting and add another layer of crushed stone. If you have water running through the basement, install drainage piping around the perimeter to direct water to a sump, where an automatic sump pump can pump it out. This should be done before laying down the crushed stone. As an alternative to the expense of pouring a concrete floor, consider duck boards on top of the crushed stone to walk on to keep from damaging the new plastic and crushed stone barrier.

To keep moisture from entering through the walls, make sure that water from the roof can drain away from the foundation. Water will follow the line of least resistance. If it cannot drain away, it will accumulate next to the stone foundation. Eventually the water will find its way through the foundation and into your basement.

If, after sealing, insulating and draining, you still have a moisture problem, you can install a properly sized dehumidifier. Small, relatively inexpensive dehumidifiers are usually not inexpensive to operate. Your money would be better spent purchasing a whole house unit. These units usually have to be sized and ordered from a heating and ventilating professional, but they will perform better and cost less to operate.

Paul Kando pointed out the dangers to your health and the health of your house in his article. Now it is time to deal with it. The problem will not go away. If you deal with the issue, you will save heating dollars, preserve the integrity of your house, and reduce the air borne pathogens that can make people ill.

Ask questions and plan your attack. Not all the advice you get from well meaning people will be accurate. Ask a professional. Use common sense. Rome wasn't built in a day and it may take a bit of time to solve your basement moisture problem. Get started, don't just shut the cellar door.